Polyamory and Mental Illness

Hey folks. This week we’re starting a new posting series about the intersection of mental illness and polyamory. We’ll be covering everything from facts about mental illness, to disclosing mental illness, to the impact of mental illness on jealousy, and a great deal more.

I asked Clementine Morrigan, who inspired this series, to kick us off. Here they are:

polyamory and mental illnessI am in a serious, long term relationship with a person who was my best friend even before we started dating. This person is my anchor partner.

We decided from the beginning of our romantic relationship that we wanted to be poly. I had some experience with it in the past, being solo poly and in one case seriously dating two people at the same time. In my current relationship, I was surprised by the intensity and unmanageability of my jealousy. I read book after book, article after article. I had long talks with my anchor partner about our feelings and our boundaries. I started dating someone else and talked with her about our feelings and boundaries. My jealousy with regards to my anchor partner being with other people continued to be unmanageable. It inspired terror, hyper-vigilance, depression, nightmares, deep feelings of unworthiness and constant anxiety. I didn’t know what to do. All the reading I was doing was telling me to sit with my feelings, own them, observe them. But my feelings were completely out of control.

I have complex PTSD. I am a survivor of child abuse, sexual violence and intimate partner violence. I have done lots of therapy but my C-PTSD is ongoing. I realized that my reaction regarding my anchor partner being with others was not simply jealousy. What I was experiencing was the heightened symptoms of C-PTSD triggered by an experience that brought up trauma stuff for me. My trauma is all about being hurt and betrayed by the people I love. My trauma is all about not being good enough or worthy of love. My trauma is about sexual, physical, emotional and psychological violence that I have experienced in my intimate relationships. It is not easy to simply observe it and let it go.

What I realized is that all of the resources I had been reading on polyamory assumed as a starting point that no one involved had mental health issues. Therefore, the suggestions and advice that they shared were not helpful to me as someone with C-PTSD. I was blaming myself for not being able to simply observe and let go of my emotions. I was feeling like a failure at poly because my jealousy was so unmanageable. When I realized that the way I was feeling was due to my C-PTSD it took some of the pressure off. It gave me a way to understand and talk about what I was experiencing.

In reality, lots of people who practice poly have mental health issues. Since mental health issues are all different, the way that they impact our experience of poly will be different. What we have in common is that our relationship to emotions is probably different from people who don’t have mental health issues. Poly requires that we face our emotions so we cannot afford to pretend that mental health issues don’t matter.

I believe that poly has the potential to provide a wonderfully supportive environment for people with mental health issues. Ideally, it would be an expanded support network, more people to turn to and encouragement to sort through feelings and communicate needs. In order for poly to be beneficial to people with mental health issues, we need to be brought into the conversation. We need more than a one-size-fits-all response to jealousy. We need to not shame people for our differing experiences of emotions. We need to start talking about how our mental health experiences impact our experience of poly.

These conversations are just beginning. Poly relationships and community can only be enriched by them.


This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.


Clementine MorriganClementine Morrigan is a multidisciplinary writer and artist. Their work spans genres and mediums, including essays, poetry, creative non-fiction, zines, illustration, short film, self-portraiture and sculpture. Their first book, Rupture, was published in 2012. They produced a short film entitled Resurrection in 2013. They write a zine called seawitch and work on other zine projects. A second book of poetry is currently in the works. More of their work can be found at clementinemorrigan.com


30 responses to “Polyamory and Mental Illness

  1. Zidders Roofurry

    My poly group has struggled with similar issues. We all deal with mental illness on different levels. Part of the reason we’re together is because we’ve found that we help each other with the issues we face every day but it does cause some issues, too. One of those is jealousy. One of my partners deals with PTSD as well as major depressive disorder. He has very low self-esteem and it makes him insecure. He has huge trust issues. It’s definitely something I’m sure many poly groups have to reckon with.

