It is always foolish to oversimplify complex problems. Nonetheless from the viewpoint of the Dreaming, regardless of the complexity of your life, you can have only one problem – ignoring the Dreaming background to reality. Ignoring the Dreaming means marginalizing the deepest unformulated experiences that create your actions in everyday life. Every time you ignore the sentient, that is, generally unrecognized dreamlike perceptions, something inside of you goes into a mild form of shock because you have overlooked the spirit of life, your greatest potential power.
Arnold Mindell, Ph.D., Dreaming While Awake
I love this quote from Arnold Mindell, founder of process-oriented psychology also know as process work. .
It reminds me of the importance of awareness. It nudges me to be more curious and to open to the subtle disturbances I sometimes overlook. It helps me remember that, underneath my emotions, thoughts and beliefs, is an exquisitely responsive inner ecosystem. It reminds me that I too am an animal, a part of nature and that nature is moving through me. When I lose my connection to the deeper nature, when I step over my reactions or am lulled into the rhythm of my everyday experiences or identities, there may be a part of me that goes into a kind of altered state.
Learning how this happens specifically for me means, in part, learning what kinds of experiences I tend to marginalize, ignore or avoid. Discovering what kinds of events tend to pull me away from my awareness and what awareness I pull away from is a lifetime’s practice that I am only just beginning. But it is one that calls me forward.
This post was first published for Valentine’s Day, but contains suggestions for every holiday and celebration.
Navigating Valentine’s Day can be tricky, especially if you’re single, or if your relationship falls outside the margins of heteronormative monogamy. As the 14th approaches, you might feel like you can’t escape ads selling jewelry by reinforcing the gender binary or promotions trying to push pricey dinner dates for two.
But, even as you feel frustrated by Valentine’s Day traditions, you might still want to enjoy some of the connection and romance the holiday promises. After all, life is hectic, and when else do you have such a solid excuse to turn off your cell phone and make time for love?
No matter what your relationship looks like—or whether you’re in a relationship at all—you don’t have to compromise your identity and values to celebrate. Here are some ways you can create a fun, inclusive, alternative Valentine’s Day of your own.
Make It a Valentine’s Weekend or Week
Don’t limit yourself to February 14th. Extend your celebration to allow ample time with all your loved ones.
If you’re polyamorous—and especially if your metamours aren’t close—forget scheduling one over-packed day and dedicate an evening to each of your partners.
You can also claim extra time to celebrate Pal-entine’s Day with your friends. After all, despite how much our culture prioritizes romances, platonic relationships can be some of the most important in our lives.
And, don’t hesitate to take time off for yourself.
No matter who you make plans with, shut down the computer, hide the smartphone and create space for connection.
Swap the Traditional Valentine’s Gifts for a Getaway
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with flowers, chocolates, jewelry and teddy bears. But unfortunately, what they usually lack in personal touch, they too often make up for in gendered baggage.
Forget the standard gifts and save your money for an experience you’ll remember. Use the time you’ve set aside to take a romantic weekend somewhere that you and your partner(s) or friends have always wanted to go.
You can also opt for a secluded winter retreat where you’re unlikely to be disturbed. Or, try a stay-cation and explore a part of your city you might not always see. Take a hike along the lakefront or try exploring one of the many parks and forest preserves that Chicago has to offer. Take a morning off for a trip to a museum or ice rink. Try a comedy club or music venue you have never been to. Explore. Have an adventure!
Or stay in and share a meal you love. Have a Pal-entine dinner or brunch. Indulge a bit in creating a true sensory experience by using special spices or recipes that you may not have made time for yet. Cooking with others can be a wonderful way to collaborate and create together.
Whatever you choose, let go of the pressure to follow the Valentine’s script and do something that nurtures your soul.
Take a Sex-Positive Workshop
For all of the sexual innuendos and promises of romance, it can feel like Valentine’s Day doesn’t leave much room for genuine sexual expression, especially for those who identify as queer, kinky and non-monogamous.
For a Valentine’s Day that combats external and internal oppression and celebrates sex in all its forms, head to a sex-positive workshop. Whether you’re single or in a relationship, look for a class that speaks to your questions or desires.
