Children in Polyamorous Families Part 4

Photo Credit: The R Family-2 by Rebecca VC1 via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

by Elisabeth A. Sheff Ph.D., CASA, CSE

In this fourth part of the series on children in polyamorous families I offer a sneak peek into my preliminary findings from my ongoing research on poly families with kids. Part one explains the age-dependent experiences that children experience in polyamorous families, part two of this series explores the advantages and disadvantages these kids report, and part three lists four of the strategies these kids use to deal with disadvantages. This fourth blog in the series details my emerging findings about some of the emotional impacts, creating community, relationships, and sexuality for the young adults (18 – 25 years old) in my 20-year study.

Missing Persons
When I began the study in 1996, I fully expected that (when I could finally talk to children – it took me years to get IRB permission) kids from these families would tell me that the primary disadvantage was getting emotionally attached to parents’ partners and then being heartbroken when the adults break up and the kids don’t get to see the ex-partner any more. Although some kids reported missing their parent’s former partners, it was not the primary disadvantage they identified. To my surprise, the children reported missing their parents’ ex’s children much more than missing their parents’ ex-partners. The kids explained that they would hang out together and have fun kid sleepovers in one part of the house while the parents had an adult sleepover in a different part of the house, so the kids spent more time (and had more fun) together than they spent interacting with the adults. If the relationship broke up, it was primarily the other children’s company they missed.

Creating Community
Young adults from polyamorous families noted their ability to create emotionally intimate relationships where ever they went.
This provides a sense of safety and connection for these budding adults when leaving home for college, a new job, or a move to a new city. While remaining connected to their parents and friends from home, they reported that they could establish new community connections and recreate their own social safety net. Even though these young adults learned relationship skills from a specific romantic configuration among the adults, the grown kids transfer the skills to other (often non-romantic) relationships and build emotionally intimate friendship networks wherever they go.

Relationships & Sexuality
Characteristic of others in their age group, these young adults express quite a bit more gender and sexual fluidity than their parents and have much less love for labels. While all but two of the older-adult respondents from the study are cisgender (not transgender, comfortable with the same gender they were assigned at birth) heterosexuals or bisexuals, some of their children identify as non-binary gender, genderqueer, or transgender. Almost all of the young adults in the sample identify as pansexual and/or queer (even if their experience has been primarily or solely heterosexual), with a few identifying as gay or asexual.

Only two of the young adults I have spoken with so far this round label themselves as polyamorous. One other identifies as asexual/aromantic and does not anticipate having sexual relationships, polyamorous or monogamous. The rest do not identify with a specific relationship label, and instead have a flexible attitude that their romantic relationship will evolve in response to their partner’s and their own needs. It may be open at one point, monogamous at another, polyfidelitous initially and then become polyamorous, or whatever the situation and people involved require. For these young adults, polyamory is but one of the many relationship styles they could consider, and they are in no hurry to identify with a label or create permanent boundaries at this early stage in adult life.

Social Implications
In the US today, very few people grow up with a mother who only does unpaid work at home (“stay-at-home mother”) and a father who works for pay to support the entire family financially, and who remain married in a monogamous/sexually faithful relationship until one of them dies. Even though we think of this as “the” traditional family, it is not reality today for most people who grow up with parents who work for pay, single parents, or blended families that combine kids with new/step/adoptive parents and step/half/adoptive siblings. Ironically, “the” traditional family was not even the reality of most people in the hallowed 1950s: Poor and working class women have always worked for pay outside the home, parents have always died and left single-parents raising children or orphans, and people (especially men) have always cheated on their partners and flouted the rules of monogamy.

Now, the US has experienced broad changes in everything from increased life-expectancy and the availability of birth control to women’s greater legal equality and economic imperatives requiring multiple incomes to sustain a family. These changes have resulted in many people abandoning classical monogamy in favor of serial monogamy, remaining single, and a range of other options including consensual non-monogamy. Family diversity both results from and creates social change. Divorce – which used to be anathema, something to hide and speak of only in whispers, reason enough not to have a child over to play or attend a birthday party – is now so mundane that it provides a convenient social excuse for why a child has multiple parents. Instead of hiding it in shame or hoping no one notices, kids from poly families can rely on divorce as such a plausible explanation for multiple adults in their lives that teachers, coaches, and peers’ parents don’t even ask about it and simply assume the parents are divorced and get along well with each-others’ new spouses.

