Category Archives: Sex Positive Articles

Polyphobia: Anti-Polyamorous Prejudice and Discrimination

Group against sunsetBy Elisabeth Sheff, , Ph.D., CASA, CSE

Eli Sheff is considered a leading expert when it comes to polyamory and stigma. Eli is the CEO and Director of Legal Services at the Sheff Consulting Group, a think-tank of experts specializing in diverse subcultures and under-served populations. The following is an article she wrote for Psychology Today about polyphobia and discrimination. 

Prejudice is making judgements about a specific kind of person based on stereotypes, assumptions, and incomplete or actively faulty information. Usually the person being judged is part of an assumed-homogeneous mass of others who are different in some way from the person who is judging them. Discrimination is taking prejudicial thoughts or attitudes and enacting them in real life, in behaviors, interactions, or laws, etc. that hamper, limit, or undermine the minority group.

Reality TV shows and coverage in everything from the New York Times to ABC News have put polyamory and other forms of consensual non-monogamy (CNM) in the media spotlight. Along with increasing public awareness of CNM comes a backlash of negativity that runs along a spectrum from simple discomfort with the idea at one end, to virulent polyphobia from people who hate polyamory and take it as a personal mission to harass/destroy others in CNM relationships at the other. Mere negative reaction to polyamory does not necessarily constitute polyphobia. Because polyamory is not a good fit for most people, many of those who react negatively are monogamous and simply do not want to have polyamorous relationships themselves, but do not really care if other people are polyamorous.

In a previous blog on the Polyamorous Possibility, I explained why polyamorous relationships can seem especially threatening to people who ardently desire to be in monogamous relationships themselves. It is often a fear of polyamory “infecting” their own relationship or their own unresolved issues with infidelity (their own, a partner’s, or parent’s, etc.) that spurs monogamous folks to get upset about someone else’s polyamorous relationship. This negative reaction becomes prejudicial if the monogamous person stereotypes all polyamorous people as problematic. Such anti-poly prejudice often takes the form of assuming all polyamorous people are slutty, incapable of real intimacy, poor parents, etc.

Discrimination is hurtful action taken against an identifiable minority group, and anti-poly discrimination takes many different forms. Using data from my 20-year study of polyamorous families with children, I compiled some of the ways in which polyamorous people report experiencing discrimination. It is important to note that many of the people in the research reported positive experiences with polyamory, from family members who fully embraced them, their partners, and metamours, to friends who welcomed the new chosen family members and employers who invited the entire polycule to the employee holiday dinner. People living in urban areas, especially in liberal states, reported less discrimination than people living in conservative and/or rural regions. Most respondents were middle-class white people and did not mention racial or class discrimination, though respondents of color did mention concern for polyamory to complicate their already challenging interactions with racism.

Lose Friends, Family, & Social Connections

Some people who come out as polyamorous find themselves marginalized, or even ostracized, from social groups that had previously accepted them. For others who come out as polyamorous, friendships that had lasted for years and appeared to be lifelong suddenly fade away or end abruptly in a flare of anger. Loss of these informal social ties can be especially harmful for people of color, who also most likely experience some degree of (often unconscious/colorblind) racism among polyamorous communities. It can be painful and precarious for people who don’t truly fit in to minority communities or the dominant culture, so people of color with unconventional relationships or sex lives face potentially higher risk when they lose social connections because they must rely more on social connections when other social privileges (such as white privilege) are not there to draw upon.

Lose Jobs

Some people who have come out (or been found out) as polyamorous have lost their jobs. In most cases, employers use a morality clause in the hiring contract that stipulates employees act in a moral manner. Employers determine what is moral and what is not. Even if the employee’s relationships are consensually negotiated, employers have deemed any sex outside of heterosexual marriage to be immoral. In another case, a coworker asked why their colleague was so evasive about what they did over the weekend. After the coworker kept asking, the colleague responded that they were private at work because they had a polyamorous family and were not sure what their coworkers would think about it. The coworker did not say anything more to the colleague at the time, and later that week the colleague was fired for sexually harassing the coworker by divulging their polyamorous relationship. It did not matter to the employer that the coworker had sought out the information, or that the colleague had been evaluated as excellent in their most recent evaluation.

