All posts by Rami Henrich

Marginalization and Disclosure: Social Challenges Facing Polyamorists

Love Limit Road Sign
Photo Credit: Grunge Road Sign – Infinite Love Limit by Nicolas Raymond via Flickr CC BY 2.0

by Rami Henrich, LCSW and Cindy Trawinski, PsyD

This is the third in a series of articles about the intersections of polyamorous identities and psychotherapy, adapted from Rami Henrich and Cindy Trawinski’s article in Sexual and Relationship Therapy, “Social and therapeutic challenges facing polyamorous clients,” as well as supplemental materials that didn’t make it into the published article. In this installment, we look at social challenges facing those in polyamorous relationships..

 Click here to access part 1 of this series. For part 2, click here.

Nine of the 12 participants in Rami’s original study reported struggling with experiences of marginalization directly associated with their polyamorous lifestyles. Marginalization can come from inside their poly relationships, from extended family members, and from mainstream society. Contemporary US culture valorizes monogamy and often overlooks relationship structures that diverge from conventional forms.1 From health clubs that provide family memberships only to conventional families or teachers who squirm when three adults attend parent teacher meetings, to laws that recognize only married couples as legitimate family members, contemporary US culture rewards and reinforces (ostensible) monogamy.

Internalized Marginalization

Such forms of marginalization frequently surfaced during Rami’s research interviews. Nine of the 12 participants reported feeling social pressure to choose monogamy over having multiple committed partners. Kelly, a 32-year-old divorced mother of three, reflected on her attempts to reconcile her early pull towards polyamory with social expectations that she embrace monogamy. While Kelly knew from experience that she could “have strong emotional connections to more than one person at the same time” without cheating:

It became something that I put aside… if I am in a relationship, there is a possibility that I could … fall in love with [someone else] and that is a problem. Society says I am not supposed to do that. [It was easiest to avoid talking] to other people that I found interesting and attractive when I was in a relationship.

Kelly highlighted the difficulty individuals face upon becoming aware of polyamorous inclinations or considering non-monogamy. As a teenager, Kelly wrestled with mainstream expectations and her impulses toward loving multiple people. The pressure to disavow her feelings reflected marginalizing forces in the community around her. Her resolution to avoid talking with other men she found attractive reflected an inner marginalizer, internalized polyphobia and shame about her polyamorous attractions.

Institutionalized Marginalization

Two participants reported discrimination and specified a lack of legal protections related to shared property, inheritance, child custody, and hospital visitations. Participants also routinely described a larger culture from which they were marginalized and struggled to reconcile their desire for full privileges with their wish to honor unconventional parts of themselves.

Ted identified legal ambiguities related to children and property as a significant challenge:

The law revolves around precedent and there is no precedent here…. [our] society …is based on family life… so I think that anything—polyamory or communal living—does not threaten it [the culture] but it treads around the perimeter where the boundaries are vague. Society has a hard time interacting with it [polyamory]… there is a lot of havoc that can be caused by seemingly innocent stepping outside of convention… [polyamory] is one of those cases. It is a social experiment in progress and… could get messy.

Ted spoke of explicit marginalizations that are codified or unaddressed by the law, and “messy” areas with vague boundaries. In such lawless places, there are no clear precedents.

Lisa, a 50-year-old woman, described the global impact of a culture of non-acceptance:

The culture … does not accept us [which] takes some joy away from our life together … the most insidious way is the … pervasive subtleties that … keep a kind of exuberance out of our relationship. …It is a big obstacle… Without that really deep acceptance from the culture, we are just not free.

Respondents’ compromises, fears, and losses illustrate three manifestations of marginalization: implicit cultural messages, institutionalized discrimination, and internalized oppression. Navigating mazes of explicit and subtle marginalization is very challenging, and it is easy to internalize cultural messages and believe that something is wrong with an individual or a relationship, when institutionalized marginalizations and subtle cultural conditioning are at play. Unconscious internalizations of societal marginalization have been an ongoing challenging for many of the participants in this study.

Disclosure

Eleven of the 12 participants found disclosing their polyamorous identity or relationships to family, friends, and community to be challenging. Disclosure implies that a person has both a public and private identity. When members of a marginalized group are not readily visually identifiable, they inevitably face questions about disclosure.2 Rather than a single decision, announcement, or event, disclosure is an ongoing process of decisions across the lifespan. For polyamorists, disclosure is a process that includes coming out to oneself, potential or current partners, friends and family, and a myriad of people in public life where the question of one’s relationship status is relevant for legal, institutional, commercial, vocational, social, or other reasons.

Society in the US is based on a system of institutionalized compulsory monogamy;3 therefore, most people grow up thinking that they will be monogamous and heterosexual. This is an often-circuitous process complicated by society’s lack of awareness and confusion about non-monogamies that takes place over time. Participants reported wondering what being polyamorous would say about them, what others would think, and how others would respond. Participants reported a range of responses to disclosure of polyamorous identity, spanning from warm acceptance to confusion or indifference to condemnation. For many, telling others that they are actively involved in or considering a relationship that runs counter to mainstream expectations and values means having to move away from their presumed identity of “normalcy” and the social safety that it affords.

Sue, a 42-year-old woman, described her attempts to conceal her polyamorous relationship, and the rejection that can follow a disclosure. A second-generation polyamorist, Sue remembered when her uncle rejected her mother (his sister) for her involvement in a polyamorous marriage, and her own difficulties at school when classmates discovered her parents’ polyamorous relationship:

It has been quite a… painful [journey], even before I heard the word polyamory… My uncle said, “This is unacceptable, you can’t do that!” [He] took the stance that my father was an abusive, bad man, and if my mother was going to stay with him, he was going to have nothing to do with any of us.