Even though these significant social changes have created a wide array of different families, they have not been sufficiently reflected in current laws. Until fairly recently, sex and gender minorities have not enjoyed the legal recognition accorded to cisgender heterosexual married couples. In the last 20 years that has been changing, and same-sex marriage has created marriage equality for some. The new cutting edge of family law and sexuality has moved to the custody of children from other sex and gender minority parents, including polyamorous families. In my next blog, I explore custody of children from polyamorous families.

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Fluidity and Growth

Photo Credit: fluid by wiloma via Flickr CC BY 2.0

by Pat Cochran, PsyD

“My aim is to bring about a psychic state in which my patient begins to experiment with his [or her] own nature, as a state of fluidity, change or growth where nothing is eternally fixed, or hopelessly petrified.”

What an interesting approach: experimenting with one’s own nature.  I think most of us would consider our nature to be rather fixed, even inborn, yet Jung speaks here of it as something that can become fluid, can change and grow. 

This is an essentially optimistic point of view, but it was not derived from a shortage or evasion of suffering; rather Jung’s belief was honed out of his engagement with the psychological trials he faced over many years.  He speaks to the inescapable drive towards meaning and wholeness inherent in every human–a potential goal for all of us–what Jung described as the process of individuation. 

Individuation is the process by which the personal and collective unconscious are brought into consciousness to reveal one’s whole personality. This is no small task. It requires facing, wrestling with and ultimately integrating who we are, even those aspects we have denied , disavowed or rejected.

To do so, what individuation requires, more than anything else, is a respectful, and possibly even reverential, attention to the entire story.  How we develop an attitude of respect and curiosity for our own unique, multi-faceted nature is a process in itself. Therapy, Jungian analysis in particular, can be a way to develop the skills and attitudes needed to approach individuation.

If you are interested in learning more about Jungian analysis, or would like to talk to a therapist to learn more, please call 847-568-1100.

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Loving Bravely – Book Review

by Danielle Carlson, AMFT

Clients are often interested in ways that they can do their own self-awareness and relationship work outside of their weekly hour of therapy. A great way to do this is by reading books that help you explore your inner experience and the relationships in your life.

With that in mind, I am really excited to share with you all a book that I had the pleasure to help create with it’s author Dr. Alexandra Solomon. The book is Loving Bravely: 20 Lessons of Self-Discovery to Help You Get the Love You Want. Dr. Solomon is a staff clinical psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, and her decades of experiences working with couples and individuals to strengthen their relationships lead her to writing this unique and refreshing book.

What I love about Loving Bravely is that unlike many dating books that encourage you to turn your focus to the people you are trying to find, Dr. Solomon helps her readers tune into their own internal wisdom and develop a deeper understanding of their past relationships and their current patterns and desires. The book takes readers through different areas of both individual self-awareness and relational self-awareness to become more resilient and confident in their search for and experience of love and relationships. It’s like the process of therapy, distilled into a book/workbook experience.

This is a great book for those who are looking for a more satisfying and deeper next relationship, and for those who are currently in a relationship and hoping to break unhealthy patterns and deepen their connection to their partner(s). In an easy and personal writing style, each chapter reveals Dr. Solomon’s wisdom about key areas of relationships, and then gives readers exercises to work with to apply these lessons in their own life. The book was written to allow the lessons to be applied to many types of relationships, from LBGTQ partners to non-monogamous relationships — even to even family and friends!

Dr. Solomon has distilled years of her own wisdom, as well as that of her colleagues and clients, into twenty lessons that each have the power to bring depth and clarity to the reader’s life and loves. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed working on it!

To read a chapter, click here.

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10 Things Happy Couples Do Differently

Kent Julian is a professional speaker and business owner.  This slide show is an adaptation of his original post on his website, Live It Forward.