Lose Child Custody

In a previous blog I explained the reasons why polyamorous parents face custody battles over their children, most likely brought into court by ex-spouses or the children’s grandparents, rather than the state or Child Protective Services. When parents who are in polyamorous relationships face custody challenges in court, they have generally fared quite poorly. However, new developments in recent court cases have set some precedent for polyamorous families to retain custody of their children, and even to recognize three legal parents.

Lose Housing

In some jurisdictions, housing is restricted to families related by blood or marriage. Cities and municipalities who wish to discourage immigrants from sharing housing or sororities/fraternities from establishing houses within their municipal boundaries routinely prohibit groups of people who are not married or parents/children/siblings from sharing a domicile. Even though they are not generally the initial focus of the laws, polyamorous families can become the targets of the law when landlords, neighbors, or housing associations want to evict poly groups.

Selective Enforcement

One of the most popular and subtle ways discrimination expresses is in selective enforcement of rules, regulations, and laws. For instance, in some states adultery is technically illegal, but people are hardly ever prosecuted for it. However, some legally-married polyamorous people have been threatened with incarceration for engaging in what law-enforcement officials labeled adultery, even though the poly folks were not cheating on each other because they had openly negotiated the consensual non-monogamy. Having child custody challenged, getting fired, and being evicted can all be evidence of selective enforcement when others who have a more conventional relationship style do the same things and are not prosecuted for it.

If you have experienced discrimination as a result of being in a polyamorous or kinky relationship, please consider participating in the Narrative Project – a study on discrimination and boundary violations happening right now at the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom.

 

My One Problem

Arch reflected in waterby Cindy Trawinski

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.

Dreaming Our Way Into the Future

beaded dream catcherby David Bedrick, J.D., Dipl. PW

At this time in our world, we may need the power to dream and the ability to understand one another’s dreams more than ever.  Our colleague, David Bedrick,  has been writing about dreams and other psychological and social issues for many years now.  In the blog below, originally published by Psychology Today, David gives us some insights into the mysterious, night-time phenomena, we call dreams and suggests some reasons why we should pay attention to their quirky and often wise messages and symbols.

#1: Dreaming is one of the most powerful natural healing events.

Dreams are naturally occurring; every night we live in a world where our deepest, but often suppressed and unconscious, experiences get to live in the form of symbols, feelings, and other worldly experiences. Then we wake up, and for most of us, these experiences get dismissed or simply forgotten as we attempt to live in what we believe is a more objective world of “real” people, places, and events. The underlying dreaming experiences of our lives become marginalized leaving us without a connection to our deepest feelings to move us, without our imagination to show us new roadways, and without a profound sense of what it means to be sentient, to be human. In short, dismissing our dreams dismisses our deepest selves.

#2: Dreams offer new resolutions to our greatest sufferings. 

Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” Our dreams are absolutely brilliant at doing just that – flipping our usual script and offering a radical new orientation designed just for us. They reveal the fear behind our rigidity; the beauty behind what we hold as ugly and the ugliness behind what we hold as beautiful; the power behind what we deem vulnerable and the vulnerability behind what we deem powerful; and the wisdom behind what we deem foolish and the foolishness behind what we deem wise. Further, they compensate for our biases showing us parts of ourselves that are in dramatic tension and conflict with who we try to be. Thus, when we try to be thoughtful of others, our dreams reveal how we need to be more self-interested; when we try to be spiritual, our dreams show how we marginalize our body and sensuality; when we try to be disciplined, our dreams show how we need to let go and let life flow; or when we try to promote peace, our dreams show how we need to live in a more “militant” fashion or grab hold of our power.

#3: Dreams reveal our most private needs nakedly, completely, and honestly. 