  2. Thank you. A million times over. I have C-PTSD and everything that was said hit so.close.to.home.

    I am the organizer of a large poly group, I have a large poly network, I have multiple partners and I have been poly for years, and still the jealousy persists. I have read every resource I could get my hands on and I end up feeling so much more ashamed of myself that I stopped trying.

    • *hugs*

      I don’t know if I’m going to have anything more useful to offer than the standard stuff, but at the very least I’ll be coming from a different perspective.

      And when it gets really bad, remind yourself: It’s okay to be jealous, irrational, silly, obsessive, and generally a fucking human being who ain’t perfect. Dealing with all those things is a royal pain, yeah, but feeling that way, being that way, is nothing to be ashamed of.

    • Hey, will you help me understand? I read several posts where people said their jealousy was out of control etc. Why do jealous people engage in poly? Just seems counter intuitive to me. One would think jealous people automatically drifted towards more traditional relationship forms.

      • Some people want to be in relationships with more than one person, but have trouble getting past an ownership model of relationships.

        Some people were raised to believe that their partner having sex with someone else means they are a bad partner or a failure. They know this is wrong but have trouble getting past the lessons ingrained in them as children.

        Some people are monogamous by preference but in relationships with polyamorous people and trying to adapt and adjust to their partner’s needs.

        Some people think they won’t have problems with jealousy, enter a polyamorous relationship and find their jealousy is a lot worse than they expect. Rather than end the relationships they want to be in, they try to come to terms with their feelings.

        Some people see jealousy as being like anger. Something everyone feels once in a while, but not something that should control their choices or behavior.

        There are many reasons someone with who struggles with jealousy might be in a polyamorous relationship. And no “intuitive” explanation for why people prefer a certain relationship style. People are complicated.

  3. Thanks for writing this – I look forward to seeing where this community goes, moving forward. I know I personally have thought a lot about how my anxiety and depression are affected by polyamory – and vice versa.

  4. As a person with mental health problems (diangnosed with major depression twice thus far), and a metamour with much more serious mental health problems (PTSD, depression and major anxiety and anger issues, currently under the care of a doctor and still working on the best medication combination), I’m very much looking forward to reading this series. My metamour’s mental health issues definitely have a very large impact on all her relationships, but an especially large impact on her relationship with our shared partner.

    I believe that many of her abusive behaviors and words have to do with her mental illness – NOT to say that mental illness makes all people who are mentally ill behave abusively (nor to say that her abusive behavior is ONLY rooted in her mental illness). But when she is deeply afraid or stressed or angry because her mental illnesses often causes her greater stress, fear and anger than the average person, she will sometimes attempt to exert an abusive level of control (or resort to abusive language) upon our partner, as a way of coping.

    One of the things that she is currently doing is looking for a therapist. I had suggested someone who either specializes in congnitive behavioral therapy or emotionally focused therapy. I had a lot of improvement in how I handled my despression (and internal thoughts of worthlessness, hopelessness, and anger) with CBT. I have several close friends who said that EFT really helped them out.

    It can be such a tough, exhausting thing, dealing with mental illness. Thank you for being brave and open, sharing your story.

    • Clementine’s willingness to open up about her pain when almost no one else is doing so amazes me. I am insanely grateful to her for write this guest post. I’ll do my best to make the rest of the series live up to her intro.

      I’ve had a lot of success with CBT as well, and I hate how hard it is (around here anyway) to find a good therapist trained in CBT. I hope your partner can find a good one!

      (Funny story–my partner is more familiar with kink jargon than therapy jargon. One day I mentioned wanting to get him into a specialist to see if CBT would help his depression. It took 5 minutes to calm him down enough to explain what I meant 😀 )

      • hehehehehehehehehehehe…we have the same thing around here. A lot of the time, if someone says CBT around other people who weren’t really paying attention, a lot of ears perk up. “Which CBT?” “Cognitive behavioral therapy” “Oh. *That* one. Darn.”