Photo Credits:
Photo 1 – A Smile Shared by Chi Tranter via Flickr CC CC BY 2.0
Photo 2 – couple by bambe1964 via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0
Photo 3 – couple by mrhayata via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
Photo 4 – couple in living room smiling by Richard Foster via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
Photo 5 – Couple by Paula Satijn via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0
Photo 6 – couple of reflections by Roving-Aye! via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
Photo 7 – 20040524 Sweet Love by skryche via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
Photo 8 – Couple in Montmartre by Soreen D via Flickr CC BY 2.0
Photo 9 – gay couple by Blavou – Wedding Photography via Flickr CC BY 2.0
Photo 10 – Couple by mrhayata via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
Photo 11 – Couple by Emily Cox via Flickr CC BY 2.0

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Children in Polyamorous Families Part 3

Photo Credit: Family 0158 by mliu92 via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

by Elisabeth A. Sheff Ph.D., CASA, CSE

This is the third in a series of blogs on children in polyamorous families. The first looked at the age dependent experiences of children in polyamorous families and why they appear to be doing so well, and the second detailed the advantages and disadvantages these children identified in poly family life. Third in the series, this blog explains four strategies these kids use to deal with the disadvantages found in poly family life, including blending in, being careful who they told about their families, avoiding the issue completely, and negotiating with parents.

1. Pass as Divorced Family
Because polyamorous families are not that easy to recognize for most people, kids from these families do not have to do a lot of work explain their families. In many large cities in the US, two is no longer the standard number of parents: Kids of single parents often have one, and kids with divorced parents can have multiple step- or quasi- parents and half-, step-, or quasi- siblings as well. With gay, single, divorced, and adoptive parents now commonplace, polyamorous families often blend in as divorced families that get along well. If teachers and coaches make that assumption, the children from those families usually do not correct the adult’s misinterpretation.

2. Selective Disclosure
Generally, kids from poly families do not have much challenge controlling that information or distracting their peers from inconvenient questions. When kids decide to talk to their peers about it, they tend to find friends who will be open to the idea of an unconventional family. Sometimes these friends come from single, divorced, or gay families and so already understand who it is like to be outside of the narrowly defined traditional family. At other times, the friend is simply open-minded and trustworthy, regardless of their family background.

For the children I interviewed, telling their friends about their poly families usually turned out to be of little consequence, just not a big deal. Their peers just don’t seem to care what the adults are doing. Most of the time, the kid from the poly family has been able to get some idea of how their friend might react, and if the poly family kid thinks the friend will react negatively then they usually don’t mention the fact that they come from a poly family. Instead they will not talk about their parents’ partners or call them “Mom’s friends” or something vague, and then change the subject.

3. Meet Friends at the Mall
Younger kids generally don’t have to explain their families to their friends because the friends are no more aware of adult sexual dynamics than they are – the kids are focused on the snacks and games, and the adults exist only as delivery mechanisms for said food and fun. Tweens and especially teens are much more aware of adult relationships, and sometimes these older kids in poly families did not feel like explaining their mom’s girlfriend. In order to sidestep the entire issue of who is that person, these older kids would meet their friends in public spaces like the park or mall. If hanging out at home was in order, these kids would often go to their friends’ homes — unless and until it was worth disclosing the poly family status and bringing a friend to their own home.

4. Negotiate Sleepover Supremacy
When kids wanted to have friends over, especially for a slumber party, they would often negotiate to have their party take priority over any slumber party the parents might want to have with their partners. For that Saturday night, the partners must sleep at their own place, or in their own room as a room-mate, or whatever does not require explanation to the young guests. By passing as friends, going home after dinner, or simply being absent, parents and their partners can side step any need for explanation, and the kids can just have fun.

Elisabeth A. Sheff Ph.D., CASA, CSE author of The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families (2014 hardback and ebook, 2015 paperback and audiobook), details Sheff’s findings from the first 15 years of the Polyamorous Families Study.

Summation
Taken as a whole, these findings indicate four important points relevant to children growing up in polyamorous families. First, for the vast majority of the respondents in my study, the advantages of polyamorous family life significantly outweigh the disadvantages. While polyamorous family life may come with three complexities and scheduling headaches, it appears to be well worth it to the people who sustain those relationships over time, and the kids they raise. Second, all of the disadvantages inherent in polyamorous family life are also present in other blended families as well: Kids in other large families feel crowded too, all kinds of families face various stigmas, and divorced people date people who break up and go away. In other words, there are no disadvantages that are specific to polyamorous families. Third, there are, in fact, advantages that are specific to polyamorous families. These include things like a wider social safety net and the relationship skills to maintain it. Fourth and perhaps most importantly, polyamorous families can provide healthy, loving, stable environments in which children can thrive.

This is not to say that all poly families are perfect – obviously they have problems like all families. It is, however, proof against some critics charges that all polyamorous families are pathological and dysfunctional simply by nature of being a polyamorous family. Instead, it is clear that polyamorous families headed by stable and responsible adults with loving and compassionate relationships provide many benefits to the children they nurture. The next blog in this series provides a sneak peek at the emerging findings from the fourth wave of data collection regarding young adults who have been raised in poly families, and the final blog in this series looks at custody of children in poly families.

