Category Archives: Sex Positive Articles


by Cindy Trawinski, Psy. D.

It has been about 6 months since the shelter in place order in Illinois was announced. Most therapists I know went remote in March. Therapy offices around the city sit unused and many therapists are working from home.

The spring challenged all of us to adjust to new precautions and COVID-driven changes to our lives. Summer brought overdue attention, focus and urgency to the country regarding long-standing racial disparities and injustices that have resulted in violence, brutality and death for too long. Now, fall is in the air. The election approaches bringing its own tensions, anxieties and uncertainties.

Back in March, after the initial logistical changes, for some, the first phase of adapting to the new social/physical distancing reality may have been greeted with a sense of relief.  Surprisingly, some of us found working from home comforting. We felt safer in our homes and apartments, insulated from the unknown but pervasive viral danger we were facing.  The hustle and bustle of getting places ceased to be a central feature of our very mobile lives.  We were able to slow down, find our own rhythm and pace. We could settle into our personal sense of introversion.  If we (or our partners) had not lost our jobs or been furloughed, we gradually adjusted to our new normal and welcomed the sense of having more time.  Some felt privileged and grateful that they had work that was in demand and could be provided virtually.

It was a bit surreal but for many the transition was manageable.

However, for those who lost work, confronting financial losses during the slow down became front of mind. Essential workers had and have difficult choices to make. There was the issue of personal risk for those who continued to work.  Those with children at home now needed additional childcare (if available and safe) or time and energy during the day for their care.  Those with their own or a loved one’s immune-compromised health were faced with their vulnerabilities in new ways. Some people became ill with the virus or loved ones became ill. There were recoveries and hospitalizations.  Of those who became ill, some are still in recovery from the longer-lasting effects of COVID.  Sadly, some of us lost a co-worker, a friend and/or a relative. Some lost more than one.

Lifestyle Choices

Many of you seemed to adjust to the new world and perhaps had online therapy as a resource and support but some have fared less well with the changes. Polyamorous and non-monogamous folx may have decided to separate from partners, friends and loved ones to manage the risk of spreading or contracting the virus. Some of you faced big decisions about who to shelter in place with and how to manage, if you did or did not. Conflict emerged for polycules distressed by the decisions around quarantining. Many of you have suspended physical contact with your partners indefinitely. Some relationships simply broke apart. If you are/were single or un-partnered, you may have found yourself thrown into a different kind of isolation or loneliness.  Some of you are managing the tension, loss and urges related to their separations and some are really struggling.

Missing Life Out and About

For some of you, life under shelter-in-place was a harsh disruption and barrier to the nourishment, excitement and stimulation that the world can offer. Our usual life in society — commuting and working with others, attending conferences, socializing with family and friends, dating, partying, seeing art, dining out, enjoying team sports as players and spectators, and more was suddenly closing down In the kink community, closures of dungeons and online munches left some feeling disconnected from potential or existing partners. Support groups and other community events were cancelled or went virtual.  Things were different and sometimes not all that satisfying.  We all started missing the things that gave our days meaning and connection.

There were hard choices and losses. The absence of familiar activities and others (partners, playmates, family and friends, but even our barista or neighbors) from our lives brought loneliness, emptiness, fear, sadness, and frustration – and there were worries about the emotional and physical well-being of family and friends as well as clients who relied on our care and immediate and palpable presence in their lives.

Ground Hog Day

Lately, I have noticed that reactions are changing since those earlier weeks and months of the pandemic.  The feeling that every day is a little Ground Hog Day-like sneaks up slowly on us. With every trip to the grocery store or gas station, sustained vigilance and self-monitoring invisibly wears the committed down. Invitations to in-person social visits seem like small scale temptations but require more effort to resist as the months pass and confusing info about “opening up” clouds earlier clarity. Even routine needs for in-person retail and professional services (like haircuts and doctors’ visits, etc.) seem to require unusually high levels of discernment. For some, a need to throw off the shackles of isolation or caution fills us with dis-ease even as we stick with it. While some find they have relaxed unintentionally into a less socially distanced life and then suddenly have a need to get tested, reset and restore a sense of safety.