        We’re lucky that we’re in an area that seems to have a much higher therapist-to-layperson ratio than most of the country, and my friends have personally referred us to a number of docs. My therapist also had some recommendations, so I’m feeling pretty hopefully that at least a few of those will pan out.

        On the subject of the concept of “all poly people are mentally ill”, I definitely disagree (and also note that the article didn’t state that :). My experience with what % of people are mentally ill and poly seems to be the same as the % of monogamous and mentally ill people. And although the article was written with the slant of jealously in mentally ill people, I’ve experienced extreme jealousy from past loves who didn’t appear to have any other “signs” of mental illness other than jealousy – which, imo, isn’t necessarily a sign of mental illness.

        From my own experience of mental illness and emotion, it seems that a sign of mental illness is any emotion being amplifed beyond what is generally considered “normal” – even the good ones. A person suffering from mania who is uncontrollably happy in the face of tragedy (say, a death of a close family member) can suffer just as much as someone in the grip of the more negative emotions. It’s definitely a really complicated and multi-faceted area of human experience. I’m really grateful that it is slowly becoming more and more normalized to talk about, especially when people with first-hand experience like Clementine write about it.

        • Very much agree with everything you are saying here. I think, because of the nature of the way we talk about polyamory, jealousy tends to be one of the default “problems” we talk about, but mental illness can have a lot of other effects, and every effect of mental illness can be sometimes be seen in someone who is not mentally ill.

  5. My wife and I have been in three relationships now and although at a emotional level I find the statement “all people in poly suffer from mental illness” slightly offensive I also have to admit that this seems to be true when I reflect upon it.

    I would have to say though that our biggest hurdle has been jealousy. Mostly on the part of the others we involve our self’s with. They all say they are not jealous but, the actions following those statements indicate strongly that they are in fact very jealous.

    Our current situation has not encountered that from the others yet but, now my wife is struggling with it mostly I think out of fear due to how the other situations ended.

    • I don’t think anyone is saying that all poly people suffer from mental illness. Clementine did note that in her experience many people suffer from mental illness, but when prevalence of mental illness is estimated at minimum to be around 20% (or 1 in every 5 people) and I’ve seen estimates as high as 85%, it would be surprising if there weren’t a lot of poly folk dealing with mental illness.

      While jealousy isn’t the only area of poly impacted by mental illness, it can be one of the most out-right destructive. I’m sorry you and your wife had such a hard time. Hopefully your current situation will be better.

      • Last i checked at least in the US a disproportionate amount of people in the Poly / BDSM communities have been diagnosed with a cluster B personality disorder. Though the NCSF has been desperately trying to sweep that aspect under the rug for the past ten years (Such as lobbying for its removal from the DSM).

        • I would be very interested in a citation on that. Polyamory and BDSM are separate communities and are researched separately. The most recent study on mental health in BDSM that I am aware of found that people who participated in BDSM were no more likely to be mentally ill than the general population, and average higher levels of mental health. https://www.livescience.com/34832-bdsm-healthy-psychology.html

          As a member of the Yahoo!Poly researchers group, I am not aware of any studies into the prevalence of mental illness among polyam folk, and certainly none looking specifically at cluster B personality disorder.

          There is a lot of false information about polyamory (and BDSM) floating around. And much of that false info is coming from sincere people. For instance one person who has set themself up as an “expert” got all their knowledge about polyamory through working with people in relationship counseling. This “expert” seems to honest in their concerns and desire to help people–but think about what monogamy would look like if you got all your information from couple’s counseling and hopefully you’ll understand why this “expert” doesn’t really know anything about what a healthy polyamorous relationship looks like.