When Sue was 13, she broke the family’s unspoken rule not to tell others and Sue told a friend, who then began telling other friends, and word about Sue’s unusual family spread throughout the school. When Sue told her mother, mom got upset:

They were doing their thing, and I was NOT supposed to talk about it, it was none of my business… Their discomfort with the situation made it uncomfortable for me. They basically said it was nobody’s business outside the family, … So [dad’s other partner] was [described as] a friend of the family, and if anybody poked or said “I don’t understand” they were considered rude.

Sue’s family story illustrates some of the complexities related to disclosure. Adults in Sue’s family decided to conceal their relationship beyond the immediate family. Perhaps in an effort to protect Sue, her mother forbade her to share the details of their family life with others, a move that left Sue feeling isolated and lacking in parental support. Sue’s parents’ attempts to avoid discrimination and conceal their relationship lead them to preemptively criticize or reject others, potentially increasing their isolation and reducing social support.

Disclosure can pose difficult challenges for long-married couples exploring polyamory and telling their grown children and longtime friends. After a year and a half exploring a polyamorous lifestyle, Fred (in his 60s) identified as polyamorous, while his wife, Nancy, did not. Each reflected on what it was like to reveal their polyamorous explorations. After Fred’s first relationship with another woman, he worried that disclosing his polyamorous identity to his oldest son might damage their close relationship.

My children were raised Jewish… . My eldest son is now an Evangelical Christian. My fear would be that if I told [my son] that I was polyamorous, he probably would never talk to me again. This is our [Fred and Nancy’s] relationship. I see no need to out us to the kids.

Nancy reported that her attempts to accept and support her husband’s exploration of polyamory were very challenging for her friends. Nancy feared that her friends’ monogamous identities may keep them from being able to accept her choices.

Some of my girlfriends are… totally anti because it was a “don’t ask/don’t tell..”. which in hindsight was not a healthy decision. We can be understanding of LGBT and [my friends] can too, but polyamory is something that I think the “normal” monogamous couple can’t grasp… First thing they ask “Is that swinging?” and I could see the disgust in her face.

Because most people in the US are unfamiliar with polyamory and socialized in a culture founded on compulsory monogamy,4, 5 they can be quick to reject and harshly judge polyamorous people. Anna’s experience exemplifies this often challenging process of disclosure. Anna’s 15-year marriage to James ended painfully when James was unable to accept exploration of polyamory. For three years, Anna has been with Paul, who has been married to Rita for 26 years. Paul reported that Rita was aware of and open to his polyamorous arrangement with Anna.

[Disclosing] has been the most shattering, horrible part. I have no relationship with my siblings except for my younger brother, who does not know… because they have been extremely judgmental and condescending and horrible… I don’t know which has been worse, the separation from my husband or being rejected and abandoned by my older brother, sister, by friends.

Anna’s brother yelled at her and Anna’s sister made it clear she never wanted to meet Paul. While some of Anna’s friends were supportive, two of her closest friends of 20 years “dropped” her. They saw her relationship with Paul as an affair, an illegitimate relationship, and accused her of infidelity and narcissism.

I got nothing but judgment, condescension, and finally they stopped calling no explanation. There have been friends on the periphery who have backed away… There are days when I wonder if it was worth it. Then, I think about Paul and of course, it was worth it. I cannot imagine not having him in my life in an important way. But, boy, it came with such a price, and it is still unfolding.

For Anna, disclosure meant significant losses and unanticipated reactions to her relationship with Paul. This complexity and unpredictability of others’ reactions prove a heavy social and emotional burden for some polyamorists. Family and friends’ sometimes expressed harsh or disturbing reactions, and even close friends formerly perceived as tolerant sometimes proved unable to expand coupled relationships. In addition to fears of rejection or public scrutiny, internalized oppression may cause some polyamorists to remain closeted or to disclose sparingly.

Internal and external marginalization contribute to the stresses and complexities polyamorous and consensually non-monogamous individuals feel as they navigate who to disclose their identity to and when to do so.  An awareness of these concerns in therapy will help clients to feel welcome and understood by the therapists working with them.

1 Mint, 2006
2 Goffman, 1963
3 Emens, 2004
4 Emens, 2004
5 Mint, 2010

Bibliography and Further Reading

Emens, Elizabeth F. (2004). Monogamy’s law: Compulsory monogamy and polyamorous existence (Public Law Working Paper No. 58). University of Chicago.

Goffman, Erving. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Mint, Pepper. (2006). “Compulsory monogamy and sexual minorities.” Retrieved from http://www.pepperminty.com/writing/compulsorymonogamy.pdf

How Do Polyamorists Identify Themselves?

colorful figurines hugging
Photo Credit: Group Hug by Meg Cheng via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

by Rami Henrich, LCSW & Cindy Trawinski, Psy.D.

This is the second in a series of articles about the intersections of polyamorous identities and psychotherapy, adapted from our article in Sexual and Relationship Therapy, “Social and therapeutic challenges facing polyamorous clients” (Henrich & Trawinski 2016). In this installment, we provide an overview of Rami’s research findings, which uncover just how complex and diverse polyamorous identities can be.

To read the first article in this series, click here.