For those who welcomed the gradual re-opening of businesses and easing of social and recreational limitations, there may be moments of uncertainty and concern that the guidelines continue to be ambiguous.  The question of what is safe floats somewhere in the back of our minds. Few are completely free from worry about some element of health risk, whether it is for their own health or that of a colleague, friend or loved one.

Leaning In, Pushing Against or to Giving In?

Some of us are waking up feeling unusually stiff and achy from holding tension in our bodies.  Our eyes and necks hurt from craning at our screens. We think to ourselves we may be drinking or smoking a little too much.  Our adherence to a healthy diet has given way to vacation-style food indulgences and comfort foods which we justify by saying we are trying new recipes.  Whether it is working out, walking, reading, taking a yoga class, meditating or learning online, the idea of using this unusual time to improve ourselves is so appealing. Yet, some of us find it hard to sustain enthusiasm for new learning beyond the initial burst.

The seemingly indefinite suspension of important pre-COVID, everyday activities and relationships fatigues us. The effort it takes us to continue to live under our relatively new circumstances wears us down. Changing and confusing health messaging continues to be something manyof us wrestle with. Decisions have been put off. Vacations and weddings were delayed or postponed. Funerals were downsized or went remote. We don’t know when we will next see friends and family living states away. Yet, our hearts and minds are drawn to questions about the future again and again.  We are creatures born to anticipate the future, to look ahead. We tire of turning away from decisions we long to make.

Finding Respite Where We Can

Recently I came across a helpful post on LinkedIn from Holly C. Barker of the Grief Resource Network. She listed 9 types of rest we can offer ourselves and others.  I recreated her list below added a few of mine own thoughts. I offer it here as potential balm for the kinds of fatigue, weariness, pressure and tension many of us may be feeling.


  1. Take time away. Time away from your everyday experiences, venues, activities and/or relationships can provide a chance to refresh your perspective and relax into a deeper experience of yourself without the familiar pushes and pulls of your daily life.
  2. Give yourself permission not to be helpful.This can bring a big sense of relief to many of us.  I offered this list to some of my clients when the moment called for it, and far and away, the idea of letting oneself not be helpful received the strongest positive on this list.
  3. Give yourself permission to be “unproductive.” Allowing ourselves to be unproductive, can provide us with space from inner and outer demands — and produce healing and rest.
  4. Connect to art and nature. Grounding, earthingforest bathing or just looking at a tree – any form of indulging in green spaces can deliver health benefits.
  5. Use solitude to recharge.Being with alone yourself, whether you are active (i.e. walking or cooking) or still (i.e. sitting or laying down), allows your attention to move freely and can restore a sense of space, time and energy.
  6. Take a break from responsibility. Sign out.Close your virtual door, put up your out of office or vacation message and unplug. Take time off from social media, your personal or professional responsibilities.
  7. Let stillness help you decompress.Find a quiet corner and be still.  Let your body and mind settle.
  8. Spend time in a safe space. A safe space can allow you to let down your guard, to stop trying to protect yourself – to just be.
  9. Spend time alone at home. Reacquaint yourself with your home environment by being in it or moving thru it alone.  When we share space with others, we often agree explicitly or implicitly to let them shape and inhabit the space we live in. As a result, we often find ourselves unconsciously accommodating to their presence in one way or another.  Being alone in your living space can allow you to experience it and yourself anew.

Diving In? Reflections On Fear

by Cindy Trawinski, Psy.D.

It seems we are all either facing fear or acting in the face of our fears these days. A once simple trip to the grocery store is now a strategic undertaking that requires serious reflection on how much personal protection I will need. A recent conversation with colleagues reminded me of this post, from a couple years back, about facing fear, negotiating edges and learning from the process regardless of the outcome.  I hope you will find it prompts contemplation.  I would love to hear how you are doing with your fears.