For example, you and a partner might spend an evening learning new bondage techniques. Or, maybe there’s a class that can help you with communicating your sexual needs.
Find a Local Dance Night, Show or Event That Celebrates Your Community
Instead of spending the night alone or holed away with your partner(s), why not celebrate with others who want an alternative Valentine’s Day? Whether you identify as part of the LGBTQ+, kink and/or poly communities, or if you are just exploring those identities, heading to an inclusive event can be as rewarding as it is fun.
For example, look for an alt-queer dance night or a sex-positive burlesque show. From art shows to open mics, there’s plenty you can attend solo, with a partner or with a group.
For many people, the idea of Valentine’s Day conjures more loneliness than love or joy. But, whether you’re lonely this year or want to remind others that someone cares, volunteering is a great way to build community and create connection.
Dedicate some time to reaching out to marginalized groups that too often go forgotten. Check out Pink and Black, an organization that connects LGBTQ+ prisoners to pen pals.
Or, learn more about SAGE, a national organization dedicated to advocacy and services for LGBT elders. You can sign up to volunteer for SAGE’s LGBT Elder Hotline and provide support to callers who feel isolated and vulnerable. (This volunteer position requires training.)
At this time of year, it can be too easy to get so caught up in your relationships with others that you neglect your relationship with yourself.
For an alternative take on Valentine’s day, direct some of that love inward. Let go of feelings of guilt or worries about appearing selfish. Set aside solitary time in an environment that brings you calm and energy. Sit quietly with your thoughts, embracing the fullness of your experience without judgment.
Or, indulge in a hobby or luxury that renews your energy and brings you joy. Take a bath or indulge in a spa experience, try a flotation tank or yoga class, go for a hike, work on that art project—whatever it is that helps you feel alive and connected to all that you are.
The love we have for others is a powerful thing. But the love we hold for ourselves is the work and reward of a lifetime. Cherish you and take time to appreciate who you are!
Most people have had more conflict than they care to recall. Conflict is important to everyone and every relationship but when you are in a multi-partnered relationship good conflict skills become even more critical.
What is deep democracy?
Deep democracy is Arnold Mindell’s idea that all voices in relationships, families and communities are important and needed for the wholeness and well being of the of the larger group. Deep democracy “addresses the perennial conflict of marginalization by emphasizing the value of all viewpoints and the necessity for them each to find expression.” 1 In other words, deep democracy means being open to all viewpoints, experiences, and emotions, not just the ones that we agree with, but also those that are uncomfortable, unknown, or frightening. This is a difficult thing to achieve, but it is worth the effort because “if change occurs by devaluing one state and throwing it out in favor of another, the part that has been thrown out may come back to assert itself and sabotage what has already been accomplished.” 2 Ignoring one viewpoint in favor of another only polarizes the two sides and moves them farther apart, but deep democracy tries to honor “that special feeling of belief in the inherent importance of all parts of ourselves and all viewpoints in the world around us.” 3
Conflict in Everyday Life
Many of us notice that we fall into a pattern of response to relationship conflict that recycles again and again, without providing an opening to approach our partner(s) from a new perspective or with new feelings. Gaining a fresh awareness of ourselves and our partner(s) in conflictual situations helps relieve the tension and brings in new possibilities.
Mindell’s work with conflict has evolved overtime but central to his approach is the idea of finding momentary common ground and personal resonance with our partner(s). In his recent book, Conflict: Phases, Forums & Solutions, he describes four phases of conflict. The illustration below captures some of the thoughts or feelings we may have in different phases of conflict. (Read more about Arnold Mindell and Process Work.)
One way we commonly look at conflict is to think of it as a struggle between incompatible points of view, needs or wishes. We may have a tendency to focus on the issue instead of our experience and our partner’s experience. Or we may focus on our own or partner’s psychology instead of the experience we each may be having. These approaches can lead to polarization, trying to convince, compromise, cajole or argue our way to a conclusion or solution. And sometimes that satisfies us. But when these strategies don’t satisfy us, we need another way of thinking about conflict and new skills for creating resolution together.