Rami’s research findings (unpublished, 2011) indicate several areas of importance to people in polyamorous relationships: jealousy, disclosure and identity challenges, and the importance of negotiation. This article focuses on several topics related to identity and germane to therapists: marginalization and social obstacles, and the challenges polyamorists often experience when considering their own identities, disclosing to others, and seeking compassionate and effective therapy. Authors note: our focus on challenges that polyamorous individuals face does not indicate that there were no benefits reported in the study. In fact, respondents reported polyamory can offer some significant advantages, including deepened communication, expanded sense of family, and opportunities for personal growth, addressed elsewhere. 1

We focus here on polyamory as a lifestyle and identity rather than sexual orientation for three reasons. First, space constraints prohibit a sufficient discussion of sexual orientation. Second, participants themselves phrased their responses with a language of identity, more so than sexual orientation. Third, from the perspective of Process-oriented Psychology, identity is the individual’s awareness and perceptions from which identity emerges as the fluid expression of experience that is the immediate result of environment, social context, inner states, and personal history.2 Thus, identity provides the lens through which the participants view and the authors understand marginalization. In the following sections, we use participant statements and the authors’ personal experiences to explore these themes.

Clinical Portraits of Polyamorists

Participants frequently expressed challenges related to their polyamorous identities. Interviews showed that “Do you identify as a polyamorist?” was rarely a simple “yes” or “no” question. Respondents routinely reflected on the meaning of polyamory, who does and does not identify as polyamorous, and why. Three participants identified as polyamorous, three as monogamous, and six were unsure and drew a distinction between being in a polyamorous relationship and having a polyamorous identity.

In some polyamorous relationships, all partners identify as polyamorous, and in others, only some do. Partners in asymmetrical poly relationships often wonder if polyamory is circumstantial for them (i.e. they are only in a polyamorous relationship because they love a polyamorist), or if polyamory is something they identify with beyond their current relationship.

Crystal and Wanda were in a committed polyamorous relationship. Although Crystal did not have another girlfriend at the time of the interview, she was open to the possibility in the future. Her answer to the question “Do you identify as a polyamorist?” is complex:

I don’t consider myself polyamorous, but I am a part of a polyamorous triangle. I am in a loving relationship with one person but she is also in a loving relationship with someone else. I am in a polyamorous relationship because the person I love loves someone else…not because I love more than one person. If you ask me if I were polyamorous, I would say “No?” with a question mark at the end.

Crystal considered polyamorous identity as a process and explained that if or when she has a girlfriend in addition to her primary relationship with Wanda, then she would identify as polyamorous.

Several other participants viewed polyamorous identity development as an unfolding process. Anna, who was in the process of getting divorced and in a polyamorous relationship with Paul, responded:

I think [I’m polyamorous] but I’m not sure… I am dating a married man and it is all open and honest… I think that, had my husband been able and willing to be open to my relationship with Paul, I would have continued on with both of them.

Some in polyamory communities debate whether polyamory is a lifestyle choice or “hard-wired,” that is to say innate. 3 4 Some report a deep sense of self-as- poly that pre-existed their contemplation of relationship constructs other than monogamy. Sue viewed her identity from 18 years of polyamorous marriage, concluding that it was not a choice but more a recognition of a pattern in her own experiences:

I don’t have an identity beyond noticing what happens to me… I have this pattern. Every three to five years somebody will show up where I need to pursue this thing of the heart, this very strong uncontrollable attraction. I need to be with that until it resolves itself in some way, and that seems to be my nature, who I am.

Like others who characterized polyamory as a deep identity and not a choice, both Sue and Helen saw polyamory as an essential identity superordinate to others. For Helen, polyamorous identity was political and defined her place in the world because she could not “squash” her polyamorous nature:

There is a distinction between someone who is polyamorous and someone who chooses to be polyamorous. It is different … in the sense that you have people who are gay, lesbian, or … honestly bisexual. But if you are bisexual and monogamous, you will end up being straight or queer… Monogamy trumps [bisexuality]. In my life, polyamory trumps everything else, it’s… the first for me.

Issues of disclosure and personal identity were important to all participants. Many identified connections with others in polyamorous communities as crucial support to navigate the complex issues. In addition to disclosure and marginalization, therapists serving polyamorous clients should be prepared to address issues related to personal, sexual, and relational identities.

1 Henrich, 2011
2 Diamond & Jones, 2004
3 Klesse, 2014
4 Tweedy, 2011

Bibliography and Further Reading

Diamond, Julie & Lee Spark Jones (2004). A path made by walking: Process Work in practice. Portland, OR: Lao Tse Press.

Henrich, Rami. (2011). “Following a path of heart: Exploring the psychological, relational and social issues of polyamorists” (Unpublished thesis). Process Work Institute, Portland, OR.

Klesse, Christian. (2014). “Polyamory: Intimate practice, identity or sexual orientation?” Sexualities, 17, 81–99.

Tweedy, Ann E. (2011). “Polyamory as a sexual orientation.” University of Cincinnati Law Review, 79, 1461–1515.

Polar Bear Nature

Polar bear with nose in airThis morning, just like every other morning, I was out walking. But this morning it was a frigid 5 degrees, a temperature I long for all year. I know, for some, this is absolutely crazy! But for me, nothing makes me feel more, alive, more vital,  one with nature. I absolutely love the feeling of the stinging frost on my cheeks, and light, bracing wind piercing my being.

I looked at the sun, my favorite sun of the year, silvery, icy, distant yet glowing, a detached sun. Today I felt aglow knowing that soon a child of mine is soon to birth a child…today, tomorrow, the next. Hot, salty tears rolled my face, hot and freezing at the same time!

That glowing globe, the snow, the icy, slushy roads, put me in touch with what I call my polar bear nature…strong, solitary, nose in the air sniffing it all out, moving forward, connected to all that is, not knowing yet taking the next step, and the next, and the next. What will be, will be…nature is already taking its course! More tears roll as Mother Nature rolls on in me, in my daughter.