I have a favorite analogy I like to use when talking to myself or clients about approaching decisions, people, situations, things that we fear. I remember what it was like to first try jumping off a diving board. For many of us, that is a childhood experience that we can relate to, if not recall vividly.

I conjure up the scene in my mind, seeing the diving board from the part of the pool that is familiar and known. I remember the mix of competing interests, excitement and reservations about taking the theoretical — and actual leap! And then, I think through the physical process of walking towards the diving board, grabbing hold of the railings, stepping onto the first rung of the ladder, climbing to the top, tentatively letting go of the railings, standing wobbly kneed and unsupported, aware of the others behind or below on the ground.

Some of us ran down to the end of the board and leaped in a wave of both panic and exhilaration. Some of us, stood silently and contemplated the distance to the edge of the board to the water below. Some teared up. Some said “no” softly, and backed down the ladder. Some, approached then backed away from the edge repeatedly, marshaling courage at the ladder and then being overcome by dread at the edge. Some, finally, though gripped with fear, managed to inch to the edge of the board and weakly drop off.

We face our fears and cross our edges in many different ways. Approaching the edge between what is known and unknown or what we feel we can do and what we do not yet know that we can do is a universal experience. If you doubt this, watch this amazing video.

Are we able to be who we want to see ourselves as?  Do we dare to cross an edge to be something more or different than we already believe ourselves to be? Can we go against the nerve-wracking physical responses, the ingrained social messages or the barely detectable beliefs that lie just out of sight but have a tight hold on us? Or is it even right for us to cross a particular edge at this moment? Can we say no to the peer pressure to “just do it” and back away from some challenges?  Some times it takes more strength to accept our limitations and give credence to the risks we are taking than to close our eyes and jump.  How we negotiate our fear and each edge we face has the potential to leave us feeling victorious or defeated, wise or reckless, self-possessed or regretful — but hopefully we learn something about ourselves along the way.

Each new fear can be an opportunity to cross an edge and go beyond our known identity, although that is not always the point. As we get close the edge, we start to learn about the barriers that keep us from crossing into to new territory. Sometimes we need to honor our fear and back away. And sometimes we must cross the same edge again and again to gain real familiarity with that passage and truly get it into our bones. These are difficult calls.  Each time we negotiate an edge, we can learn what is new in the world beyond who or what we know or believe ourselves to be.  All of it is an important part of the learning we do in approaching what we fear. We can look to the other side but nothing and no one can tell us what the experience of being at or crossing any particular edge will be like and what we will discover once there.

And Just like That, Everything’s Changed

by Julie Diamond, Ph.D.

Last Tuesday, I emailed attendees who were signed up for my workshop at the end of the month, letting them know we intended to hold it.

Twelve hours later, we cancelled it.

We’re in a strange new reality. For most of us, it’s like nothing we’ve experienced in our lifetime. For others, this is not new; you have lived through other crises, SARS or HIV/AIDS, raging wildfires, military coups and war, refugee crises.

Crises get unequal attention around the globe. COVID 19 garners global attention because of its level of disruption and global impact, yet many other crises and tragedies have a greater human cost, without the world mobilizing its resources to respond.

But this disruption is unprecedented in its impact on human lives, not just those who become sick or lose loved ones, but a massive economic impact that will be felt for years. It could be that more people die because of hunger, lack of access to resources, violence, or isolation than will die of the virus.

It’s scary and unprecedented. But, I have to keep reminding myself, it’s also normal.

Normal? Yes. Because what is not normal is expecting things to continue, without disruption, without crisis.

Let me explain.

About 15 years ago, my parents came to visit me in Oregon during a particularly rainy week in July. One day, after what felt like the 100th game of gin rummy, I suggested to my Dad that we go outside, and sit on the porch under the awning.