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How to Establish Sexual Values

by Melissa Fritchle, LMFT

This post was published by Sexology International, and can be found here.

Melissa Fritchle is a licensed marriage and family therapist, sex therapist and sex educator in Santa Cruz, CA. Her focus is holistic, always honoring the integration of the mind, body and spirit and diversity. She is adjunct faculty for two Bay Area graduate programs in Counseling Psychology and travels in the US & internationally to provide workshops and trainings. In 2011, she was awarded the Sexual Intelligence award for her groundbreaking work providing sex positive training for counselors and caregivers in Uganda. She has also worked in Kenya with a group of priests and nuns addressing sex positive approaches to sexual issues within the clergy. Melissa is the author The Conscious Sexual Self Workbook and writes an ongoing blog on sex and relationships. www.mf-therapy.com.  

When it comes to sex and sexuality, everyone has an opinion. Some affix their ideas to a personal or political agenda; others use convenient generalizations to further less noble pursuits—to encourage people to buy pretty French lingerie or pricey sports cars, for example. Living amid such disparate voices and agendas, it is not surprising that many people struggle to establish a unique set of personal sexual values – i.e. a set of beliefs about what is right for them sexually. The value of doing so, however, cannot be underestimated.

Establishing a personal code of beliefs concerning your own sexuality is an essential part of assuming responsibility for yourself as a sexual being. To know what you want and what you do not want – and why – is critical to becoming a fully realized sexual being. That knowledge brings with it many benefits. For one, making choices that feel right for you is empowering and pleasurable.

Melissa Fritchle, LMFT author of The Conscious Sexual Self Workbook

Over the years, I have travelled around the world and had the opportunity to listen to hundreds of people share their experiences, and beliefs surrounding sex and sexuality. That experience has only confirmed my belief in the merits of diversity of sexual experience, expression and understanding. Each of us has our own influences, intentions and needs related to sexuality. Consequently, it is wise to first look within when it comes to establishing an authentic set of sexual values.

Here are five suggestions to help you begin the process of establishing your own sexual values.

ONE: Start from a positive foundation

Sexuality is a natural part of being human and should not be a source of shame. Begin by owning – even honoring – the ability to feel pleasure and the natural desire for connection. At the same time, understand that such self-knowledge does not necessarily require active expression. You do not need to be sexually active to honor your sexual nature. I have counseled priests and nuns whose simple acknowledgement of the reality of their sexual energies made the decision to live a celibate life both more manageable and authentic. With such understanding, celibacy then becomes a choice rather than a torment and that vital energy can be channeled into other areas.

TWO: Write your sexual autobiography

Who are you sexually? Who do you want to be? Before you answer these questions, pause for reflection. Start by sitting down and writing your sexual autobiography from past to present. Read it over and consider how each episode felt both then and now. While there is value in comparing notes with friends, family and romantic partner(s) and talking about your feelings, there is greater value in getting to know your own personal thoughts and feelings about your individual experiences. A journal allows you to assume authority over your story, which is integral to assuming some measure of authority over your present and future.

THREE: Reflect on past influences

You cannot move forward without first looking back. Part of your journaling experience should include considering how your childhood formed some of your ideas concerning sex and sexuality. As children, we are primed to absorb information rapidly and without much filtering. This allows us to grow and learn in amazingly quick fashion, as anyone with young children can see. But as we grow, we can carry forward old, unexamined beliefs — other people’s ideas about what constitutes healthy sexuality or moral sexual behavior, for example—that are well past their “best-before” date. Lessons learned in childhood run deep, and are often blended in with survival lessons and their incumbent urgency. Sometimes, these old inherited beliefs can feel unconscious or automatic. Do not just carry them forward out of habit. Ask yourself if you fundamentally believe in the values you have lived by or adhered to in the past. If so, carry them forward. If not, leave them in the past.

FOUR: Listen to your body

The body has many intricate systems to help us make sense of the world and guard ourselves against harm. Our emotional responses, “gut feelings,” anxieties, fears and intuition, all provide us with valuable knowledge, sometimes well before we can put our feelings into language. Save yourself some time and pay attention to your intuition. It will give you crucial insight into what feels right for you.