Deep Democracy: Coming to Understand My Polyamory

by Rami Henrich, LCSW

This is the first in a series of articles about the intersections of polyamorous identities and psychotherapy, adapted from my article in Sexual and Relationship Therapy, “Social and therapeutic challenges facing polyamorous clients” (Henrich & Trawinski 2016).  In this installment, I explore the ways in Process Work influenced my understanding of polyamory and drove my research into the topic.

What Is Process Work?
In the late 1970’s, Arnold Mindell founded Process Work (otherwise known as Process-Oriented Psychology), which has its roots in Jungian psychology, physics, and Taoism. In very general terms, the practice of Process Work is one of understanding people’s “processes,” or said another way, the flow of experience as it unfolds in oneself and in the environment. “The Taoist view of life assumes that the way things are unfolding contains the basic elements necessary for solving human problems.” 1 In order to stay close to this “unfolding,” Process Work is focused on expanding personal awareness and “paying attention both to events that support your identity and to the disavowed aspects of life—to which you do not usually pay attention—that disturb.”2

As an awareness paradigm, Process Work has a wide range of applications including individual work, relationship work, and group conflict facilitation work. In the sections that follow, I discuss some of the Process Work theories and methods that have been most helpful to me as a person involved in a polyamorous relationship, as a clinician and as a support group facilitator for people who identify as or are exploring polyamory and consensual non-monogamy (CNM).

Believing in My Path of Heart
One of the greatest gifts that Process Work has given me is the ability to accept my wild, adventurous, intense, and outrageous nature with greater ease. As much as I knew I could never really deviate from my deepest self and path of heart, I was nonetheless intermittently conflicted about my relationship scene and wondered if something might be wrong with me, wrong with us. I had a tendency to pathologize my curiosity, my intensity, my sexual explorations, my counter-culture relationship, and my general out-of- the-boxness, but Process Work helped me to see the value in my own inner diversity. It offered a perspective that emphasized “the belief that inherent within even the most difficult problem lays the seed of its solution.” 3 In other words, Process Work suggests that what you doubt about yourself or what you think is wrong with you may in fact be the seed of something beautiful and useful that wants to unfold and be lived more completely. For me, the idea that my family’s polyamorous relationship might somehow be perfect and hold exactly what is needed was a radical and deeply relieving perspective.

Process Work does not rely on preconceived notions of what is right or wrong, “it follows experiences rather than holding fast to any culturally determined standards.” 4 According to Julie Diamond and Lee Spark Jones, “following the flow of process involves caring for the absurd and impossible and going against conventional beliefs and ways of seeing things. … [it] also involves going with what is happening in a given moment, rather than resisting it.” 5 This lack of judgment, attention to personal experience, and respect for the unconventional was liberating. As I began to unfold and follow the flow of my individual and relationship experiences, my internalized judgments and resistance began to slowly dissolve. This cleared the way for me to embrace my path of heart more fully.

In the words of Arnold Mindell:

The path of heart makes you feel strong and happy about your life because it follows your dreams, your dreaming body, your mythical task. … If you view the world from the path of heart, you understand it to be the place … that you need in order to grow. The world is awful and awesome; from the viewpoint of the path of heart, what happens is meant to be used, completely and fully … to find our entire selves. 6

By bringing forth awareness of how polyamory is an aspect of my life myth (or the path of my life), Process Work has helped me to de-pathologize my view of myself and my relationships. It has kept me close to the dreaming and meaning that flows through this path, and it has paved the way for greater self-development and relationship growth.

Becoming Aware of Marginalization and Internalized Oppression
Cindy, Tom, and I have always been aware that our non-monogamous relationship meant that we were outside the mainstream, but Process Work provided me with the additional framing of marginalization, which has helped tremendously. To realize that non-mainstream people are marginalized by the dominant culture in such a way that it leads to internalized oppression confirmed my experience and provided some relief. As Mindell points out, in addition to external forms of oppression, discrimination and bias, “many people from minority groups are plagued by self-doubt, self-hatred or hopelessness and think these feelings are only their own problems” 7, when in reality these people “suffer from different forms of internalized oppression picked up from the mainstream.” 8

It is often difficult to recognize internalized oppression because it can take on the form of an inner critic, a relationship argument, or some other personal manifestation, but Process Work helped me to de-personalize it and wake up to the ways in which our family’s difficulties and feelings of self-doubt were not entirely our own. Such pervasive forces can creep into a polyamorous relationship and have a huge impact on the interactions and atmosphere of the relationship. “You can exhaust yourself dealing with your personal pain and fighting, not only the mainstream, but members in your [relationship] who are unconscious of oppression’s effects.” 9 In addition, internalized oppression and inner criticism can enhance and reinforce marginalization that occurs within the relationship and between the members. Having some awareness of the internalized oppression goes a long way towards minimizing these effects, because “every time you free yourself from a sense of internal oppression, you begin to transform the cultures [and relationships] you live in.” 10

 

Read the remainder of this article and learn more about deep democracy and polyamory at the KPACT website.

More to Love: Polyamory in the Real World

On May 30, 2017, I was part of an interview for Chicago Tonight which aired on Chicago’s PBS station WTTW regarding polyamorous relationships.  In the on air interview, I share my experience of being in a polyamorous relationship for over 34 years.  I am joined in the interview by Caroline Kearns of Chicago Polyamory Connection who talks about her polycule and Jennifer Rafacz, PhD of the Family Institute at Northwestern University who brings her perspective to the conversation.  Below is a supplemental interview with me.  For the full post, please visit the Chicago Tonight website.