          I’m approving this comment with some reluctance. This has all the earmarks of a possible troll. If this is a sincere comment, please take some time to learn about polyam & BDSM AND check your logic before commenting further. Even assuming your assertion that cluster B is more common among polyam and BDSM communities were true, that does not in anyway mean BDSM should be included in the DSM. People in the medical field have higher levels of depression and suicide, that doesn’t make being a doctor a mental illness. It makes someone who is a doctor needs to take more care of their mental health. Similarly, IF your assertion is true (which I have evidence of), then BDSM would not itself be a mental illness, but an inclination to or desire for BDSM would be a sign that one is more likely to have a personality disorder. And there would still be no reason to have a listing in the DSM for BDSM.

          • It’s really interesting to read what I wrote a year or two ago. I’ve had a lot of time to think about this and really keep in mind is that polyamorous relationships are like any other. Poly relationships are only as functional, ethical and open as the people in the relationship. Dysfunction leads to more dysfunction.
            I personally think, and this is just my opinion, is that I don’t want to partner with anyone besides my husband at the moment because I don’t have my shit together and I don’t want to bring anyone else into that. It’s not fair to anyone and I’d rather act from kindness and reason that jumping right into something that might harm anyone, myself included.
            Sorry about the ramble. Just things I’ve learned after being two years into opening up.

          • Rambling welcome! It’s great that you are willing to share your experience.

            I’m glad you’ve found the path that is right for you. Good luck on your journey!

  6. I entered my first poly event weeks ago. A fermented mentally ill man fighting my cyclical battle with depression. Unlike previous so called therapies I decided to include poly in my recovery.
    Everyone I met was a reassurance that all will be well and .. exciting.
    To hear that a) mental illness and b) jealousy exist to the extent the replies indicate….
    then I have lost any habitual desire to attend another event.
    Don’t count me in
    At least not until some attitudes change.
    Enjoy your lifestyle.

    • Polyamory isn’t right for everyone, and it definitely isn’t a cure for mental illness or an escape from people being, well, people. While polyamory can provide a great support network for recovering from mental illness, I would generally say that including any relationship style as part of your recovery plan isn’t a good idea.

      I personally wouldn’t leave an in-person group that I met and connected with because of what strangers say on the internet, but you need to do what is right for you. I wish you well in your recovery.

  7. Oh thank goodness. So much of the observe your feelings and process them and then let go stuff is SO ableist. My partner (mono for 18 years) came out to me a month ago and I gave him my blessing after taking some time to process. When the jealousy reared it’s head I had NO idea it would be so intense. I read all the articles desperate to find something to help me get past it. I knew I was fine with nonmonogamy, we’d discussed it at length. When I thought about it rationally I was fine. FINE. Or in denial.
    As my symptoms cycled faster. Mood swings like whoa, suicidal ideation, delusions, I realized that a whole lot more was going on here than simple jealousy. And with a lot of research and hunting down what could possibly be causing these symptoms I had to face down some serious issues from my childhood having to do with neglect and emotional abuse that, in turn, lead to an underlying diagnosis that in 36 years no one caught because I’m no the scary type of borderline girl, but boy am I ever borderline.
    I’m so grateful now. And I’d have never figured it out without my husband’s coming out a a catalyst.

    • With you on the ableism. I’ve found observing my feelings can be useful because often my emotions are such a quagmire that I need to stop and observe for a while to figure out what they are and what is causing them. But “processing” and “letting go” often aren’t possible when we are talking about mental illness, triggers, and old traumas. (Or at least aren’t possible in any kind of reasonable time period. Took me fifteen+ years to “process” and “let go” of my emotions that were tied up in my parents and parenthood. That’s not the kind of time scale most people are talking about.)

      That sounds like the whole thing was a terrifying experience. I’m glad you got the diagnosis you needed and hope you are getting help now.

  8. Your entire article really resignated with me and I am finding myself in the exact same situation (Anxiety, depression, PTSD out of control. Having trouble eating and sleeping. My physical and mental health is really in trouble.) I’ve had nice talks with my significant other about how I feel unworthy and I am reminded that my fears are just fears but I can’t get over it.
    I’ve started habouring bad feelings for the other person he is seeing and no matter what I do, how I cope and talk about it I just can’t stop these feelings and I have started to self-destruct on myself.

