Tag Archives: acceptance

When Relationships Fall Apart

hand shake in front of blinds by Lisa Blair, M.A. and David Bedrick, J.D.

Lisa and David are both Certified Process Work Diplomats. This article  first appeared here and is reposted with permission. 

Every relationship has two handshakes: one above the table and one below. The first handshake is a conscious agreement between the two people, saying “We’re going to support each other, care for each other’s needs, listen to and accommodate each other, and compromise when we need to.” These are important agreements, however they are limited. As time passes, it typically becomes harder and harder to keep these agreements because previously unrevealed aspects of each person will arise that will not be in alignment with this initial contract.

What conscious or unconscious agreements are you making in your relationship?

The second handshake is an unspoken, unconscious agreement between the two people that says, “We’re each going to put away those aspects of ourselves that would threaten the relationship in order to make our life work well together, to avoid conflict, and to make each other comfortable, so that we may reach towards an ideal vision of relationship.” This second agreement requires each person to suppress things about themselves—their personality, individual and cultural style, needs, and desires in order to not rock the boat. These aspects remain in the shadow of the relationship.

Suppressed aspects of each person may include: not wanting to be present or listen to your partner even though you think you ought to; taking alone time when you think you should always be together; following your own impulses (to travel, hang out with certain friends or family, watch your favorite TV shows, go skiing…the list is endless) even though your partner does not have the same level of interest in these activities.

Additionally, these things may include ways of expressing oneself or communicating in styles that are outside the comfort zone of the relationship or of the other partner. For example, one partner may naturally be more forceful, direct, or quick, in their communication style while the other partner is more sensitive, slow, shy, or quiet. The first partner may accommodate by suppressing their power and approaching the other with more gentleness. The second partner may suppress their softer nature and try to meet the other with more force. Neither is inherently bad to do, but these accommodations are not typically sustainable for long periods of time.

The Second Handshake Falters

At some point, the second handshake—which is not fully conscious—falters and the suppressed needs, desires, or ways of expressing oneself rise to the surface causing all sorts of problems. They come out in resentments, angerdreams, illness, moods, affairs, and other disturbing experiences. At this point, important questions appear: How will I deal with these problems? Will I get depressed and take anti-depressants in order to find a comfort zone? Will I ignore these impulses and revert back to the first handshake and say, “Okay, I found a way to settle in this relationship and I can do this for the rest of my life.” Do I have the desire, willingness, and courage to embark on a warrior journey of personal and relationship growth with my partner?

Common Roads Couples Take

What needs, desires and communication styles are you suppressing to not rock the boat in your relationship?

There are four common roads that couples take when faced with the challenge of addressing the unconscious needs, desires, and expressions that inevitably rise to the surface in all long-term relationships.

Road #1: We’ve found in our work with clients that if one or both partners aren’t open to working out a way for the newly surfaced needs, desires, or expressions to live, then the relationship will revert back to the status quo of the first handshake and develop coping strategies to deal with the disturbing aspects of the relationship. These strategies will inevitably be unsustainable and lead to more problems and pain. These individuals might in essence say, “I’m going to shop, gamble, take drugs, get depressed, or have an affair.” Or, “I’m going to put all of my focus, time, and energy into making more money and being more successful to avoid going home and relating to my partner.” Or as a couple, they might in essence say, “We’re going to go on more vacations so that we can pretend life feels good and our needs are getting met.” Reverting to the status quo of the first handshake is the most common road taken when suppressed experience surfaces in relationship.

Road #2: A second road that a couple may find itself on is that of their children having difficulties that require professional help to address. In effect, the children begin living out the disturbing behaviors that the couple is not making room for. The couple may send their child to therapy because they have problems, becoming the “identified patient”—the one who appears ill when it is actually the family system that needs healing. Why wouldn’t you want to send your kids to therapy? What’s wrong with doing that? Seems to make perfect sense. However, the couple’s avoidance of their problems is causing the child to act out and this will continue unless and until the child is no longer seen as the identified patient and the couple begins to take responsibility for their relationship difficulties. Of course, this may not be the case in every situation where a child is acting out, but it’s always something to consider.