The 4 Phases of Conflict
These phases don’t always follow each other sequentially and we may experience some only fleetingly.
PHASE 1 may be associated with being happy. This phase is often what our culture focuses most on attaining but it is only a temporary state. In Phase 1, we don’t seem to have problems, disagreements or tensions.
PHASE 2 is what many people identify as conflict. In Phase 2, the tension surfaces. arguments, disagreements, frustrations, etc… arise here. We tend to lose sight of the phases that precede and follow this phase of tension and upset. When you are stuck in Phase 2, you may want to get some help or support (i.e therapy) but you could also work on the situation yourself (see exercise below).
We often sense that “role switching” of PHASE 3 is needed or wanted but have trouble being able to deeply understand and feel into others’ experiences of the conflict we are in. Role switching is imagining or feeling how another sees and experiences the problem and embracing (even if briefly) their point of view. This often relieves the tension momentarily and allows us to find common ground or approach the other from a less polarized point of view. We sometimes need outside help or support (therapy, counseling, meditation) to reach this phase but there are tools and skills we can learn and develop to help ourselves into this phase (the exercise below is one way).
PHASE 4, the feelings of relaxed detachment and sensing how the universe moves you, is not only a phase but also the background of openness and acceptance behind all the phases.
Why 4 Phases?
Recognizing all the phases of conflict is especially important to people in non-monogamous relationships for at least 3 reasons:
1. It helps us recognize that each of our relationships are in different phases. One relationship is not better or worse than another.
2. It reminds us that these are fluid states or phases. They are changing, not fixed. This can reduce tension and frustration and give us a sense of what to expect.
3. If you are providing support to others in Phase 2, knowing there are phases may help you remain neutral and facilitate all parties.
So, the next time you find yourself in Phase 2 conflict and tension, try remembering it is a part of bigger process and then practice role switching or use the exercise below to try to find a new perspective.
Exercise: 5-Minute Communing Practice
To reduce and resolve conflict in your relationship(s), practice this process alone or with a partner.
A. Choose a conflict and ask yourself, or your partner, coach your partner on how to play the “disturbing one” — the person with whom you have conflict. What do they do or say that upsets you? What is it that bothers you about the situation or relationship?
B. Now, identify and appreciate the real-world differences between you. How are you different from the “disturbing one”? Imagine defending yourself and/or getting encouragement to defend your viewpoint.
C. Now “commune”; feel and dream into the other (the disturbing one) until you can be them, until you understand the other’s feelings as feelings you recognize in yourself. Sense how you are “disturbing one.”
D. Remembering this “communing” experience, commune-icate with the “disturbing one” (or your partner playing them), sharing your similarity to them and understanding of where feelings come from.
E. Finally, ask your partner to give you feedback about your ability to “commune-icate.”
With practice, this 5-minute process can reduce relationship conflict. If this process takes more than 5 minutes, repeat the exercise until you can do it more easily, and more quickly.
My world and life, like many people’s, is a mix of privilege and struggle. As a cisgender woman, I have some privileges that trans women and men do not. For example, I can assume that others will use my preferred pronouns (she, her, and hers) when referencing me. As a person in a non-monogamous relationship, I have also faced issues that people in non-traditional relationships may face—for example: not having my relationship recognized as legitimate or as committed as monogamous relationships are. As a sex-positive therapist working with a variety of marginalized experiences, I am in an ongoing process of learning about my own biases and assumptions as well as endeavoring to expand my awareness, understanding, and acceptance of experiences that are not mine. And as process-oriented therapist, I challenge myself to work with my edges and try to see the deeper humanity and transcendent states in all experiences.
This is the third in a series of blog posts exploring what it means to be an ally and offers some basic suggestions or those who want to become a personal support to friends, neighbors, co-workers, or family members facing discrimination, stigma, and bias from the general culture because of their identity.