A 2016 study by the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy suggests that as many as one in five single Americans report having engaged in consensual non-monogamy, or the practice of having two or more romantic partners.

Indeed, non-monogamy is experiencing a cultural moment in media recently, showing up as the subject of New York Times think pieces and as a plot driver in television dramas. Proponents of polyamory say that it’s simply about bringing more love and honesty into their relationships.

But when those relationships bump up against everyday life, does more love mean more complications?

Below, Q&As with Rami Henrich of Lifeworks Psychotherapy.

How would you describe your family and how it came to be?

Rami Henrich: I have been in a poly relationship since 1983. I was married in 1976 to a man, and I met my partner, who is a woman, in 1983. My husband was okay about opening the relationship to include my partner. Over a period of some time, we decided to all live together. We have lived together for 26 years. I think in the community, we’re kind of seen as the elders because we’ve really made it work. And ours is a very specific constellation – we have a more or less monogamous poly relationship – none of us goes outside the three of us. None of us is interested in that – but if any of us wanted to do it, we’d talk about it. I have my primary relationship with each of them, and their primary relationship is me. So we three have raised children together. My husband and I birthed two children. My partner Cindy isn’t considered a parent, but a family member. We raised two kids together but I didn’t know anything about polyamory. We were slashing through the institutionalized bushes together, school issues, how do you tell the kids, family, friends. It was a big coming out process over the years.

Probably like the early ‘90s was the first time I heard the word “polyamory.” It was really interesting to me to find out there was a community doing something similar to what we were doing and we weren’t alone. We joined a Chicago poly meetup group, and after I had gone to a book club or two, I saw something on their site saying they were looking for a therapist to facilitate a support group. My partner and I started facilitating that group once a month now for eight years, and we had 1,000 to 2,000 people come through that group. I was shocked the first day that I said that I would do it, within 24 hours we had 20 people signed up with a wait list of 10. Over the years I would say somewhere between 25 and 45 people a month show up for those meetings. It’s created an extraordinary community – before Lifeworks became Lifeworks, some of those people started seeing me in my private practice, so it was a natural direction to go in because the poly community created a demand for support. I had always wanted to find a way to help marginalized communities. It found me.

How did you realize you wanted a poly relationship?

RH: For me personally it was that I loved somebody other than my husband – I thought, why do I have to choose? I’m kind of a deconstructionist by nature – I would think to myself, why do I have to choose, who says I have to love my father more than my mother, my sister more than I love my brother? Some people come to that early in life – why do I need to say no to this one and yes to that? Who makes up this binary system around our loving? I found myself wanting to be with more than one person – I did early in my life come to a group in Boston where it was allowed and was accepted – I was a hippie, what can I tell you – it helped to shape the way I thought later.

What was the coming-out process like?

RH: In the beginning I was very cautious about who I told – I had a difficult time letting my parents know about it, because I thought they might try to take my children from me, which they didn’t. My mother at the time said “good for you that you have all this love in your life.” It was such a gift. My father didn’t understand what I was talking about. My siblings in particular, they were open but they still took a long time to wrap their heads around what was really going on here. If we didn’t tell people in our lives, our friends, our neighbors, they wouldn’t know – they saw the three of us coming and going but nobody ever really asked us what’s going on. I say that in our neighborhood we all have “white picket fences,” but ours is quite crooked. It wasn’t until I was interviewed for a north shore magazine where I spoke professionally about  what was going on, that our neighbors were like, oh, so that’s what’s going on. And I think we’d be surprised to find out how many crooked fences there are.

What are the relationship problems poly relationships face that monogamous relationships don’t?

RH: One of the biggest things is opening up, if one party is really open to it and another is being dragged into it, how to negotiate all the things like jealousy, time, the legitimization of certain relationships like those who are married vis a vis those who aren’t, the primacy of relationships, the marginalization within the relationships, who gets the most of a partner, who gets the least, opening up to their families, how to deal with being poly and having children.

This paper I wrote speaks specifically about the unique issues of poly clients. You have to deal with more than one relationship – some of the constellations are much bigger than us – having to manage their time, their energy, their money, their place in the world, all of those kinds of things get exponentially more difficult with more people in a relationship.

Some people that have come in for therapy try to get me to say they’re poly to legitimize screwing around. And I tell them, I just think you want to have a lot of affairs and you want your wife to say okay. I wouldn’t say it happens a lot but I have seen it. But I think that it is for most a serious endeavor.

Do you think this generation will embrace poly life?

RH: I think the young people are really latching on to it – but there’s something about the culture of being poly where everything is based on a principle of openness and honesty, so everyone knows about one another. I find the endeavor very truthful and sincere. Some people identify being poly as being hard-wired and others are endeavoring to live a poly lifestyle. There’s a wave of more acceptance around alternative lifestyle, so I think it gave more room to endeavor to be poly.

Do you think that poly life is accurately portrayed in the media?

RH: Mostly what I see on TV is they’re kinda oddballish – I think that there are many people on the fringes who are practicing poly but there are many mainstream – being poly is not exactly mainstream. I may not be paying attention to a lot of it but I think the things I have seen try to oversensationalize the sex part of it. When somebody called me to televise our poly relationship for a reality show, I said, you would be bored watching the three of us watch TV.

Eating Meditations: A Practice of Equanimity, Gratitude and Blessing

Photo Credit: “Street Eats” by satanoid via Flickr CC BY 2.0

by Cindy Trawinski, Psy.D. and Rami Henrich, LCSW

Can mindfulness be useful for difficulties with food and eating habits?  Many think so. Here is an exercise I came across years ago that may help you slow down, name your experience, start to tune into your body and be thoughtful about how you nourish yourself.