My Dad was getting older, and I was aware I wouldn’t have much time left with him. I wanted to make sure that before I lost him, I knew his life: what he felt, what he was proud of, what he regretted, his struggles and successes. And I also wanted to know about my relatives long gone. Dad was the last link to my ancestors, shadowy figures in my mind. What were their stories? What were the lives behind those names I grew up hearing, names that seemed so odd and old fashioned to my young ears: Arnold, Gertrude, Tillie, Ruth, and Florence?

So there we sat, under the dripping eaves, my Dad with a cup of coffee in his lap, and me, balancing a legal pad on my knees. I asked questions and Dad talked. We sat for hours, even as it started to get dark, my father telling me story after story about uncles, aunts, grandparents and great grandparents. And while Dad talked, I scribbled down notes, notes I still have, filed away somewhere in my file cabinet.

Hearing the stories of these people was a revelation. Not because any of them were special or did amazing things. Far from it. They were ordinary people, who lived ordinary lives. It was a revelation because each and everyone of them had the exact same story. And it went like this:

  1. [Insert name] was born in [city, small village in the old country] with nothing but the shirt on his/her back, and $5 dollars, not speaking English
  2. She/he worked hard/found a job/went to college/got married
  3. Then lost everything because of
  4. Pogroms/First World War/Depression/Second World War/Holocaust/polio/mental illness/fire
  1. Then recovered, and went into business/got married and had four children/opened up a grocery store/sold shoes
  2. Then lost everything again because of
  3. Illness/bankruptcy/war/divorce/death of a spouse or child
  4. Then recovered and started all over again. Or not.

Up and down. Gained it and then lost it. Fled violence and poverty, started a new life, then died in the war. Put himself through school working night shifts as a janitor, started a business, and then lost it all in the Depression. Married a childhood sweetheart and then lost him or her to cancer or polio or mental illness.

Each and every one, made a life and lost it. Built something and then had to start from scratch. Up and down. Sometimes two or three times in one lifespan.

Sitting there, on the porch in the July rain, it struck me that this was normal. My life was not.

I didn’t feel lucky, though. I felt uneasy. It was sobering. Because at that moment, three things struck me with utter clarity:

  1. What I’ve come to expect, that my life will be free from crisis or massive disruption, and that my gains will continue, is not at all certain. In fact….
  2. It’s just a matter of time before probability catches up with me. It’s not that things could happen, they will. Because that little dot that is me, on the graph of x (time) and y (place) in history is such an unlikely occurrence, so statistically improbable, that yes, it was just a matter of time. My life is the exception not the rule, and the rule is pandemics, wars, depression, and  immigration. And this made me realize that
  3. I was not prepared.

Many of you readers, and millions of people across the globe live through these ups and downs. But for some, like me, you may not have had anything of this magnitude impact your lives so immediately and intensely.

That afternoon on the porch with my Dad changed me. I began to think more seriously about what could happen to disrupt my life. What could I lose? What do I take for granted? And most important, how prepared am I to do without?

Here’s what those ancestors whispered to me:

  • Any success is not permanent, nor is it certain.
  • Starting over again is inevitable.
  • Prepare for difficulty, always. That doesn’t mean stocking up on toilet paper. It means be mentally prepared to lose, to have to start over again, from scratch.
  • Be ready to live without: without the routines you think you can’t live without. Without luxuries. Without comforts, and without your loved ones.

My ancestors were a tough and scrappy lot. They came to a new country with no money, no relatives or friends, not speaking the language. They fought hard and toughed it out. So, preparing for difficulties doesn’t mean giving up easily. Work hard and fight for what you want, but also be prepared to let it go.

With that in mind, I intend to use this time of isolation wisely, to improve at something, to do something I’ve been putting off, to get better at living without. I hope you, too, use this time wisely and well.

Ryan Holiday wrote in his Daily Stoic newsletter last week,”Don’t let the possible weeks or months of isolation be for nothing. … The version of you who steps out of quarantine at some future date can be better than the version that entered it, if you try.”