Dreams take off all of our clothes, showing the full range of our humanity in ways that our waking-selves would never do. I began commenting on people’s dreams in a public Facebook space about a year ago where 100’s of dreams have been shared with me – dreams of being fearful, powerful, brilliant, magical, ill, abused, brutal, and so many things that we wouldn’t show to others (and sometimes ourselves). It’s simply incredible to have a community of people, most who have never met personally, candidly revealing their deepest inner selves whether it is their demons or angels. Maya Angelou wrote in her inaugural poem for William Jefferson Clinton, “Give birth again
to the dream. Women, children, men. Take it into the palms of your hands. Mold it into the shape of your most
private need. Sculpt it into
the image of your most public self.” Our nighttime dreams help us heed Dr. Angelou’s call – to make our private selves public.

#4: Dreamers are needed to resolve the world’s most protracted problems.

How shall we respond to the enormous difficulties we face as individuals and as a global society – war, terrorism, addictions, and the harm done to women and to people of color?  We set up geographical borders and try to push them on the people of the Middle East to resolve their conflict, but it is not sustainable. We send people to treatment programs for substance abuse, but most relapse. We try to create a better world through revolutions and movements, but the new status quo ends up abusing and oppressing people in the same way that the old status quo did. We look at the problems of people of color and hope that some legislation and time will make it go away, yet the color line still remains one of the fundamental facts and tension points in America and much of the world. What can we do? We need dreamers who imagine outside the box, outside of our current paradigms, offering new ways of understanding, facilitating, and building deeper relationships with each other. Again, Einstein reminds us that, “The person with big dreams is more powerful than one with all the facts.”

#5: Our indigenous brothers and sisters consider the dream world to be sacred and we owe it to them to honor dreaming as they have.

The injury, death, and symptoms of trauma left in the wake of the genocide of America’s indigenous people are overwhelming – shame and guilt that most American’s survive via our defense systems and denial. Along with the injury and neglect of our indigenous populations comes the neglect of indigenous wisdom and ways of being, thinking, and relating that have always been connected to the earth and to dreaming. Making a connection to our dreams is one small, perhaps very small, way of holding on to and valuing the native culture that grew out of this land and nurtured by the original people of this land.

#6: Dreams express our unique and creative brilliance equalizing the light we all share.

No matter how different we are in IQ, physical capacity, and other conventional or arbitrary norms of evaluation, we all dream. Further, we find in our dreams a wildly and profoundly creative, psychological, and spiritual genius and insight. Whether sick or healed, a guru or a fool, each night each of us dreams of what we are less aware of during the day. Regardless of the person and their station in waking life, the brilliance in symbolism in their dreams, the genius in their crafting, and a dream’s capacity to see through the narrow boxes of convention, seems to be the same for all people.

#7: Dreams tell the truth about our inner diversity – we are not only “one,” we are “many.” 

I think I am “David,” you think you are “you.” But dreams show how we are both sinner and saint, child and elder, Muslim and Jew, man and woman, gay and straight, able bodied and dying of illness, brave and terrified. Further, dreams show how these parts of us relate to each other, instead of falling into the trap of thinking that one way is right while the other is wrong or that resolutions will come from one way triumphing over another. In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, our inner and outer diversity “inter-are.” Nhat Hanh writes, “Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are.” Dreams declare, with emphatic repetition that we are not one, we are many, tied in an intricate web of life together.  We, in all of our diversity, “inter-are.”

David Bedrick is an author and speaker. His newest book, Revisioning Activism, provokes critical thinking, feeling, and dialogue. The book is comprised of essays that broaden our vision of activism to include how the social/political world impacts the inner lives of people, how dialogue across diverse viewpoints can impact hearts and minds, and how psychology can play a role as a social-change agent.  Revisioning Activism is a daring call to empower activism and see ourselves as individuals intimately woven into a web of relationships and social issues.

Queer, Poly, Kinky, Single? Alternative Valentine’s Day Ideas

Rainbow hearts
Photo by Matias Rengel on Unsplash

by Cindy Trawinski, PsyD

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.

Here in Chicago, there are many places you can find LGBTQ-inclusive sex and relationship workshops and discussions. For example, check out the events at The Pleasure Chest and The Center on Halstead.

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.

If you’re in Chicago, check out Windy City Time’s calendar of upcoming LGBTQ+ events.

Combat Loneliness Through Volunteering

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.)