T is for transgender. Along with lesbian, gay, bisexual, questioning, and queer, transgender is one identity encompassed in the acronym LGBTQ. The term “transgender,” commonly shortened to “trans”—and sometimes followed by an asterisk (*) to denote inclusion of identities such as transsexual, gender non-conforming (GNC), gender fluid, non-binary, and genderqueer—is itself a broad label that comprises many diverse understandings and expressions of gender. That being said, even within the LGBTQ umbrella, people who identify as transgender have also been marginalized or excluded at times from specific LGBTQ groups and/or the larger LGBTQ community.
Whether someone identifies as transgender or not, a person’s gender identity is often a deeply personal, nuanced, meaningful, and emotional topic. Beyond being a subject of recent political debate, gender expectations, expression and identities emerge in virtually every area of society: from the workplace to interactions with neighbors, friends and family members. And, at times, our awareness and lack of awareness of the diversity of underlying experiences can lead us to conversations about gender that can erupt in anger, conflict, or misunderstanding.
Learning that someone you love identifies as trans can elicit a wide range of feelings and reactions. You may feel surprised, confused, supportive, hurt, fearful, skeptical, or any number or combination of emotions. You may be confronted with thoughts or ideas that you have never examined or considered. You may want to explore your own feelings and learn about what being trans means for you and for your loved one. Take time with this and be kind to yourself and your loved one. The coming out and transition processes take time. Seek professional support if this is appropriate for you.
Becoming a trans ally means carrying the responsibility of accepting and welcoming your trans loved one unconditionally. Your feelings may vary on a moment-to-moment basis and you should expect some inner conflict. Being an ally means working on your own stereotypes and fears. This is an often difficult task that requires self-education, exploration of biases and discomforts, identification of assumptions, and a process of self-discovery, as well learning about something about which you may have little information.
Allies may or may not identify as trans themselves. If you do not identify as trans, you may use the term “cisgender” (usually shortened to “cis”) which refers to anyone whose gender identity corresponds to the sex they were assigned at birth. Like your trans friends or loved ones, allies can follow any religious belief or spiritual path, and experience any kind of orientation and relationship to their sexuality and gender. A person’s gender identity is not equivalent to their sexuality and does not imply anything about their choice of partners.
Here are some suggestions for starting down the path to becoming a trans ally:
Listening. One of the simplest ways to support your trans friend, coworker, family member, or partner is to listen to them. Many transgender people feel invisible or excluded. When they do have an opportunity to speak about their identity, a trans person often spends a great deal of that time countering misinformation and educating a primarily cis audience. Show your trans loved one that you are interested in what they have to say and that you value their knowledge, experience, stories and points of view.
Make learning a priority. Assumptions harm everyone. Learn what name your trans loved one prefers to be called and the pronouns (e.g. “her,” “him,” “they”) by which they like to be referred. When in doubt, ask—but ask thoughtfully. Follow your curiosity, but instead of saddling your trans loved one with the responsibility to speak for all trans people, educate yourself. Google your questions and remember to consider the source. Learn what questions are considered invasive and which terms are considered offensive.
Reflect before offering your opinions. Practice empathy and compassion. Think about how you can use your language to welcome rather than hurt members of the trans community. This may take extra effort on your part. You may feel confused or frustrated by the process of shifting your awareness and learning new ways of relating. If you are, it may be helpful to view your confusion or frustration as necessary steps on a path toward change and greater understanding. Recognize that the journey may be long, difficult, and painful—not only for trans people, but for their supporters as well.
Respect others’ boundaries. Learning about a person’s gender is an intimate experience. Respect your trans loved one’s courage as well as their privacy. Do not push them to a point where they might feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Never discuss a person’s transgender identity with anyone else. Transgender people continue to face daily threats of violence. Understand that by outing a trans loved one, you may be jeopardizing their life, career, and relationships.
Embrace love and diversity. Can you let go of expectations and embrace the world in all of its complexity? This is a challenge for many of us. It is important to recognize that there is no right or wrong way to exist as a human body. The trans-identifying people in your life may change how they describe themselves, try on different personalities, change their appearance, discover new parts of themselves, and challenge their prior decisions in life just as cis people do. Just like you, they may have doubts and make mistakes along the way. Take note of your own internal questions and contradictions. Being an ally, means growing into the responsibility to accept your trans loved ones, empathize with them, and advocate for them where and whenever possible.
