Tag Archives: Relationships

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.”

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.

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.

More to Love: Polyamory in the Real World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did you realize you wanted a poly relationship?

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

What was the coming-out process like?

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

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

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

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

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

Do you think this generation will embrace poly life?

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

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

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

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.

Returning to Therapy — A Profound Act of Self-care

returning to therapy
“Spiral” by Khairul Nizam, licensed under CC BY 2.0

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

“I can’t believe I’m here… again.”

Some people returning to therapy for the second, third, or fifth time often wonder “why do I need to go back to therapy?” “was there something I should have handled the last time around?” “maybe I am not really getting to my issues…is it me, my therapist, the approach, or the entire endeavor?”  

Some clients say they feel as though they’ve “failed,” that they weren’t “strong enough” to take care of themselves on their own.  Sinking into self-reproach, they feel wonder if they are somehow fated to repeat a cycle of false or temporary solutions to a problems that seem intractable. Maybe a previous, positive experience in therapy imparted a sense of resilience or well-being that now seems shockingly absent. “Didn’t I already go through this?” They ask themselves. “Isn’t that part of my life over?” 

For others, returning to therapy is a natural part of their self care and personal growth regiment as getting a haircut, going to the dentist or eating three meals a day.

Clients come back to therapy for many different reasons. Recent trauma, loss, or significant life events—such as a change of relationship, job, move, or other transition—can create inner disturbance or bring up patterns that have not been fully resolved.  Questions about one’s identity, sexuality, or spiritual beliefs can prompt deep-seated uncertainty. Relationship conflicts or disappointments can leave us feeling in need of support.  Ongoing issues like depression, anxiety, addiction, and self-harm can interfere with daily life and relationships. All of these difficulties, worries and questions can motivate a person to make a change and seek help.

This brings me to my main point: returning to therapy is a profound act of self-care—even if you don’t realize it at the time. If you are thinking of returning to therapy, consider the possibility that you are responding to a deep awareness that you want or would benefit from help, support or guidance to find or create a new sense of yourself.

In her article “Starting therapy, again…” San Francisco therapist, Carly Earnshaw, MFT, explains that “[r]egardless of whether your last therapy went great or awful, you have an advantage over the first time you tried therapy.” Here are the some of the reasons she gives for why:

  • You have a better idea of what therapy is about
  • You have a clearer understanding of what works and doesn’t work for you in therapy
  • You’re aware of the investment and the payoff

I encourage you to read her article in full, as it speaks to the different mindsets and assuages the fears I often see in clients who are returning to therapy.

Considering seeing a mental health professional again? Below are a few quick ways you can prepare to make the most out of your next time in therapy:

  1. Understand that you are not alone. It is not uncommon for clients to return to counseling when it has worked for them in the past, or out of a desire to find something that will work. Countless people come back to therapy throughout their lives, building on each experience. In fact, your therapist is likely one of those people!
  1. Take your time. If you have decided to seek help, you do not have to book an appointment immediately or stick with the first therapist you find. Allow yourself the time to research and explore your options—remember, you now have a stronger sense of what you’re looking for.
  1. Be mindful of your therapist’s responses and attitude. Whether calling to get in touch or engaging in your first session, pay attention to your intuition and comfort level, as well as how your therapist reacts to you. Listen to how she interprets your words and recognize that, while she intends to help, she doesn’t have all the answers. Again, take your time and be patient until you find someone who you feel hears and appreciates you on your terms.
  1. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. If a certain approach works best for you, or you need to speak to someone who understands specific issues—such as PTSD, polyamory, kink/BDSM, the experiences of racial and/or gender minorities, or religious convictions—speak up. Your therapist may not be qualified to provide what you need, but chances are she can refer you to a colleague who can.

If you have been there before, what do you look for in a new therapeutic relationship? We would love to hear your thoughts, opinions, and stories. Feel free to leave a comment below, or reach out to us on TwitterFacebookTumblr, or LinkedIn.