The Chicago chapter of the Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP) also offers numerous opportunities for volunteering and organizing. Together, LifeWorks and SWOP provide a monthly Sex Worker Support Group, which will meet on February 10th.

Focus on Love, Including Love for Yourself

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!

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.

The Conflict With Conflict in Poly Relationships

Cindy Trawinksi and Rami Henrich

by Cindy Trawinski, PsyD

I am pleased to share this blog post by Cindy Trawinski, PsyD.  apturing a workshop we presented last spring. In it we applied Arnold Mindell’s  principle of deep democracy to everyday conflicts in relationships at the 1st Annual Chicago Consensual Non-monogamy Conference.

Ever had conflict?

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.

conflict

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.

THIS EXERCISE AND OTHERS CAN BE FOUND IN CONFLICT: PHASES, FORUMS & SOLUTIONS BY ARNOLD MINDELL (2017)

1 Menken, 2001, p. 14
2 Diamond & Jones, 2004, p. 36
3 Mindell, 1993, p. 5

How to Create Fulfilling Relationships After Experiences of Abuse

hanging heart
Photo Credit: Something old, something new by Rachel Samanyi via Flickr CC BY 2.0

by Niyati Evers, MAPW

I am pleased to share this article by my friend and colleague, Niyati Evers, MAPW, and diplomate in Process Work. Niyati is a sex-positive therapist with Alchemy of Eros, a Portland, Oregon-based professional counseling services organization that seeks to create a welcoming, non-judgmental space where people can explore issues around relationships, intimacy, power, passion, desire, sexuality, life transitions, and personal transformation.

This article has been edited and condensed from its original version.

Many people experience abuse and trauma. Abuse may occur in adult life, during childhood, or through experiences of war and other traumatic events, and can take many forms, from physical and sexual abuse to emotional and psychological forms of abuse. If you are currently in an abusive relationship, experiencing recent trauma, or need immediate help, click here for a list of resources.

What Constitutes Abuse?

Process-oriented Psychology defines abuse as a situation where one person consciously or unconsciously misuses their power over another person, and where there is a power differential that makes it impossible, dangerous, or extremely risky for the person who is being abused to defend themselves.

Having lived through an abusive relationship myself, I know firsthand how hard it can be to come to terms with these experiences and the scars they leave behind. It can be challenging to navigate those inner scars and painful memories when trying to create new and fulfilling relationships.

Past experiences of abuse often reverberate in the present, and triggers may show up in a person’s bodily sensations.

Past trauma may manifest through visceral, physical responses that don’t seem to make sense or correspond to the current situation. The circumstances that cause these responses are sometimes called triggers. My personal triggers often involve some kind of sudden or unexpected noise. One of my triggers, for example, is a loud knock on the door—it can send my heart racing as I catch my breath in my throat.

It’s difficult to get rid of these triggers. They seem to get embedded in memory during a time in your life when you needed to be on high alert because your physical, emotional, or mental survival was at stake. Triggers function like an internal warning system, letting you know that there’s danger ahead.

In abusive situations, a watchful, high-alert mindset often becomes second nature. Having lived with a partner who could suddenly change from charming, gregarious, and playful into a vicious and violent monster, I learned how to watch for and read subtle signals that indicated imminent changes in his state of mind. This was my way of protecting myself from the abuse that would inevitably follow his mood shifts.

Sadly, as many of us know and have experienced, abusive behavior frequently repeats itself. My previous partner was a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder. After living through war and violence, he too was deeply traumatized.

Knowing that it’s not easy to change our triggers, and that these negative feelings do not readily disappear, how do we navigate life after trauma without repeating cycles of abuse? How can we transform our experiences in ways that allow us to have healthy and happy relationships?

  1. Know Your Triggers

Triggers differ from person to person, depending on the kind of abuse each person experienced. Your trigger may be a sudden, loud sound; or the feeling of being approached too close, too fast; or the way someone touches you, or where they touch you. Your triggers are specific to you and your history.

Knowing what triggers “set you off” is helpful in many ways: This knowledge can help you put your own reaction in perspective and differentiate it from what’s actually happening in the moment.