Be kind to yourself, and be good to each other. If you have the privilege of a salary, or can easily work from home, be grateful, but also see what you can do to help out hourly workers who may lose their paychecks, or those who still have to go to work and are more exposed.

Schools are closed. Is there something you can do to help people who have to choose between caring for children or working?

In the United States a staggering ⅔ of school children, 22 million children, depend on free school lunch for their food. Is there some way you can help out, donate, or drop off food supplies?

The elderly are advised to stay home and not have visitors. How about starting a phone tree, engaging your friends and family to call people who may be feeling isolated or anxious. Offer to pick up and drop off groceries.

Fear is normal. And I know my ancestors were afraid at times but they did not let anxiety or fear get the best of them. They soldiered on. Which is why I’m here. And though we have no control over the virus, we do have control over how we respond.

I know that my ancestors would heartily agree with Tom Hanks, quarantined in Australia with COVID 19, who reminded us all in his Instagram post: “There’s no crying in baseball.”

Be well, everyone.

And as always, thank you for reading.

– Julie

To subscribe to Julie’s newsletter, click here.

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.”

Polyphobia: Anti-Polyamorous Prejudice and Discrimination

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lose Friends, Family, & Social Connections

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

Lose Jobs

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

Lose Child Custody

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

Lose Housing

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

Selective Enforcement

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

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


My One Problem

Arch reflected in waterby Cindy Trawinski

It is always foolish to oversimplify complex problems. Nonetheless from the viewpoint of the Dreaming, regardless of the complexity of your life, you can have only one problem – ignoring the Dreaming background to reality. Ignoring the Dreaming means marginalizing the deepest unformulated experiences that create your actions in everyday life. Every time you ignore the sentient, that is, generally unrecognized dreamlike perceptions, something inside of you goes into a mild form of shock because you have overlooked the spirit of life, your greatest potential power.

Arnold Mindell, Ph.D., Dreaming While Awake

I love this quote from Arnold Mindell, founder of process-oriented psychology also know as process work. .

It reminds me of the importance of awareness. It nudges me to be more curious and to open to the subtle disturbances I sometimes overlook. It helps me remember that, underneath my emotions, thoughts and beliefs, is an exquisitely responsive inner ecosystem. It reminds me that I too am an animal, a part of nature and that nature is moving through me. When I lose my connection to the deeper nature, when I step over my reactions or am lulled into the rhythm of my everyday experiences or identities, there may be a part of me that goes into a kind of altered state.

Learning how this happens specifically for me means, in part, learning what kinds of experiences I tend to marginalize, ignore or avoid. Discovering what kinds of events tend to pull me away from my awareness and what awareness I pull away from is a lifetime’s practice that I am only just beginning. But it is one that calls me forward.

Dreaming Our Way Into the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rainbow hearts
Photo by Matias Rengel on Unsplash

by Cindy Trawinski, PsyD

This post was first published for Valentine’s Day, but contains suggestions for every holiday and celebration.

Navigating Valentine’s Day can be tricky, especially if you’re single, or if your relationship falls outside the margins of heteronormative monogamy. As the 14th approaches, you might feel like you can’t escape ads selling jewelry by reinforcing the gender binary or promotions trying to push pricey dinner dates for two.

But, even as you feel frustrated by Valentine’s Day traditions, you might still want to enjoy some of the connection and romance the holiday promises. After all, life is hectic, and when else do you have such a solid excuse to turn off your cell phone and make time for love?

No matter what your relationship looks like—or whether you’re in a relationship at all—you don’t have to compromise your identity and values to celebrate. Here are some ways you can create a fun, inclusive, alternative Valentine’s Day of your own.

Make It a Valentine’s Weekend or Week

Don’t limit yourself to February 14th. Extend your celebration to allow ample time with all your loved ones.

If you’re polyamorous—and especially if your metamours aren’t close—forget scheduling one over-packed day and dedicate an evening to each of your partners.