    Obviously I am mentally unwell. The open relationship makes sense to me and it is something I want but I cannot deal with this jealousy. I just need to know, how can I come to terms with these problems in my past that are effecting now? I have tried so many different counselling services. Everything feels hopeless (when in the past 4 months my mood and coping for depression was better than it had ever been).

    Just… is there any way that you have found help?

    Thank you for writing this article because it has been a big help to realize where my own fears come from and I hope I am able to find a way to cope or some sort of way to get better.

    • I’m not Jessica Burde, I’m another Jessica but that is neither here nor there. I can say what my experience has been. I’ve learned to live with my feelings not matching my thoughts. I have a therapist and psychiatrist and we are working on my issues. Not my issues with my newly poly marriage. Not my issues with my husband, but *my* issues. It’s helped. Because your feelings of unworthiness and insecurity probably don’t come from the open relationship, that’s just the trigger. If you can separate the trigger from the cause you can then get the root of the problem and start to work on it. It doesn’t fix everything, but it does put the situation in perspective. I mean, unless your partner isn’t living up to being kind, considerate and loving, there’s likely more going on than just the relationship structure tweaking you out, if you get my meaning. Good luck. I hope this helps.

    • Lost,

      I’m sorry you are going through this. Any mental illness is difficult enough, but three stacked on top of each other can be absolutely horrific.

      Reading through the full series on polyamory and mental illness might provide some information, coping tools, and ideas that will help you get through day-to-day, and I’ve included a lot of information on different therapies and how effective they are.

      If you are in the region, I’ll be running a workshop on polyamry and mental illness at Loving More’s Poly Living conferences in Philadelphia. If you can make it, that would be a great chance to meet other poly folk struggling with mental illness.

      If you’ve spent a lot of time in counseling and it hasn’t been helpful, I’d suggest trying a different approach. Look into art or music therapy, or find a mental illness support group in your area–the best help I’ve found over the years has come from other people with mental illness sharing their own experiencs and resources.

      I’m glad to hear your SO is supportive of you and trying to help. Unfortunately there are no quick fixes, and the nature of mental hillness means that you need to fight yourself in order to heal. However healing is possible. You say that in the past four months your mood and coping have been better than ever. Hold to that. Remind yourself that no matter how you feel, things are getting better. And they will keep getting better, as long as you keep working at it.

      And I very much second the other Jessica’s comment!

  9. It’s a relief to read this, and I look forward to the rest of the series. I have PTSD and have been so impossibly jealous regarding one of my partners that I feel unable to live out what I know is ethical. I have lately been contemplating giving up trying to live poly because the idea of my anchor partner finding someone new terrifies me. It causes me anxiety every day. I have been extremely conflicted about this. Your article gives me hope that things can and will get better.

    • Vi,

      You are not alone and things definitely can get better. You can find the rest of the series here, including some articles on PTSD.

    • Jessica Bloczynski

      In addition to whatever else I am, I am also a person with PTSD and it is. Just. So. Hard. I too view my husband as my anchor. He keeps me sane and grounded and the idea of him with anyone else drives me absolutely nuts. I know it isn’t rational, but it is what it is. I’m working at this in therapy and I’m hoping it gets better soon.