Road #3: The third road that many couples take is one with a dead end. In this scenario, the couple’s relationship terminates because it can’t accommodate the changes. That’s as far as it could go. It reaches a limit. The newly risen suppressed material is more than one or both partners can hold. It is too threatening or causes too much pain. The container is not strong enough and the relationship comes to an end.

Road #4: The fourth possible road that a couple can take requires significant changing and growing. The arms of the relationship get wider allowing it to move forward with the formerly suppressed experiences now integrated into the relationship. This is the least common of all possibilities because it requires that both partners want to learn and grow individually and in the relationship. It means each partner has to be willing to self-reflect, recognize their good intentions as well as their unconscious priorities, communicate honestly and openly with their partner, work through often painful conflict, and live closer to their individuated and more authentic self. This is not an easy path and typically requires the outside help of a therapist to facilitate the relationship transformation.

This path also requires that both people in the relationship are genuinely open to whatever specific change is presenting itself. If it is truly not right for one of the people in the relationship to be open to the change on the table, then to stay true to themselves and their deepest nature, they must remain closed to that change and the relationship may indeed end. There is no judgment, no blame here. Both people are open to learning and growing, but their nature says “no” to that specific change and so, ultimately the person has to choose to be true to themselves over keeping the relationship in tact.

When One Partner Is a Grower and the Other Is Not

Painting of figures leaning against opposite sides of a tree
Source: Leonid Eremeychuk/123rf

In long-term relationship, such as marriage, there is sometimes one partner who is more of a grower (a person who loves learning, growing, and changing over time) and one who is not. In our experience, in heterosexual relationship, the grower is more often a woman than a man, but of course, this is not universally true. Women are more likely then men to go to therapy and pursue personal growth in general. Sometimes, we have found, a woman partner will call to make an appointment for couples therapy with her male partner. When we ask her, “Does your partner want to come to therapy?” she says, “Well, I’m going to check with him, but I think he’d be willing to.” In situations like this, it’s invariably the case that the woman alone wants to go to therapy and the man is really not interested in doing therapeutic work. She wants to look at the relationship and interact about it, figure out who she is, learn new things, and become a new kind of person. But her male partner may be saying, “This is hard work and it costs a lot of money and it’s taking away from my life.” For her, the therapy is life giving; for him, it’s not.

In this case, couples therapy is counter-indicated; the woman would benefit more from individual therapy. It will not be wise for her to embark on a path of trying to change him. Either she’s going to find a way to create meaningful “separations” from her partner without actually terminating the relationship (e.g., following a career that she never pursued, hanging out with friends that she never made time for, not caring so much if her partner is in a bad mood, or separating herself emotionally and potentially financially) or she may eventually need to leave all the way.

The Tao in Relationship

While there is certainly much to be said for our personal efforts to grow and develop in relationship and the fact that these efforts have a significant effect on the resiliency of our relationship, the truth is—what happens in our relationship is not only up to us. What happens in our relationships, including how long they last, is also subject to the Tao, nature, the universe, God—whatever name you wish to give it, it has its own timing. Relationships have their own course and we cannot only control the outcome.

In a public lecture, author, activist, and seven-time NAACP Image Award recipient Nikki Giovanni explained the Tao in relationship in a most amusing, creative, and accurate way. She said (we’re paraphrasing), “Remember those fortune telling machines, like Zoltar at Coney Island? They spit out a ticket with your fortune.”

“With relationships,” she explained, “it’s as if the fortuneteller spits out a card telling the person how long their relationship is supposed to last. For example, the card might read one night, two months, twenty years, or a lifetime. Not all relationships are meant to last a lifetime. When the relationship goes longer than it’s supposed to—which is the most common occurrence—all sorts of problems occur and if the relationship does end at some point, each of the people typically feel terrible about how it ended, they hate the other person, and there’s a lot of pain. When the relationship gets cut short for some reason, the two people often forever imagine how perfect the other person was and how they could have been the love of their life. However, when the relationship ends exactly at the time predicted by the fortuneteller—the least common experience in relationships ending—it is typically bittersweet. Each person feels love and kindness towards the other, gratitude for what they shared together, and at peace with the knowledge that it had to end.”

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.