You can also claim extra time to celebrate Pal-entine’s Day with your friends. After all, despite how much our culture prioritizes romances, platonic relationships can be some of the most important in our lives.

And, don’t hesitate to take time off for yourself.

No matter who you make plans with, shut down the computer, hide the smartphone and create space for connection.

Swap the Traditional Valentine’s Gifts for a Getaway

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with flowers, chocolates, jewelry and teddy bears. But unfortunately, what they usually lack in personal touch, they too often make up for in gendered baggage.

Forget the standard gifts and save your money for an experience you’ll remember. Use the time you’ve set aside to take a romantic weekend somewhere that you and your partner(s) or friends have always wanted to go.

You can also opt for a secluded winter retreat where you’re unlikely to be disturbed. Or, try a stay-cation and explore a part of your city you might not always see. Take a hike along the lakefront or try exploring one of the many parks and forest preserves that Chicago has to offer. Take a morning off for a trip to a museum or ice rink. Try a comedy club or music venue you have never been to. Explore. Have an adventure!

Or stay in and share a meal you love. Have a Pal-entine dinner or brunch. Indulge a bit in creating a true sensory experience by using special spices or recipes that you may not have made time for yet. Cooking with others can be a wonderful way to collaborate and create together.

Whatever you choose, let go of the pressure to follow the Valentine’s script and do something that nurtures your soul.

Take a Sex-Positive Workshop

For all of the sexual innuendos and promises of romance, it can feel like Valentine’s Day doesn’t leave much room for genuine sexual expression, especially for those who identify as queer, kinky and non-monogamous.

For a Valentine’s Day that combats external and internal oppression and celebrates sex in all its forms, head to a sex-positive workshop. Whether you’re single or in a relationship, look for a class that speaks to your questions or desires.

For example, you and a partner might spend an evening learning new bondage techniques. Or, maybe there’s a class that can help you with communicating your sexual needs.

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

Find a Local Dance Night, Show or Event That Celebrates Your Community

Instead of spending the night alone or holed away with your partner(s), why not celebrate with others who want an alternative Valentine’s Day? Whether you identify as part of the LGBTQ+, kink and/or poly communities, or if you are just exploring those identities, heading to an inclusive event can be as rewarding as it is fun.

For example, look for an alt-queer dance night or a sex-positive burlesque show. From art shows to open mics, there’s plenty you can attend solo, with a partner or with a group.

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

Combat Loneliness Through Volunteering

For many people, the idea of Valentine’s Day conjures more loneliness than love or joy. But, whether you’re lonely this year or want to remind others that someone cares, volunteering is a great way to build community and create connection.

Dedicate some time to reaching out to marginalized groups that too often go forgotten. Check out Pink and Black, an organization that connects LGBTQ+ prisoners to pen pals.

Or, learn more about SAGE, a national organization dedicated to advocacy and services for LGBT elders. You can sign up to volunteer for SAGE’s LGBT Elder Hotline and provide support to callers who feel isolated and vulnerable. (This volunteer position requires training.)

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

Focus on Love, Including Love for Yourself

At this time of year, it can be too easy to get so caught up in your relationships with others that you neglect your relationship with yourself.

For an alternative take on Valentine’s day, direct some of that love inward. Let go of feelings of guilt or worries about appearing selfish. Set aside solitary time in an environment that brings you calm and energy. Sit quietly with your thoughts, embracing the fullness of your experience without judgment.

Or, indulge in a hobby or luxury that renews your energy and brings you joy. Take a bath or indulge in a spa experience, try a flotation tank or yoga class, go for a hike, work on that art project—whatever it is that helps you feel alive and connected to all that you are.

The love we have for others is a powerful thing. But the love we hold for ourselves is the work and reward of a lifetime. Cherish you and take time to appreciate who you are!

Marginalization and Disclosure: Social Challenges Facing Polyamorists

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

by Rami Henrich, LCSW and Cindy Trawinski, PsyD

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

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

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

Internalized Marginalization

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

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

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

Institutionalized Marginalization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.