FIVE: Educate yourself

Question. Be curious. Do not settle for pat generalizations about sex, especially those that suggest that all people are the same or that gender exists as a singular monolith devoid of individuation, for example. An understanding of your own preferences and desires will only be enhanced by real knowledge about the human body and sexual processes, so seek out scientific studies, research and expert advice. A solid resource to accompany you on your journey is the guidebook, The Conscious Sexual Self Workbook, which has journaling prompts and exercises designed to help you get to know the key player in your sexual life – you.

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Shadow

by Pat Cochran, PsyD

“. . . [F]or the inferior and even the worthless belongs to me as my shadow and gives me substance and mass.  How can I be substantial without casting a shadow?  I must have a dark side too if I am to be whole, and by becoming conscious of my shadow I remember once more I am a human being like any other.  At any rate, if this rediscovery of my own wholeness remains private, it will only restore the earlier condition from which the neurosis, i.e., the split-off complex sprang.  Privacy prolongs my isolation and the damage is only partially mended.  But through confession I throw myself into the arms of humanity again, freed at last from the burden of moral exile.  The goal of the cathartic method is full confession–not merely the intellectual recognition of the facts with the head, but their confirmation by the heart and the actual release of suppressed emotion.”  (Problems of Modern Psychotherapy, CW16, para. 134)

This quote of Jung’s is meaningful in a number of ways, but foremost among them is the way in which Jung focuses on the positive, or purposive, aspect of the shadow.  I grew up believing the “inferior and worthless” things about myself were shameful and therefore needed to be hidden from others.  But here Jung speaks to how engagement with the shadow is necessary for wholeness, and further, that when one gains an emotional connection to those unwanted parts, the result is a restoration of relationship to one’s self, others, and indeed to all of humanity.  The cathartic method he speaks of here is the process of analysis, through which I have personally experienced such a restoration, and in being an analyst, have been honored to witness my analysands’ journey into wholeness and relationship as well.

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Children in Polyamorous Families Part 2

by Elisabeth A. Sheff Ph.D., CASA, CSE

In the first part of this series on children in polyamorous families, I explained how these kids have age-dependent experiences and why they appear to be doing so well in general. This second blog in the series details the advantages and disadvantages that children report in my study of polyamorous families.

Advantages
Children and young adults in the study mention a range of advantages associated with growing up in a polyamorous family. These include both practical and emotional advantages.

Practical
Kids of all ages from poly families emphasize the practical advantages above other aspects of having multiple adults in their lives. Small children enjoy the treats, toys, and trips to the playground that often come with adults who are trying to contribute positively to family life. Tweens appreciate the rides home from practice or the movies, as well as the help with homework. Teens also value help with homework, in addition to the option to ask a trusted adult — who is not a parent — for advice or assistance. Tweens and teens also appreciate the communication skills they see modeled and are able to practice, as well as the honest information they get from the adults in their lives.

All of the children enjoy the possibility of getting $5 from someone else when mom or dad did not have cash on hand. Children in each age category like the increased chance of fun pets that come with the various additional adults. Best of all, these kids get more birthday and holiday gifts because they have multiple adults (and potentially several sets of grandparents attached to these multiple adults) to shower them with goodies and take them on fun events.

Emotional
The kids and young adults I have interviewed often mention the emotional benefits of having multiple adults in their lives. For small children, it is the glee of having new people to play with and fresh adults with extra patience to play some of the games that their parents have long since grown tired. Tweens like having people home when they get home from school, rooting for them at sports competitions, and clapping for their performances in plays.

Teens value the different role models that multiple adults demonstrate in family life, and find the communication and emotional intimacy skills they built up as part of the polyamorous family style to be especially useful in creating meaningful connections with peers, lovers, and friends. They also value the emotional intimacy and trust they feel with their parents, something they see starkly lacking in many of their peers’ relationships with their parents that seem (to the kids from poly families) to be filled with suspicion, tension, and anger. Kids from poly families are also tense and angry sometimes too, but they feel that they can have conversations with their parents that would be unthinkable for their peers, and that level of honesty allows them to feel closer to and safer with their parents – even with the usual teenage angst.

Young adults view those emotional and communication skills as the greatest advantage to growing up in a polyamorous family, because they feel they are able to establish emotionally intimate relationships wherever they go. This provides an important buffer to the pain and loneliness that can sometimes come with leaving home for the first time. Even if they do leave home, they often retain emotional connection with their parents, and some of them return to a parental home after moving out for a while.