This blog post was inspired by the Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) article “How to Be an LGBT Ally.” I am grateful to HRC for their groundbreaking leadership in the fight for the rights of LGBTQ people in US and around the world. To read the original HRC blog post, click here.
As therapists, we recognize our ethical obligations to know and acknowledge the limits of our training and skills. We know that our expertise grows over time with experience and supervision, training, reading, dialogue and further training. These activities contribute to our mastery of specialized areas, methods or skills. But what about cultural competence? How do we become culturally competent? Does it just happen naturally or is there something we need to do?
I think of cultural competence as an evolving set of attitudes, knowledge, skills and awareness that supports my ability to relate to “other-ness” or the unknown in myself and those around me. Other-ness can also be thought of as experiences, ideas, practices, beliefs, and so on that I do not identify with, believe, do practice, or endorse. In thinking about cultural competence, I focus on my connection to other-ness. For me, it is less about achieving a level of proficiency as measured or defined by someone else and more about an ongoing process of refining the skills, attitudes and awareness practices that support my capacity to relate to and work with other-ness in myself and others.
In developing expertise in an area of practice, I might study, write and do research to deepen my knowledge base. In mastering a particular treatment model, I study concepts, clinical vignettes and research. I also practice basic skills (or interventions), learn to identify particular patterns or signals and seek out supervision to help me perceive and respond to what I can not yet completely behold, understand and articulate.
In cultivating cultural competence, I rely heavily on my ever-changing ability to develop new attitudes and relationships as well as the capacity to use my awareness in new ways to relate to ideas, practices, identities and other information I may not yet fully understand. I challenge myself to identify places where I am blocked from understanding or relating, instead of glossing over them and using my privilege to ignore or forget the experiences of others I do not in that moment connect to. Developing attitudes and growing awareness sometimes means exposing myself to and relating to people, practices and ideas that may feel foreign to me. It may mean looking at deeply held beliefs and subtle biases that are not easy to identify or that are embarrassing or troubling. This can be a very difficult process!
Everyone Has Bias One of the reasons the process of cultivating cultural competence is so difficult is bias.None of us want to have prejudices or biases but they are inevitable. In our work at LifeWorks Psychotherapy Center supervising and training therapists, we begin with the premise that every therapist, and in fact everyone, has bias. Bias starts with our experiences and the information we gather in life and gets filtered thru our identity and culture. Some of our biases are known to us, while others may be unknown or hidden.
Every therapist, no matter their identity or background, has bias. We define bias as anything (for example, any idea, belief, opinion, reaction or emotion) that limits one’s capacity to relate to another as whole and equal, or that which creates a tendency to marginalize aspects of another’s experience.
Therapeutic bias, if unexamined, can hinder or even endanger the therapeutic relationship but it can also be a looking glass into experience that can enlighten, deepen and transform our connections to our clients.
Observations from Our Practice In our practice, at LifeWorks, we work with diverse clients, who identify across a variety of religions, genders, sexualities and relationship constellations, including: lesbian, gay & bisexual (39% of clients); trans, queer and genderqueer (13%); non-monogamous and polyamorous (40%), and clients who are kink and/or BDSM-identified (23%). And many clients endorse more than one of these identities.
A recent informal sampling of therapists in our practice revealed that approximately 25% of their clients had explicitly indicated that they had had previous therapy experiences where their therapist’s bias regarding kink or non-monogamy was an obstacle to their care, or hindered their experience in therapy. In our recently reported research (See: “Social and therapeutic challenges facing polyamorous clients,” Sexual and Relationship Therapy, Henrich & Trawinski, 2016), 50% of clients identifying as polyamorous had seen therapists that they felt lacked cultural competency or were biased. Participants in that study reported that therapists were uninformed about polyamory, or biased toward monogamy.