By letting a partner know what your triggers are, you can help them understand where your responses are coming from. This can go a long way towards preventing painful conflicts between you and for your partner(s).

  1. Get to Know Your Triggered State

Knowing how you tend to behave, feel, and react when you are triggered can deepen your understanding of yourself and your relationships. It allows you to have constructive and supportive conversations with your partner(s) about what’s going on and what each of you needs, rather than responding from a reactive, defensive standpoint.

One of the ways in which I behave when I am triggered is that my “lawyer mind” tends to take over. I withdraw emotionally and I question my partner’s behavior from a place of suspicion. My current partner has told me that, when this happens, he feels like he is on the “witness stand,” that he’s being interrogated. Recognition of this pattern gave me the awareness to explore the feeling behind my reactions.

  1. Learn to Set Boundaries in Direct and Constructive Ways

If you have lived through an abusive situation, you may find it overwhelmingly difficult to connect with personal power after trauma. Your relationship with power may be colored by very negative and destructive experiences. You may feel a great deal of fear when using your body or voice in a way that could affect another person.

One of the major challenges for people who have survived abuse lies in their relationship with power. Abuse often undermines a sense of personal power.  If you cannot connect to your own power, you may inadvertently bury your aggression and rage, causing these feelings to emerge in passive, indirect, harmful ways in your relationships, such as

  • ignoring a partner
  • withdrawing emotionally
  • blaming or guilting a partner unfairly

In its most essential nature, power is neutral. It is energy—energy you can use in positive or in negative ways. The good news is that positive power builds its own momentum: the more positive experiences you have of using your power in your relationships in constructive and direct ways, the safer you’ll feel to keep connecting to and expressing your power.

  1. Understand Your Inner Abuser

People who have experienced abuse may repeat the cycle inwardly, against themselves. Your inner abuser may shame and blame you for what happened, using any kind of “lesson from the past” as a way to criticize you: “See, if you had only listened to yourself better or stood up for yourself more. You brought it on yourself by not being stronger and speaking up.” While it seems like the “inner abuser” wants you to protect yourself better, this voice perpetuates the abuse by blaming you while ignoring the circumstances and power differentials that surrounded the abuse.

The inner abuser also doesn’t allow you to experience the real feelings and real losses that follow abuse. In our culture, there is a tendency to view victimhood negatively—and while each of us can get stuck in feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, that doesn’t negate the facts of abuse. In an abusive situation, you were the victim. To heal from trauma, you need to make space for feelings of loss, grief, fear, and rage—feelings you couldn’t feel at the time because, in situations of abuse, it is often unsafe to show any feelings at all.

  1. Let Go of Impossible Expectations

Letting your partner know about your triggers does not mean that your partner will never trigger you. To expect that of anyone is not only unfair to the other person—it also creates a dynamic of over-cautiousness where the other person may feel like they have to “walk on eggshells” around you.

Yes, you have every right to expect that your partner(s) treat you with respect. At the same time, it is important not to hold your partner responsible for your triggers. Your triggers are part of your history. It’s critical to learn how to distinguish between when abuse is happening or repeating itself (and your reaction is appropriate to the actual situation); and when your reaction emerges in response to a trigger and from your sense of your own history.

At the same time, communicating about your triggers will help your partner understand why you may have seemingly “disproportionate” reactions. Meta-communication, or naming what you are noticing or experiencing in the moment,  is one helpful tactic. Meta-communicating with your partner may sound like this: “I’m triggered—I need space to process this. I will come back into the relationship later, but right now I need to come back into my own skin first.”

The Power of Sensitivity

Knowing you have lived through an experience of abuse doesn’t turn you into “damaged goods” or make you a worse partner. On the contrary: the sensitivity and awareness that people who live through abuse develop by necessity can be a huge asset in any relationship. If you have experienced abuse, you will pick up on information and see signals others may overlook. Your experience often magnifies your ability to empathize with others’ feelings.

Know that having lived through the abuse of power can potentially make you an expert and teacher in how to use power in ways that heal rather than hurt, nurture instead of demean, and deepen instead of destroy relationships.

Read Niyati’s full article, or listen to the podcast, on the Alchemy of Eros blog.