For this approach, at first, try using a small portion of food, like a piece of fruit, or a small bite-size piece of bread or chocolate.  It is also lovely to savor a morning beverage in this way. Whole fruits, like oranges or apples, work well as your practice of mindfulness related to food advances.

Try this practice at a time when you are not feeling super hungry. Take your time with each step and use this exercise as an experiment.  Taking a simple breath between steps can help you stay focused and present. See if you can learn something new about yourself and eating.

  1. Become aware of looking at the food — you may mentally note “seeing, seeing,” as you look at it. Use a few moments to notice your experience of looking at the food. If other thoughts come or something disturbs you, pause, take a simple breath and release it slowly, letting any thoughts rise and fall. Return your attention to your breath or the experience of looking.
  2. After noticing your process of looking,  you can observe your state of mind — what is your state mind?  You may notice the desire to reach for the food, the craving perhaps for pleasant taste, or something else.  Note or name your state of mind.  For example,  “wanting.”
  3. Then, wait or look for an impulse to move toward the food you are looking at.  For example, note the intention to reach out your hand and move it out mindfully.  Use your awareness to follow the sensations, thoughts and feelings that are arising and passing away in the stretching of that hand. You may mentally note “reaching.”
  4. Continue in this way. Noticing and then naming your state of mind or action to yourself.  You may note “touching” and “lifting” up a piece of food. You may note “smelling” and then “placing” the bit of food in your mouth, then “tasting” and “chewing”.  You may also be aware of more discreet sensations of biting, or of texture and temperature.
  5. As you note “smelling” , “tasting” and “chewing,” you may become aware of the food as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Again if thoughts come return to the breath and the physical act of chewing or tasting.
  6. Take note of subtle mental reactions, associations or experiences towards the smell, texture or taste. These are more marginalized senses than vision and hearing. We tend to glide over them but they offer important ways to enrich our experience of food.
  7. You may note the desire or “wanting” for the more pleasant taste or aversion to unpleasant taste. Accept this and focus on the sensation you are having in your body versus your evaluation of it as good or bad.  For example, if you are taste something bitter, get curious and see if you can detect more subtlety in the bitterness. Where do you taste the bitterness in your mouth? Is there an after taste that is different than the initial impression you had? Is there a pungent or stringent quality? Try to deepen your experience of what you taste by using your awareness more.
  8. You may also broaden the lens of attention and consider your state of mind while eating: are you aware of  craving or greediness? Am I thinking, planning, re-living conversations, critiquing the food? What am I doing with my mind other than experiencing the food?  Can I shift my attention to focus more completely on the food?  Don’t force your awareness but try gently to expand or focus it on  the taste, smell, texture, temperature, consistency, etc…
  9. If you like, make some written notes of what you experienced and learned. Did you find something new in your experience? Did you learn something?  If so, reflect on that new learning or experience and express a simple gratitude for that awareness.

Why Do Sex Workers Need Our Support?

Photo Credit: Holding hands by Valerie Everett via Flickr CC ShareAlike 2.0

by Rami Henrich, LCSW, Cindy Trawinski, Psy.D. and Cassandra Damm, MSW

In a previous article, we introduced the topic of sex work, considered its history and politics, and explored some identifying attributes of the diverse population of individuals sometimes referred to as sex workers. In this article, we would like to offer a few guidelines about the many challenges sex workers may face, why sex workers need your support and what allies can do to offer support.

Many of the issues sex workers contend with today are intrinsically related to the overwhelming stigma surrounding sex work. Not all sex workers grapple with the same level of stigma.  Stigma is impacted to some extent by how “out” sex workers are.  An individual’s choice to remain “in the closet” about their work depends on many factors including their unique family situation, role in their community, and amount of experience.

While some sex workers have found allies and partners with whom they can be open, many sex workers feel the need to partially or completely hide the facts about their work. Perceiving biased attitudes in their neighborhoods, circles of friends, families and even therapists—as well as overall cultural intolerance of the work—many sex workers operate in secrecy and disclose information about their work life cautiously to select confidants over time, if they choose to disclose it all.  It is also important to remember that most sex work is illegal in most states. Criminalization of sex work constitutes a real and potentially devastating risk that prohibits many from being out.

A secretive attitude, frequently adopted as a defense against the very real threats of violence, persecution and prosecution, can have the effect of isolating these individuals from their closest friends, family members, and communities at large. Sex workers may feel the need to lie, withhold important information (for instance, about health problems or finances), and adopt pseudonyms in order to conceal the truth and protect themselves. A sex worker may find themselves compartmentalizing their experience or living a dual life, in conflict with their own values related to honesty and freedom, and further and further alienated from an all-inclusive picture of their identity. (Learn more about the Chicago Sex Worker Support Group.)

The Challenge of Finding Affirming Spaces for Sex Workers

Both outside and within the environments in which they perform their labor, those who identify as sex workers lack reliable opportunities to discuss their experiencesand questions. As a result, sex workers coping with the symptoms of trauma, anxiety, and depression may have even fewer resources than members of other marginalized populations. Current legislation criminalizing sex work exacerbates isolation, leaving sex workers unsure about where and whom to turn to for support.

At the same time, sex workers may find that people who consider themselves allies lack the general understanding that grows from firsthand sex work experience. Sex workers inhabit a world of unique challenges, demands, advantages, and dangers.  Allies—however well-meaning—may exaggerate or downplay the realities of sex work. Sex Workers need a space to process the issues they face with other people who share their experiences and struggles.