Becoming a Trans Ally

trans pride flag
“Transgender Flag: San Francisco (2012)” by torbakhopper is licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Cindy Trawinski, PsyD

My world and life, like many people’s, is a mix of privilege and struggle. As a cisgender woman, I have some privileges that trans women and men do not. For example, I can assume that others will use my preferred pronouns (she, her, and hers) when referencing me. As a person in a non-monogamous relationship, I have also faced issues that people in non-traditional relationships may face—for example: not having my relationship recognized as legitimate or as committed as monogamous relationships are. As a sex-positive therapist working with a variety of marginalized experiences, I am in an ongoing process of learning about my own biases and assumptions as well as endeavoring to expand my awareness, understanding, and acceptance of experiences that are not mine. And as process-oriented therapist, I challenge myself to work with my edges and try to see the deeper humanity and transcendent states in all experiences.

This is the third in a series of blog posts exploring what it means to be an ally and offers some basic suggestions or those who want to become a personal support to friends, neighbors, co-workers, or family members facing discrimination, stigma, and bias from the general culture because of their identity. 

T is for transgender. Along with lesbian, gay, bisexual, questioning, and queer, transgender is one identity encompassed in the acronym LGBTQ. The term “transgender,” commonly shortened to “trans”—and sometimes followed by an asterisk (*) to denote inclusion of identities such as transsexual, gender non-conforming (GNC), gender fluid, non-binary, and genderqueer—is itself a broad label that comprises many diverse understandings and expressions of gender. That being said, even within the LGBTQ umbrella, people who identify as transgender have also been marginalized or excluded at times from specific LGBTQ groups and/or the larger LGBTQ community.

Whether someone identifies as transgender or not, a person’s gender identity is often a deeply personal, nuanced, meaningful, and emotional topic. Beyond being a subject of recent political debate, gender expectations, expression and identities emerge in virtually every area of society: from the workplace to interactions with neighbors, friends and family members. And, at times, our awareness and lack of awareness of the diversity of underlying experiences can lead us to conversations about gender that can erupt in anger, conflict, or misunderstanding.

Learning that someone you love identifies as trans can elicit a wide range of feelings and reactions. You may feel surprised, confused, supportive, hurt, fearful, skeptical, or any number or combination of emotions. You may be confronted with thoughts or ideas that you have never examined or considered. You may want to explore your own feelings and learn about what being trans means for you and for your loved one. Take time with this and be kind to yourself and your loved one. The coming out and transition processes take time. Seek professional support if this is appropriate for you.

Becoming a trans ally means carrying the responsibility of accepting and welcoming your trans loved one unconditionally. Your feelings may vary on a moment-to-moment basis and you should expect some inner conflict.  Being an ally means working on your own stereotypes and fears. This is an often difficult task that requires self-education, exploration of biases and discomforts, identification of assumptions, and a process of self-discovery, as well learning about something about which you may have little information.

Allies may or may not identify as trans themselves. If you do not identify as trans, you may use the term “cisgender” (usually shortened to “cis”) which refers to anyone whose gender identity corresponds to the sex they were assigned at birth. Like your trans friends or loved ones, allies can follow any religious belief or spiritual path, and experience any kind of orientation and relationship to their sexuality and gender. A person’s gender identity is not equivalent to their sexuality and does not imply anything about their choice of partners.

Here are some suggestions for starting down the path to becoming a trans ally:

  1. Listening. One of the simplest ways to support your trans friend, coworker, family member, or partner is to listen to them. Many transgender people feel invisible or excluded. When they do have an opportunity to speak about their identity, a trans person often spends a great deal of that time countering misinformation and educating a primarily cis audience. Show your trans loved one that you are interested in what they have to say and that you value their knowledge, experience, stories and points of view.
  1. Make learning a priority. Assumptions harm everyone. Learn what name your trans loved one prefers to be called and the pronouns (e.g. “her,” “him,” “they”) by which they like to be referred. When in doubt, ask—but ask thoughtfully. Follow your curiosity, but instead of saddling your trans loved one with the responsibility to speak for all trans people, educate yourself. Google your questions and remember to consider the source. Learn what questions are considered invasive and which terms are considered offensive.
  1. Reflect before offering your opinions. Practice empathy and compassion. Think about how you can use your language to welcome rather than hurt members of the trans community. This may take extra effort on your part. You may feel confused or frustrated by the process of shifting your awareness and learning new ways of relating. If you are, it may be helpful to view your confusion or frustration as necessary steps on a path toward change and greater understanding. Recognize that the journey may be long, difficult, and painful—not only for trans people, but for their supporters as well.
  1. Respect others’ boundaries. Learning about a person’s gender is an intimate experience. Respect your trans loved one’s courage as well as their privacy. Do not push them to a point where they might feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Never discuss a person’s transgender identity with anyone else. Transgender people continue to face daily threats of violence. Understand that by outing a trans loved one, you may be jeopardizing their life, career, and relationships.
  1. Embrace love and diversity. Can you let go of expectations and embrace the world in all of its complexity? This is a challenge for many of us. It is important to recognize that there is no right or wrong way to exist as a human body. The trans-identifying people in your life may change how they describe themselves, try on different personalities, change their appearance, discover new parts of themselves, and challenge their prior decisions in life just as cis people do. Just like you, they may have doubts and make mistakes along the way. Take note of your own internal questions and contradictions. Being an ally, means growing into the responsibility to accept your trans loved ones, empathize with them, and advocate for them where and whenever possible.

This blog post was inspired by the Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) article “How to Be an LGBT Ally.” I am grateful to HRC for their groundbreaking leadership in the fight for the rights of LGBTQ people in US and around the world.  To read the original HRC blog post, click here.

Your Best Friend Tells You They Are Kinky

leather pride flag
Credit: Leather Pride Flag image by Marcus Schmöger and António Martins, 31 March 2005

by Carrie Jameson, LCPC

So, your best friend tells you they are kinky and/or they practice BDSM (Bondage and Discipline [BD], Dominance and Submission [Ds], Sadism and Masochism [SM]). Whether it is your best friend, a sibling, parent, or child,  you may want to be an ally, but simply don’t know what to do or say.

Before you go further, it might be helpful for you to try the following thought exercise.

THOUGHT EXERCISE
Think back in your life to something that was special or precious. Remember how you felt. You may have wanted to tell someone close or trusted about this precious thing, experience or person, but maybe you were nervous too. Ask yourself the following questions and make a note of your answers:

  • What did you feel in anticipation of telling them?
  • What kinds of thoughts did you have before you told that person?
  • How did you prepare for the conversation?
  • What were your concerns? What was at risk for you?
  • How did you hope that person would react?
  • How did they react and respond?
  • What did you feel afterward? 

In the exercise above, you might have felt concerned, anxious, afraid, ashamed, or embarrassed about what you had to say. In the same way, it is often difficult for people to disclose their interest in kink or BDSM to friends, family, and loved ones. They may have many concerns and fears about how you will react and worries about how this new information will impact your relationship. In your role as a confidant, your response to your friend or loved one may add to feelings of fear and shame or may help to alleviate them. In part, it’s up to you.

Remember, it very likely took a lot of thought and courage for your friend or loved one to come out to you. It is still uncommon for our society to talk about sexual topics openly. BDSM is often judged and labeled as “not normal” or “wrong” by mainstream culture. Your friend or loved one is sharing a part of their life that is likely very important to them—how will you respond?

ABOUT BDSM
For some people, BDSM or being “kinky” is an identity. For some, it is an orientation. And, for others, it is both orientation and identity. Still others may consider it more of a leisure activity or serious interest (in academic research, also referred to as serious leisure) but not necessarily an orientation.  People may practice BDSM for fun, as a spiritual practice, to explore relationship dynamics, as an aspect of their sexuality, and for many other reasons. For many, it is a deep and profound experience. The person disclosing to you likely has their own way of thinking about kink or BDSM and how it fits for them, their interests, lifestyle, and identity.