Disadvantages
In addition to advantages, kids growing up in polyamorous families mention a range of disadvantages as well. These include emotional disadvantages like social stigma, complexity, powerlessness, and practical disadvantages like too much supervision.

Practical
When polyamorous families with multiple adults and children combine to share living space, the children sometimes feel like they do not get enough privacy. Kids, and especially teens, complain that the adults get rooms to themselves — often with a bathroom attached — while the kids must share space and most likely do not have their own bathroom. Household overcrowding that can come with blending multiple adults and children works, so these kids feel, to the disadvantage of children who must share space.

Children growing up in a home with multiple adults have more people to watch out for what the kids are doing. Also, in polyamorous households, the adults are frequently in constant communication, so the child of poly parents who is trying to tell one adult a lie must be extra careful to tell the rest of the adults the exact same lie or the kids are likely to be discovered in their deceit. Too much supervision and the inability to get away with anything sneaky was at the top of many children’s lists of discontent with poly family life.

Emotional
Like children of other sex and gender minorities, kids with polyamorous parents sometimes have to deal with others’ reactions to their parents’ sexual relationships. Unlike children of parents in same-sex relationships, however, kids in poly families can very easily hide their family status, so they do not have to deal with it that often. Because polyamory is still fairly little known, members of the general public often do not recognize a polyamorous relationship in their midst and do not hold the children accountable for it. When people do recognize the poly family as a unit, however, it can create some problems for the family when that recognition then translates to stigma or discrimination. While it does not happen a lot, some children mentioned adults asking weird or probing questions that felt uncomfortable. One girl remembered her friend could not come over to play anymore, but thought that might be because her mother was a practicing Pagan rather than the polyamorous nature of the family which was not clear.

Some children disliked the complexity that came with their poly family, and a few expressed a desire to just be normal. Complexity came in a number of forms for these families, from having to think about who might be home before inviting peers over to the house after school to adults in the family who are distracted with their own relationship dramas. Extended family members sometimes notice complex interactions among adults in the poly family and, hesitant to ask the adults themselves, sometimes ask the children questions about what is happening in their household.

Like children in general who do not have the ability to control their own lives, some children in polyamorous families with they could exert more power to make their own decisions. The ones who wish for normalcy wish they could decide to be in a normal family. Others feel upset at no longer having contact with people who used to be in their lives and have moved on.

No Unique Disadvantages, Some Unique Advantages
It is important to point out a common theme in my findings: Polyamorous families experience disadvantage that appear in many other kinds of families. Families of all sorts experience parents that split up, friends who move away, people who die, household overcrowding, emotional complexity, kids who don’t have control over what the adults in their lives do, and managing sensitive information about the family. None of those are unique to poly families.

Other blended families also experience some of the same kinds of advantages found in poly family life. Grandma can provide a trusted companion and source of loving support, siblings from other parents can feel like full siblings regardless of biology, and families routinely adopt close friends as “aunt/uncle” even when there is no biological relationship. These wider family networks can provide support that is similar to what children from poly families experience.

What does appear to be unique to these families is the sense of emotional resilience and relational richness that comes from an honesty- and communication-intensive family life. This is not to say that other families do not have emotional intimacy or honest communication, but to underline the ways in which polyamorous families and communities can contribute to a unique set of skills, norms, and values that can prove quite useful in navigating life as a young adult.

In the third part of this series on I offer a sneak peek into my preliminary findings from my current and ongoing round of data collection for the 20th anniversary of the study.

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Green House Experiences & Insights

Jo Flannery, AMFT, leads the LifeWorks staff in playing the (Un)Becoming Game for her Green House final creative project (2016).

We are now accepting applications for the Green House 2018 Cohort. Launched in 2016, the Green House is LifeWorks’ postgraduate psychotherapy training program. Participants join us here in Chicago for 12 months of tuition-free learning and real-world clinical experience centered on self-development, individual supervision, and cultural competency.

Wondering if the Green House is right for you or someone you know? Get insight from those who have participated before (Informational Meeting on July 29 – get more info here). We spoke with several members of the previous years’ cohorts to learn firsthand about their experiences with the Green House—here’s what they had to say:

Sarah Hemphill, LCSW & Meryl Morris, LCSW of Green House Cohort 2 (2017).

Financial compensation for client hours: “I don’t know of any other program that provides that.”