Sex workers increasingly seek spaces on the internet for support. While online groups are critical for many sex workers, many feel that the internet cannot provide the same warmth and camaraderie a physical space does. Furthermore, affirming spaces are difficult to find on the internet due to of their vulnerability to trolls and, in some cases, law enforcement.

What Can You Do to Support Sex Workers?

Many general guidelines about ally-ship apply to sex workers as well. We encourage those who are interested in becoming an ally to sex workers to listen, prioritize your own learning about issues facing those in the sex trades, emphasize respect, and be courageous in establishing safe spaces.

Stay open-minded and avoid stereotyping.  Language and storytelling present another critical way to support sex workers. A common narrative about sex work charts an unavoidable and alarming path between sex work and trafficking. This narrative minimizes the agency of sex workers—especially women—and overestimates the number of people who are held against their will and forced to engage in sex work. Those who study sex work believe forced sex work is a relatively rare phenomenon. Instead, sex workers are more frequently coerced into the exchange of sexual services due to the economic and environmental pressures that influence all labor in a capitalist system.

Avoid pejorative labels. As we suggested in our previous article, word choices matter. Being an ally means disrupting assumptions by using the term “sex work” more broadly to describe any work that involves an exchange of sexual services or erotic content for money or other valuables. This may include adult cam models, porn actors and actresses, phone sex operators, escorts, strippers, and professional dominatrixes—to name a few.

Educate yourself about the issues facing sex workers by seeking out training opportunities, and reading blogs posted by organizations serving sex workers including:

Support self-care.  Every month, Lifeworks Psychotherapy Center hosts a support group for individuals who identify as sex workers. Co-sponsored by SWOP Chicago (Sex Worker Outreach Project), the group is open to anyone who has previously or is currently working in the sex trade. (For the safety and protection of participants, this group is not open to consumers of sex industry services.)

Sex Work & Sex Workers 101

Photo Credit: John Major QMI Agency

by Rami Henrich, LCSW, Cindy Trawinski, Psy.D. & Cassandra Damm, LCSW

It has been a pleasure and very enriching to be working with the folks at SWOP Chicago, the local Sex Worker Outreach Project, to develop a support group for sex workers. Cassandra Damm is a social worker who volunteers with SWOP Chicago and co-authored this blog post which is the first of a series exploring the issues confronting sex workers.

Why Talk about Sex Work?

Often referred to as “the world’s oldest profession,” sex work has been a controversial and misunderstood trade throughout human history. Today, sex workers face various forms of discrimination and life-threatening danger, compounded by the fact that many types of sex work remain criminalized in most countries. Without laws protecting their well-being, sex workers can become the victims of violence, abuse, hate crimes, and trafficking. For these reasons, a number of sex workers and their allies around the world have recently undertaken efforts to reform, decriminalize, and even legalize the profession. Criminalization compounds the risks sex workers face, and there are few outlets offering support to sex workers.

Supporting sex workers starts with embracing the reality in which these individuals live. To understand that reality, we must be willing to question our assumptions, let go of our judgments, and learn the facts about sex work.

What Is Sex Work?

While many people who identify as sex workers trade sexual services for money or goods, the term “sex work” is an umbrella term used by individuals working in various forms of erotic and sexual labor. Dancers may exchange erotic or emotional labor and maintain specific boundaries around sexual touching or groping. Nude models or porn actresses may exchange erotic modeling or sexual performance for compensation without having direct contact with clients. Phone sex operators and adult cam models exchange sexual and emotional labor virtually, with or without the use of their image or body.  Professional BDSM (bondage, dominance/submission and sado/masochism) providers offer fetish and fantasy fulfillment for their clientele.

In addition to understanding the range of titles and behaviors that comprise sex work, it’s also important to understand that “sex work” is a political term. Industry advocates recently coined this term as a means to group activities that involve all forms of sexual labor. This grouping created a political identity that makes building support networks easier and unites people for political action. That being said, it is also important to note that not everyone who engages in sex work identifies personally as a sex worker—and some may not even be familiar with the term.

Who Is a Sex Worker?

A sex worker is anyone who exchanges explicit or implied sexual services for money, shelter, food, drugs, or other material goods. As noted above, not everyone involved in the sex industry identifies as a sex worker, some choose instead to use titles or the language their clients use. Sex workers include strippers, escorts, sugar babies, cam models, porn performers, and phone sex operators, pro dominatrixes—to name only a few. Many different types of sex work exist, and the people who work in the industry are as diverse as the rest of humanity. Some ways sex workers might refer to their work include “dancing,” “going on dates,” “sugaring,” “hooking,” and so on.

Because of the profession’s legal status and general societal attitudes regarding sex work, members of the industry seldom choose to disclose information about their jobs, clients, and experiences. If they reveal anything at all, sex workers tend to keep the details secret. In all likelihood, you will not be able to tell whether someone is a sex worker or not, unless they volunteer the information first.

How Can You Support Sex Workers?

  1. Educate yourself about the issues and risks facing sex workers.
  2. Recognize the forms of sex work go on in almost all communities.
  3. Challenge your assumptions about who is a sex worker.
  4. Visit SWOPUSA.org or SWOP-Chicago.org to find out more.

In an upcoming article, we will explore why sex workers need support, and share several ways you can be an ally and make a positive difference for members of the sex trade in your state, city, and community.