HOW TO BE AN ALLY
Here are some suggestions for providing support and responding to a loved one, if they share their kink or BDSM interests with you:

  • Be curious. Ask questions if you want to understand something. You may even want to ask your friend or family member what it was like to disclose this information to you and how you can support them.
  • Trust that your friend or family member knows what they are doing, from a psychological and physical safety perspective. If you have concerns about their safety or well-being, you can share your concerns—but ask first to determine whether they are open to discussing them with you.
  • Don’t assume you know what BDSM or kink is for your friend or loved one. BDSM and kink are broad umbrellas terms that encompass many different practices and activities.  Many people have interests in some but not all of these.  It is especially risky to base your opinions, reactions, or impressions on popular media or pornography (books or movies like 50 Shades of Grey or Secretary, for example).  Instead, ask your friend or loved one how you can learn more.
  • It’s okay to feel uncomfortable. Honor your feelings (and recognize that your friend or loved one may have different feelings). Go slowly in conversation if that helps; or talk a bit and then agree to return to the conversation at a later date, if that feels right. Set limits on the type or extent of detail you want to hear about someone’s kink or BDSM activities. Be direct and state your preferences—for example: “I would like to know about the club you attend but please don’t share graphic details of scenes with me just yet.”
  • Don’t assume an interest in BDSM or kink is related to past trauma or any psychological dysfunction. In fact, studies have shown that people who participate in BDSM show lower levels of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and other psychological concerns.
  • Resist blaming kink or BDSM for other issues. Don’t assume your friend’s relationship challenges or psychological difficulties are automatically related to their kink practices.
  • Honor the trust shown to you. Remember this person trusted you with a confidence. Don’t out them (i.e., disclose this information) to others without their consent. They may have told you, but may not want their participation in BDSM more broadly known.
  • If you want more information, you can also do some research on kink and BDSM. Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy’s When Someone you Love is Kinky may be a good place to start. The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) website also provides a variety of articles and resources. You may want to ask your friend or loved one about other resources they would recommend.

Read more of Carrie’s posts here.

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

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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.

Cultural Competence and Bias

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by Cindy Trawinski, Psy.D.

As therapists, we recognize our ethical obligations to know and acknowledge the limits of our training and skills. We know that our expertise grows over time with experience and supervision, training, reading, dialogue and further training. These activities contribute to our mastery of specialized areas, methods or skills. But what about cultural competence? How do we become culturally competent? Does it just happen naturally or is there something we need to do?

I think of cultural competence as an evolving set of attitudes, knowledge, skills and awareness that supports my ability to relate to “other-ness” or the unknown in myself and those around me. Other-ness can also be thought of as experiences, ideas, practices, beliefs, and so on that I do not identify with, believe, do practice, or endorse.   In thinking about cultural competence, I focus on my connection to other-ness.  For me, it is less about achieving a level of proficiency as measured or defined by someone else and more about an ongoing process of refining the skills, attitudes and awareness practices that support my capacity to relate to and work with other-ness in myself and others.

In developing expertise in an area of practice, I might study, write and do research to deepen my knowledge base.  In mastering a particular treatment model, I study concepts, clinical vignettes and research. I also practice basic skills (or interventions), learn to identify particular patterns or signals and seek out supervision to help me perceive and respond to what I can not yet completely behold, understand and articulate.

In cultivating cultural competence, I rely heavily on my ever-changing ability to develop new attitudes and relationships as well as the capacity to use my awareness in new ways  to relate to ideas, practices, identities and other information I may not yet fully understand. I challenge myself to identify places where I am blocked from understanding or relating, instead of glossing over them and using my privilege to ignore or forget the experiences of others I do not in that moment connect to. Developing attitudes and growing awareness sometimes means exposing myself to and relating to people, practices and ideas that may feel foreign to me.  It may mean looking at deeply held beliefs and subtle biases that are not easy to identify or that are embarrassing or troubling. This can be a very difficult process!

Everyone Has Bias
One of the reasons the process of cultivating cultural competence is so difficult is bias. None of us want to have prejudices or biases but they are inevitable. In our work at LifeWorks Psychotherapy Center supervising and training therapists, we begin with the premise that every therapist, and in fact everyone, has bias. Bias starts with our experiences and the information we gather in life and gets filtered thru our identity and culture. Some of our biases are known to us, while others may be unknown or hidden.