With a plethora of training and mentoring options available to new therapists, what sets the Green House apart? According to participants, the difference lies in the program’s emphasis on creativity and individualized attention, as well as the fact that Green House clinicians engage in real, paid work with clients.

“The Green House pays those of us in the program for each client we see,” said one participant, who added:

“I had been searching for a way to hone my therapeutic skills without having to pay a school a small fortune or quit my full-time job. The Green House was able to meet that criteria and allow me to be a part of a team of dynamic therapists in a progressive practice. I am getting one-on-one weekly supervision, small group weekly training, and the chance to have a caseload of clients; I don’t know of any other program that provides that.”

The program’s compensation model, weekly supervision meetings and in-service training help newly licensed clinicians feel empowered and supported in their roles. One Green House member commented that her supervisors treat her “more like a colleague than an intern,” and that, as a member of the LifeWorks staff, her “voice and opinion matter.”

“The Green House gave me great supervision that’s really altered the way I function as a clinician, and helped me deepen my relationships with clients,” she said, and remarked that in addition to payment for client sessions, the Green House also provides participants with stipends and opportunities for ongoing learning at conferences and retreats.

2016 Green House Cohort 1: Ally Burque, LCSW; Jo Flannery, AMFT; Natalie A. Hock, LSW; Brandon Haydon,, LCSW

Multifaceted commitment: “Be ready to jump in with both feet.”

Participants are expected to commit to an average of 10-12 hours per week. This part-time obligation allows members of the Green House to ease into their clinical careers instead of fixating entirely on building a full caseload from day one. Nonetheless, said one participant, applicants should be ready to “jump in with both feet” and allot their time carefully in order to make the most of the program. Time management is essential if you also have a full-time job.

In contrast to other training opportunities, the Green House is designed to identify and celebrate clinicians’ unique identities and to enhance personal aptitudes and skills from within a depth psychotherapy perspective. The program does not prescribe a single model or approach for all participants to follow, but rather encourages intimate self-exploration of one’s own feelings, beliefs, biases, limitations, and strengths. Participants delve into these topics with their supervisors, as well as through assignments such as the year-end creative learning project.

The experience of self-exploration, a Green House clinician told us, was both exceptionally rewarding and emotionally challenging:

“The culmination of our development was a creative project to encompass our learning. It was really challenging, because it was creative—I had to challenge myself to share something expressive and also convey my professional identity. We shared these things with the whole practice, not just with peer group. It was a perfect blend of being seen as individuals and also underscoring who we were as therapists. Everyone’s project was dramatically different.”

Rami Henrich, LCSW facilitates a discussion on therapist identity with the Green House Cohort.

Building confidence and cultural competence: “If you’re here, you can do it.”

Created by LifeWorks Psychotherapy Center, the Green House curriculum reflects the practice’s deeply held values of inclusion and diversity in all its forms.

The Green House explicitly helps participants develop specific therapeutic skills and cultural competence with clients in marginalized communities. Clinicians learn to deepen their understanding of issues affecting those who actively identify as or are exploring sexual identities such as lesbian, gay, and bisexual; gender identities such as trans and genderqueer; relationship configurations related to non-monogamy (e.g. open, swinging, poly affective, and polyamorous relationships) and erotic identities such as kink and BDSM.

Many of the program’s participants identify or have had experience with one or more of the populations mentioned above, but extensive prior knowledge of alternative sexuality and minority identities is not a prerequisite for applicants. Clinicians of all backgrounds and levels of experience are welcome.

Differences notwithstanding, Green House participants have at least one attribute in common: a desire to learn, grow and contribute personally and professionally.

“Don’t underestimate what you have to offer because you’re in a fellowship,” one clinician said. He advised applicants to “open to the process” and “be ready to run into your own biases and limitations, and also to engage with those of your peers”:

“Everyone who comes in, regardless of their level of experience, has something to offer to the group.”

“Coming in, you feel really nervous,” another acknowledged. “Am I a real therapist? Am I working with clients? If you’re here, you can do it.”

Learn more about the Green House and apply for the 2018 program here.

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Assertive Communication 101: Finding Your Voice

by Morgan Concepcion, LCPC

I am passionate about interpersonal boundaries, and in my experience to have good boundaries, telling others about them is imperative! 