  10. Jealousy isn’t “irrational”. This is a myth, a very damaging lie which only serves to keep people hostage in their relationships. It makes me so sad every time I come across people feeling “unworty” because they can’t handle their jealousy. These feelings stem from the attachment system which is a biological system designed to keep babies and children alive. Our attachment experiences in infancy and childhood will define our adult emotional and sexual responses and preferences, but most of all it will define how we react when our primary partner – our primary adult attachment figure – “abandon” us to have intimate relations with another person. Depending on our internal security – or lack of it – it may trigger intense and unmanageable jealousy which in reality is a fear of death. Fear of dying. If it does so, it is not your fault, there’s nothing wrong with you. It only reflects that you at some point in your life, probably during early childhood, have experienced fear of abandonment (=fear of death for an infant) while you were dependent on another person (your parents/ caregivers/ attachment figures). I wish more people in the poly community knew about the attachment system. Anxiety and jealousy are actually part of our survival instincts. It gets worse if people have experienced abuse in partnerships. I suffer from C-PTSD myself after long term domestic violence and I have an intense fear of abandonment. But the root was planted in early infancy while the attachment system was most active. I don’t have any solutions to offer, only the information about what this is really about. Deal with it the best you can and take care of yourself. Do not deliberately put yourself into situations that may create hyperarousal of your nervous system, because this may activate your attachment anxiety strongly – and maybe unnecessary. You have to find a balance here.

  11. Jessica Bloczynski

    Intense, unmanageable jealousy: check.
    Immobilizing anxiety: check.
    Attachment problems flying all over the place: check, check, check.

    Reading all this a year later is like looking at a time capsule of my soul. This time last year was. . . bad. Really bad. Like complete mental collapse bad. I know better than to put myself in situations that will trigger me but it took a long time to figure that out and only with the help of my therapist and psychiatrist.

    I hadn’t really thought of jealousy being a rational response and survival mechanism though it makes sense.

  12. I have at least two “mental illnesses”, well, one illness – Bipolar II, and one “disorder” though I prefer the term difference – ADHD Inattentive. 20 % of people with either have the other as well. Have? Are? Whatever.
    I also have a fear of abandonment, which I had thought was from events in my teens. With the help of a gifted therapist and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) I came to the awareness that an event totally out of anyone’s control that happened when I was 2 years old was probably the key trigger. My mother came down with polio. In 1952, there was no vaccine yet. I couldn’t visit her. Poof! The primary person in my life was gone. A 2 year old has no concept of “soon”, “she will be back” , “she loves you” in words. It’s all here and now for a kid that age. She was out of my life, gone. No wonder I fear abandonment from women I love! Or even just know and want to be friends with.
    EMDR is the only proven way to recover from trauma, PTSD of any type. Approved by the Department of Defense (vets coming back from war), American Psychological Association, and other professional organizations. It’s not hypnosis, it doesn’t take away or cover up memories. It reduces/eliminates the emotional intensity of the memory.
    It works. I’ve been doing it (having it done? ) for about 6 years. Most productive and helpful therapy I’ve ever done. Of 20 + years worth.

    How does poly enter into it? I’m becoming convinced that poly “fits” me better than monogamy. At least intellectually it appears it does/will. I have been dipping my toes in it, talking, reading, being with open-minded people… thus far it still fits. I expect jealousy will come along, and I have had the experience of re-framing jealousy as envy, envy of others with her, yet able to be happy for her. Compersion, feeling happy for my partner, that she is happy being who she is, having deep and usually sexual relationships with other men. Yet when she is with me, I am the only man in her life.
    I value the honesty that poly requires. I have not succeeded in that in many relationships. Don’t want to be that way any longer. Time to do things differently, and within a context of permission to have deep personal love relationships with more than one person at a time, I think I can do that.
    Back to mental illnesses. Yes, I do take meds, and also try to make sure I get good quality and quantity of sleep, exercise, take high-quality Omega3s…all together it works better than any one thing.
    I am also a professional in mental health care, so I see things from multiple perspectives. “What a long strange trip it’s been” Jerry Garcia (RIP)

    • I am fully with you on seeing ADHD as mental ‘difference.’ I know only a little about EMDR but what I’ve heard sounds fascinating. I’ve learned that is I am walking while I talk it is easier to deal with highly emotional things because I’m focused on where I am going and not so much what I am saying. It sounds like EMDR may be similar to that, keeping your focus outside yourself so you aren’t overwhelmed by the internal memories. Wonderful that it has helped you so much.

      Thank you for sharing your experiences and good luck on your journey!

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