Every therapist, no matter their identity or background, has bias. We define bias as anything (for example, any idea, belief, opinion, reaction or emotion) that limits one’s capacity to relate to another as whole and equal, or that which creates a tendency to marginalize aspects of another’s experience.

Therapeutic bias, if unexamined, can hinder or even endanger the therapeutic relationship but it can also be a looking glass into experience that can enlighten, deepen and transform our connections to our clients.

Observations from Our Practice
In our practice, at LifeWorks, we work with diverse clients, who identify across a variety of religions, genders, sexualities and relationship constellations, including: lesbian, gay & bisexual (39% of clients); trans, queer and genderqueer (13%); non-monogamous and polyamorous (40%), and clients who are kink and/or BDSM-identified (23%). And many clients endorse more than one of these identities.

A recent informal sampling of therapists in our practice revealed that approximately 25% of their clients had explicitly indicated that they had had previous therapy experiences where their therapist’s bias regarding kink or non-monogamy was an obstacle to their care, or hindered their experience in therapy.  In our recently reported research (See: “Social and therapeutic challenges facing polyamorous clients,” Sexual and Relationship Therapy, Henrich & Trawinski, 2016), 50% of clients identifying as polyamorous had seen therapists that they felt lacked cultural competency or were biased.  Participants in that study reported that therapists were uninformed about polyamory, or biased toward monogamy.

Even therapists who themselves identify as marginalized in some way – for example, those who are LGBTQ, kinky, non-monogamous or polyamorous – may have subtle or not so subtle biases about the groups with which they identify.  These biases may show up in therapists as reservations, judgments, concerns, worries about their clients or as strident beliefs, one-sidedness and even extreme positive regard.  Neither being inside or outside a given community offers immunity from bias towards that community (or towards any other).  Our experience and research confimrs that bias affects us all.

Emphasizing Wholeness
Our work on bias is shaped by the concepts and methods known as process-oriented psychology or processwork. Developed by Arnold Mindell and others, processwork is both a depth psychotherapy paradigm and a phenomenological approach to working with human problems that emphasizes wholeness, the flow of experience and awareness and the importance of all points of view Mindell coined the term “deep democracy” to describe the idea that all voices are important to the well-being of the whole.

Using process-oriented methods and awareness, we have been teaching psychotherapists — and learning ourselves — to detect and identify bias, unfold its meaning, and learn to relate to aspects, attitudes and behaviors of clients that they may find difficult, disturbing or troubling.  In our experience, therapist bias is often a reflection or expression of some quality or trait that the therapist has a tendency to marginalize or overemphasize in themselves.  Something important, and often subtle or outside of awareness, may need to be known or understood better, and can be uncovered by looking closely at spontaneous or troubling reactions and perceptions.

From our perspective, it is probably impossible to get rid of bias entirely but we have found that it is possible to embrace and transform therapist bias into something that enhances the capacity to experience and support clients’ wholeness. It takes time and practice to develop the skills, awareness and attitudes that support the capacity to learn and grow from our bias — and in so doing, to increase our ability to understand, relate to our clients and to support their process of change.

There is no quick fix that we are aware of.  In our experience, the awareness and transformation of therapist bias is more like a lifelong endeavor.

The Pain is Our Pain

IMG_2904By Brandon Haydon

The pain is our pain.
It is the wound in the world and
we are of the world.
I know that all moments,
across the whole of humanity,
are occasions of suffering and joy,
beyond my scope.

I suppose that when a blow lands
so close to heart and home,
the perimeter I hold against the tides of sorrow
breaks like a levee, and I risk such deluge.
The dark roil of Her great injury takes my breath.
Like black waves made of such gravity
that my light cannot escape.
For a moment longer than time,
in that numb, drowned dungeon, in a hole in the world,
I forget that it is not the whole of the world.

Camus inquires, “what else is there to do but live?”

And living is the celebration of the love
from which we emerge, deeper than our knowing
or our feeling because it is the love from the Source
where they are still the same.
I choose it.
My sight is bleary and my heart is pierced
and chained but I see you all stir and rise beside me.
I rise.
I remember.
I hail you, the other ships upon the roil.
Like lanterns that shatter the illusion of starless night.
Breaking the dark horizon with hope of a thousand
soul-sized suns in the fire-bled sky.