Polar Bear Nature

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

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

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

Deep Democracy: Coming to Understand My Polyamory

by Rami Henrich, LCSW

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

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

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

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

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

In the words of Arnold Mindell:

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

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

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

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

 

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

The Conflict With Conflict in Poly Relationships

Cindy Trawinksi and Rami Henrich

by Cindy Trawinski, PsyD

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

Ever had conflict?

Most people have had more conflict than they care to recall. Conflict is important to everyone and every relationship but when you are in a multi-partnered relationship good conflict skills become even more critical.

What is deep democracy?

Deep democracy is Arnold Mindell’s idea that all voices in relationships, families and communities are important and needed for the wholeness and well being of the of the larger group. Deep democracy “addresses the perennial conflict of marginalization by emphasizing the value of all viewpoints and the necessity for them each to find expression.” 1 In other words, deep democracy means being open to all viewpoints, experiences, and emotions, not just the ones that we agree with, but also those that are uncomfortable, unknown, or frightening. This is a difficult thing to achieve, but it is worth the effort because “if change occurs by devaluing one state and throwing it out in favor of another, the part that has been thrown out may come back to assert itself and sabotage what has already been accomplished.” 2 Ignoring one viewpoint in favor of another only polarizes the two sides and moves them farther apart, but deep democracy tries to honor “that special feeling of belief in the inherent importance of all parts of ourselves and all viewpoints in the world around us.” 3

Conflict in Everyday Life

Many of us notice that we fall into a pattern of response to relationship conflict that recycles again and again, without providing an opening to approach our partner(s) from a new perspective or with new feelings. Gaining a fresh awareness of ourselves and our partner(s) in conflictual situations helps relieve the tension and brings in new possibilities.

Mindell’s work with conflict has evolved overtime but central to his approach is the idea of finding momentary common ground and personal resonance with our partner(s). In his recent book, Conflict: Phases, Forums & Solutions, he describes four phases of conflict. The illustration below captures some of the thoughts or feelings we may have in different phases of conflict.  (Read more about Arnold Mindell and Process Work.)

One way we commonly look at conflict is to think of it as a struggle between incompatible points of view, needs or wishes. We may have a tendency to focus on the issue instead of our experience and our partner’s experience. Or we may focus on our own or partner’s psychology instead of the experience we each may be having. These approaches can lead to polarization, trying to convince, compromise, cajole or argue our way to a conclusion or solution. And sometimes that satisfies us. But when these strategies don’t satisfy us, we need another way of thinking about conflict and new skills for creating resolution together.

conflict

The 4 Phases of Conflict

These phases don’t always follow each other sequentially and we may experience some only fleetingly.

PHASE 1 may be associated with being happy.   This phase is often what our culture focuses most on attaining but it is only a temporary state. In Phase 1, we don’t seem to have problems, disagreements or tensions.

PHASE 2 is what many people identify as conflict. In Phase 2, the tension surfaces.  arguments, disagreements, frustrations, etc… arise here. We tend to lose sight of the phases that precede and follow this phase of tension and upset. When you are stuck in Phase 2, you may want to get some help or support (i.e therapy) but you could also work on the situation yourself (see exercise below).

We often sense that “role switching” of PHASE 3 is needed or wanted but have trouble being able to deeply understand and feel into others’ experiences of the conflict we are in. Role switching is imagining or feeling how another sees and experiences the problem and embracing (even if briefly) their point of view.  This often relieves the tension momentarily and allows us to find common ground or approach the other from a less polarized point of view.  We sometimes need outside help or support (therapy, counseling, meditation) to reach this phase but there are tools and skills we can learn and develop to help ourselves into this phase (the exercise below is one way).

PHASE 4, the feelings of relaxed detachment and sensing how the universe moves you, is not only a phase but also the background of openness and acceptance behind all the phases.

Why 4 Phases?

Recognizing all the phases of conflict is especially important to people in non-monogamous relationships for at least 3 reasons:

1. It helps us recognize that each of our relationships are in different phases. One relationship is not better or worse than another.

2. It reminds us that these are fluid states or phases. They are changing, not fixed. This can reduce tension and frustration and give us a sense of what to expect.

3. If you are providing support to others in Phase 2, knowing there are phases may help you remain neutral and facilitate all parties.

So, the next time you find yourself in Phase 2 conflict and tension, try remembering it is a part of bigger process and then practice role switching or use the exercise below to try to find a new perspective.

Exercise: 5-Minute Communing Practice

To reduce and resolve conflict in your relationship(s), practice this process alone or with a partner.

A. Choose a conflict and ask yourself, or your partner, coach your partner on how to play the “disturbing one” — the person with whom you have conflict. What do they do or say that upsets you? What is it that bothers you about the situation or relationship?

B. Now, identify and appreciate the real-world differences between you. How are you different from the “disturbing one”? Imagine defending yourself and/or getting encouragement to defend your viewpoint.

C. Now “commune”; feel and dream into the other (the disturbing one) until you can be them, until you understand the other’s feelings as feelings you recognize in yourself. Sense how you are “disturbing one.”

D. Remembering this “communing” experience, commune-icate with the “disturbing one” (or your partner playing them), sharing your similarity to them and understanding of where feelings come from.

E. Finally, ask your partner to give you feedback about your ability to “commune-icate.”

With practice, this 5-minute process can reduce relationship conflict. If this process takes more than 5 minutes, repeat the exercise until you can do it more easily, and more quickly.

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

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

How to Create Fulfilling Relationships After Experiences of Abuse

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

by Niyati Evers, MAPW

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

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

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

What Constitutes Abuse?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Know Your Triggers

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

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

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

  1. Get to Know Your Triggered State

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

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

  1. Learn to Set Boundaries in Direct and Constructive Ways

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

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

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

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

  1. Understand Your Inner Abuser

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

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

  1. Let Go of Impossible Expectations

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

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

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

The Power of Sensitivity

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

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

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

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.

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.

Eating Meditations: A Practice of Equanimity, Gratitude and Blessing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Do Sex Workers Need Our Support?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Challenge of Finding Affirming Spaces for Sex Workers

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

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

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

What Can You Do to Support Sex Workers?

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

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

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

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

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

Sex Work & Sex Workers 101

Photo Credit: John Major QMI Agency

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

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

Why Talk about Sex Work?

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

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

What Is Sex Work?

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

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

Who Is a Sex Worker?

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

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

How Can You Support Sex Workers?

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

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

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

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