Every month, Lifeworks Psychotherapy Center hosts a Sex Worker Support Group for individuals who identify as sex workers. Co-sponsored by SWOP Chicago (Sex Worker Outreach Project), the Sex Worker Support Group (SWSG) group is open to anyone who has previously or is currently working in the sex trade. (For the safety and protection of participants, this group is not open to consumers of sex industry services.)

For more information on the Sex Worker Support Group, visit our Events page here.

Healing from Affairs — Cheating is not Polyamory

Photo Credit: Paper by Steven Guzzardi via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

by Rami Henrich, LCSW

Affairs can surface in a long-term relationship.  Can healing occur when the affairs have been covert, repeated and ongoing?

Several years ago a couple, Peter and Sherri (not their real names), a married, het/cisgender couple, came to see me. They had been married for approximately 25 years. As are my usual questions when I first meet folks for psychotherapy, I asked, “So what brings you here today? How do you think I can be of assistance?”

“Well,” Sherri said, “My husband thinks he’s poly amorphous.”

Hmmm, I thought, and I asked her: “Do you mean polyamorous?”

“Yeah, that!” she said.

“And what makes the two of you think that Peter is polyamorous?”

Peter responded: “I’ve been with about 25 women during our marriage—even the day after we got married.”

“And did you and your wife agree to an open relationship?”

“Not exactly!” Sherri piped in. “I didn’t know anything about all this until last week when Peter told me that he is poly amorphous! Is he?!”

This was the beginning of a course of therapy to both understand the distinctions of an open marriage; to delve deeply into feelings of betrayal and decimation of trust; and to explore the possibilities of healing and forgiveness, staying together, or ending the marriage.

It was a long process, but the couple rolled up their sleeves to embark on the endeavor and were determined work on themselves as individuals and the relationship they shared.  A breakthrough came when Sherri discovered the ways in which she had been “cheating” on the relationship. Although it was not sexual in nature, she recognized that she secreted away parts of herself from Peter. She had hid important aspects of her inner and outer worlds from him. Seeing for themselves that the cheater and cheated one lived in both of them, and that each of them had been “cheating” on the other,  healing began.

This couple eventually decided to separate, but considered their work a success. Each found what was most accurate for themselves in terms of lifestyle, values, drives, preferences, and so on.  They took the high road to healing, making forgiveness a priority. It was not a simple task by any means but, in this case, it was a worthwhile one.

Managing Fear After the Election

hope
Photo Credit: HOPE by Gedalya AKA David Gott via Flickr CC BY 2.0

by Rami Henrich, LCSW

Managing fear has been difficult for many people in the days following the 2016 US Presidential Election.  No matter which candidate you supported, you may find yourself overwhelmed by distressing news reports, tense conversations with loved ones, and your own complicated feelings.

LifeWorks is an explicitly inclusive therapy practice that welcomes all people. We know how painful the past few weeks have been for many individuals in the populations we serve. Whether you are feeling frozen and frightened, angry, apprehensive, saddened, emboldened, or an intense and unpredictable combination of various emotions, here are a few things you can do to help yourself stay grounded, resilient, and open—now and in the future.

1. Know that You are not Alone with Your Feelings.

Fear and helplessness can be extremely isolating, especially if it seems as though those around you don’t understand your experience or share your perspective. Remember that you are not alone. Your emotions, however enormous or volatile, are valid and yours. There are many in the US and around the world who share your feelings.

2. Seek Company with Friends and Family with whom You Feel Safe.

Surround yourself with supportive, compassionate loved ones. Cultivate a community that allows for safe dialogues. During periods of uncertainty, time spent with those you care about can provide you with a renewed sense of energy and remind you that you have others to lean on.

3. Engage in Building Your Community.

Look for ways you can get involved in your neighborhood, your city, or even your state. Your community is larger than your circle of friends, co-workers and family members. No matter where you are, there is likely an organization nearby that needs your support and can provide volunteer opportunities in line with your values. If you can’t find the organization or volunteer role you’re looking for, consider ways you can fill that void in your community. Many people find positive, community-building work to be deeply validating and empowering. Every little bit counts.

4. Get Involved in Productive, Life-affirming Activities. 

Focus on activities that allow you to feel purposeful, engaged, and fulfilled. Regardless of the news or your perspective on politics, you always have the ability to stay connected to your inner sources of strength.  Involve yourself in activities that give you a sense of vibrancy and hope. For example:

Move Your Body.

Dancing, hiking, physical exercise, yoga, meditation, and other activities that directly involve your body can help you harness and release anxious thoughts and feelings. Give yourself time to engage in the physical activities that help you feel grounded, dynamic, and calm.

Do Something Outside.

Nature is deeply soothing for some people. If you feel pent-up and on edge in an urban or suburban space right now, try spending some time in nature. Allow yourself to fully engage your senses, enjoy the present moment, and find wisdom and peace in the outdoors.

5. Speak about Your Fears with a Professional.

You may be feeling stuck and unsure about how you can look to the future with optimism. Therapy is a safe space for you to express what’s troubling you and to learn effective strategies to cope with feelings of fear, stress, and anxiety as they arise.

THE WORLD NEEDS YOU!

No matter who you are, you are important. Your self-care matters. Fear can cloud our capacity to see a way forward. The steps listed here may help you return to yourself and gain a new sense of clarity about who you are and what comes next for you. The world needs your voice however you choose to express it.

Take time to process your experience alone or with some one who cares.  Resist the urgency to action, if action does not feel right for you. Even in silence or meditation, your awareness is important for the wholeness of the world.

You may be experiencing many different emotions right now. Remember that believing that you have the capacity to navigate whatever comes your way or to find help and community to support you in doing so may be the most important thing you can do right now.