Even therapists who themselves identify as marginalized in some way – for example, those who are LGBTQ, kinky, non-monogamous or polyamorous – may have subtle or not so subtle biases about the groups with which they identify. These biases may show up in therapists as reservations, judgments, concerns, worries about their clients or as strident beliefs, one-sidedness and even extreme positive regard. Neither being inside or outside a given community offers immunity from bias towards that community (or towards any other). Our experience and research confimrs that bias affects us all.
Emphasizing Wholeness Our work on bias is shaped by the concepts and methods known as process-oriented psychology or processwork. Developed by Arnold Mindell and others, processwork is both a depth psychotherapy paradigm and a phenomenological approach to working with human problems that emphasizes wholeness, the flow of experience and awareness and the importance of all points of view Mindell coined the term “deep democracy” to describe the idea that all voices are important to the well-being of the whole.
Using process-oriented methods and awareness, we have been teaching psychotherapists — and learning ourselves — to detect and identify bias, unfold its meaning, and learn to relate to aspects, attitudes and behaviors of clients that they may find difficult, disturbing or troubling. In our experience, therapist bias is often a reflection or expression of some quality or trait that the therapist has a tendency to marginalize or overemphasize in themselves. Something important, and often subtle or outside of awareness, may need to be known or understood better, and can be uncovered by looking closely at spontaneous or troubling reactions and perceptions.
From our perspective, it is probably impossible to get rid of bias entirely but we have found that it is possible to embrace and transform therapist bias into something that enhances the capacity to experience and support clients’ wholeness. It takes time and practice to develop the skills, awareness and attitudes that support the capacity to learn and grow from our bias — and in so doing, to increase our ability to understand, relate to our clients and to support their process of change.
There is no quick fix that we are aware of. In our experience, the awareness and transformation of therapist bias is more like a lifelong endeavor.
Prejudice, stereotyping, bias—however we understand these tendencies and attitudes, we can learn to identify, confront, wrestle with, accept, and change them within ourselves. Sometimes, however, doing so is possible only with great difficulty.
Discrimination takes many forms, including harassment, bullying, hate speech, and scapegoating. Such behaviors put others at risk, cause harm and—at times—may even threaten lives. Given our current national and global tensions, what can an ordinary person do to reduce Islamophobia and the threat it poses to us all?
Shortly before the holidays, Gary Reiss, Ph.D., a process worker and LifeWorks colleague in Portland, OR, sent an email to our community about curbing Islamophobia wherever we encounter it. Gary’s email referenced a Huffington Post article written by Manal Omar, Associate Vice-President of Middle East and Africa Center at the United States Institute of Peace. In that article, Omar shares eight actions anyone can take to help concretely reduce the threat Islamic Americans may feel in the our nation’s current political climate.
I am reposting the actions that Omar enumerated. You may want to think about and consider using some or all of these in your daily life.
Tangible actions anyone can take to reduce Islamophobia in their community:
If you see a Muslim or someone who might be identified as Muslim being harassed, stop, say something, intervene, and call for help. If you see people abusing authority, stand firm against profiling.
If you ride public transportation, sit next to the hijabi (head scarf) woman and greet her. The fear of being in public for women in particular is increasing every day. A small act of kindness can have a transformative impact.
Engage the Muslims in your life. Make sure you really feel comfortable standing for and with your Muslim friends, neighbors, coworkers. If you have a Muslim work colleague, check in. Tell them that the news is horrifying and you want them to know you’re there for them. The concern and support I have received my colleagues is heartwarming and reminds me of my place here in the US.
If you have neighbors who are Muslim, keep an eye out for them. If you’re walking your kids home from the bus stop, invite their kids to walk with you.
Talk to your kids. They’re picking up on the anti-Muslim message. Make sure they know how you feel and talk to them about what they can do when they see bullying or hear hate speech at school.
Help fill the public space with positive messaging over the hate. Write letters to the editors and be aware of your social media posts.
Call your state and local representatives, let them know that you are concerned about hate speech against your Muslim friends and neighbors in politics and the media. Ask your representatives to be aware of new laws on visas and other issues that would create second class citizens.
Out yourself as someone who rejects Islamophobia and discrimination of any kind.