Assertive communication is crucial to being able to set, clarify, and protect your boundaries as well as consider the impact of boundaries in relationships.  I am passionate about assertive communication. I speak to clients about it regularly and wanted to reach a broader audience with some of what I have learned.

Can you recognize assertiveness?

Below are different examples of the same words, each expressing a different communication style. Which, do you think, is most assertive?

  1. Could you pass me the salt?
  2. Pass the salt.
  3. Can you share the salt over, here, please?
  4. Please pass the salt.

(Body language, including gestures and tone of voice, is also key to assertiveness and I will include these points later in the article.) 

Key to Assertive Communication

Notice how you might react to each of these statements.  For most people, each elicits a slightly different feeling and and response (when spoken or heard). That is because at a subtle level they are communicating the same request slightly differently.

Here are the keys to defining different communication styles: 

Passive: uses conditional language, could, just, might, would. (Statement 1)

Aggressive: gives a command, often “tells” instead of asks. (Statement 2)

Passive-Aggressive: implies a feeling along with the message, think “double-talk/over-asking for the obvious”/ “smart-aleck.” Of course a person has the ability to share table salt. The hidden question is, “Will they give it to you now?” (Statement 3)

Assertive: a request or statement that is polite, clear and to the point. (Statement 4)

Why does assertiveness matter?

Many of my long-standing clients will likely know this answer: 

“It helps you get what you want without provoking an unwanted reaction in the other person.”

Assertive communication includes a clear statement of:

1) What you want and/or how you feel

2) What happened to cause the desire or feeling

3) The reasons why this matters in the relationship.

Example:

 “I want you to put your dirty clothes in the hamper instead of on the floor, because the last few times I picked them up, I started to feel over-worked and resentful.”

Stating directly and politely what you want may be difficult. You may not ask directly for what you want out of fear that you will hurt someone else’s feelings or be aggressive. 

Here are the differences between assertive and aggressive communication: 

Assertive Communication:

  • shares your view while allowing for the other person’s as well.
  • is open to compromise. 
  • shares equal power and responsibility for communicating. 

Aggressive Communication:

  • forces one view as the dominant view of a situation.
  • wants to win: the other side has to lose.
  • leads to an abuse of power and bullying. 

How to tell the subtle difference between styles: 

  • Aggressiveness posing as Assertiveness: “I hate that you’re always late.”  

Using words like always & never, begins the process of generalizing and often turns into aggressive or passive aggressive communication.  An assertive version of this statement might be: “I hate that you are late tonight.”

  • Passive-Aggressive: “I want you to be on time for once.”

This one starts assertively, but ends with a bite.  Said assertively, “I want you to be on time.”

  • Passive Communication: “I just want you to be on time for me.”

Using words like ‘just’ turn an assertive statement into a plea or passive statement.  Here’s the same phrase without the word ‘just’: “I want you to be on time for me.”

Equation for Assertiveness: 

  • Person + Action:
    • “When you were late in picking me up” / “After I saw the dishes on the counter”
  • Descriptive Feeling (version of MAD, SAD, GLAD, HURT, DISGUST):
    • “I felt angry and hurt” /  “I was really annoyed”
  • Reason Why It Matters:
    • “Because the message that sent to me was: ‘You’d rather do something else than be here on time for me.”   / “Because I asked you to do the dishes and you didn’t. 

Assertive Body Language Tips

  • Standing tall vs. slumping: How you carry yourself can send a message of confidence or uncertainty. Sitting instead of standing can help you feel and convey  confidence.
  • Loud or soft voice tone vs. clear and distinct voice tone: People need to hear your communication.  Speaking in a loud voice may suggest to some that you are angry. Speaking softly may be read as ignorance, shyness or fear.  Speaking a in a clear tone of voice at a moderate volume makes it easier for people to focus on what you are saying, the content or message.   When you speak quickly, hesitantly, softly or loudly people automatically focus on the unintended communication and will form perceptions of your emotional state or motives instead of what you are saying.
  • Facial expressions: Are you smirking, looking down and to the side, or looking someone straight in the eye with a calm and interested facial expression? Again your facial expressions communicate unintended messages that your listener then blends into your stated message. 

Choosing assertiveness takes active awareness and regular practice. Communicating assertively won’t guarantee good behavior from other people… that requires Interpersonal Boundaries! 

There is much more that can be said about assertive communication, and in particular with regard to setting interpersonal boundaries. You can read that in my next installment about boundaries: 

How to Set Boundaries : Define and Defend What You Want

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