Omar ends his article with the following words (emphasis mine):
“Terror is fear-inspiring. Fear is paralyzing. Let’s stand up, stand tall, stand strong.”
If you or someone you care about has experienced Islamophobia or any kind of bias based on a negative attitude toward a certain religious, cultural, or spiritual belief or expression of identity, know that you are not alone. Religious and spiritual minorities often face harassment, prejudice, and stereotyping, sometimes on a daily basis. Whether this treatment arises from ignorance or malicious intent, it frequently leads to feelings of frustration, isolation, depression, ostracism, anger, self-hatred, and hopelessness—feelings your aggressor may, in fact, be tangling with themselves.
As each of us travels on our own journey of self exploration, only you can determine which spiritual path you choose to follow or disregard. However, as Manal Omar makes clear, there are some simple steps all of us can take to challenge discrimination, comfort those who are hurt, and seek help when we need it. Making the corner of the world where we live a safer place is something each of us can do.
This blog was inspired by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) blog How to Be a LGBTQ Ally. I am grateful to HRC for their groundbreaking leadership in the fight for the rights of LGBT people in US and around the world. To read the original HRC blog, click http://www.hrc.org/blog/entry/how-to-be-an-lgbt-ally
For a lot of people, learning that someone you know and care about is non-monogamous, polyamorous, opening up their marriage or charting their own course in the relationship world can be frightening, confusing and challenging. If you are a parents, sibling, friend, co-worker who cares and means well, you may find you have unexpectedly strong emotional reactions to hearing the news. You may feel confused, stunned, perplexed, worried, shy, excited, jealous, annoyed, curious, awkward or embarrassed. This news may bring up old relationship wounds or conflicts. And, at times, it may be hard to know how to interact with your friend or loved one. What to say? What not to say? How to talk about being polyamorous or non-monogamous? How to be supportive? How to get comfortable with something that you may have never thought about before? — How to become a poly ally?
An “ally” is a term used to describe someone who is supportive of a marginalized person or group. Allies are found inside and outside of the poly community. Allies can be heterosexual, lesbian, gay, bisexual or queer. Allies can be monogamous, divorced, separated, partnered, married, non-monogamous, open, poly or swingers. Allies don’t have to give up their identities to support others in finding and living a poly or non-monogamous relationship.
The Human Rights Campaign identified 5 ways to be an LGBT ally and I would like to expand their suggestions to readers who are developing an alliance with non-monogamous or poly individuals.
Be honest: It’s important to be honest with yourself — acknowledging your feelings, your judgements and maybe even your biases towards relationships. Coming to terms with your feelings and reactions may take time. Sometimes seeking out a poly-friendly therapist or counselor helps. And being honest means being honest with the person who came out in your life — acknowledging you aren’t an expert, asking them what’s important to them, seeking resources to better understand the realities of being a non-monogamous individual so that you can be truly informed and supportive.
Send gentle signals:Showing and sharing your acceptance and support can be very easy. Many people often don’t realize that non-monogamous people keep watch for signs from their friends, family and acquaintances about whether it is safe to be open with them.
Have courage:Just as it takes courage for people exploring non-monogamy to be open and honest about who they are, it also takes courage to support them. We live in a society where prejudice still exists and where discrimination is still far too common. The strong bias towards monogamous heterosexual coupling leading to marriage is very much alive and often unrecognized. Even imagining for a moment what your friend or love one is facing is coming out to you and giving your support to them will take your relationship to a higher level and is a small, but important step toward a better and more accepting world.
Be reassuring:If it is true for you, let your friend or loved one know that the relationship constellation they are in or exploring does not change how you feel about them, but it might take a little while for you to digest what they have told you. Let them know you still care for and respect them as much as you ever have or more. And if it is right for you tell them that you want to do right by them and that you welcome them telling you if anything you say or do is upsetting.
Let your support inform your decisions:Being an ally is about developing and deepening understanding of what it means to be open, poly or non-monogamous. Developing an authentically supportive stance is a journey and a process in yourself and in your relationship with your friend or loved one as well as in your relationship with the world — which often is not so welcoming of diversity in relationship constellations.