The Conflict with Conflict in Poly Relationships

Cindy Trawinski, PsyD & Rami Henrich, LCSW

Cindy Trawinski, PsyD & Rami Henrich, LCSW

by Cindy Trawinski, PsyD

Ever had conflict?

Most people have had more conflict than they care to recall. Conflict is important to everyone and every relationship but when you are in a multi-partnered relationship good conflict skills become even more critical. On May 6, 2017, Rami Henrich, LCSW and I presented a workshop on applying the principle of deep democracy to everyday conflicts in relationships at the 1st Annual Chicago Consensual Non-monogamy Conference.

What is deep democracy?

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

Conflict in Everyday Life

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

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

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

The 4 Phases of Conflict


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

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

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

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

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

Why 4 Phases?

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

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

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

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

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

Exercise: 5-Minute Communing Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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More to Love: Polyamory in the Real World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did you realize you wanted a poly relationship?

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

What was the coming-out process like?

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

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

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

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

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

Do you think this generation will embrace poly life?

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

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

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


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Shaming Methods in Popular Psychology

by David Bedrick J.D., Dipl. PW

David Bedrick, J.D., Dipl. PW, is a speaker, counselor, attorney, and teacher.  He is the author of the acclaimed Talking Back to Dr. Phil: Alternatives to Mainstream Psychology and the forthcoming title Revisioning Activism: Bringing Depth, Dialogue, and Diversity to Individual and Social Change (Belly Song Press, 2017). The following article is posted with permission from David Bedrick, J.D., Dipl. PW.  The original can be found here.  

The role of a therapist is to elicit a response from their client that indicates greater self-knowledge and freedom to live authentically, which, in turn, will enable the actuality of healing. With the need for psychology, as a means to make sense of the modern world, at an all time high in the Western Hemisphere, it is imperative that therapists, no matter which school of thought they originate from, be a positive conduit for an individuals’ personal change.

The process of psychology by which true and deep healing can occur, in the lives of many, hinges on a profound connection between the client and that which they wish to change. This sought after change is directed, and enabled by a therapists’ communication style. It is, therefore, imperative to understand that employing a communication style that mirrors society, in order to appear relevant and understood, may not be a therapeutic response to a client’s needs. For example, Dr. Phil has a method of psychology that he readily disseminates in an immediate fashion on his show, that I believe is not in keeping with the intricacies of the healing process as a whole.

By making an authoritative and somewhat condescending remark like, “What are you thinking?” in the context of another’s attempt at healing, he automatically takes a negative parental role, one that often creates shame.

Using shame as a tactic for healing might be considered a dramatic tool in the healing process because it is a recognizable trait (to most), that potentially has the power to motivate, or, to be used as a catalyst in the healing process. However, at what cost to the client’s psyche is this use of shame in the process of rightful and positive change?

To be able to lead a client into the throws of healing is to take an inquiring and learning mind in the treatment process. To stress to a patient “What are you thinking?” means to make them believe that they are in need of correction, that they are ill equipped to understand their own process of healing, they are inferior, incomplete.

This method of psychology may seem instrumental and important on the air, as television audiences are in need of being entertained, and the process of actual healing may be lost in the need to please viewers, but, true and lasting change must happen outside the need to ridicule, or insult the person in need of healing.

This concept might seem over simplistic, however, shows like Dr. Phil’s are enormously popular, and govern (to some degree) how the public believes psychology is administered, so, for this reason, it is important to counteract Dr. Phil’s methods, by highlighting the weaknesses in his ‘popular’ psychology skills. Further, most people have internalized this same paradigm, learned either at the hands of parents or educational systems, that their suffering is a result of their deficiencies, lack, or brokenness.

The art of deep listening is an important key in psychology. This form of action can be used by anyone: therapists and others alike. This process merely asks an individual to really listen to their client, with an open heart, without judgment, without ‘trying to fix the person who is speaking,’ without formulating what your response will be, or, how you will treat this client in the future.

It further requires that we listen to what is said; what is available to the conscious mind of the client, as well as to what is unsaid, expressed in body language, dreams, relationship difficulties, habits, disturbing feelings, and more. By merely listening with your whole being, in this manner, a great deal of healing can occur as the client feels heard, validated, safe and known in ways that they didn’t even know heretofore. All that is necessary to engage in this method of healing is the willingness to move away from shaming techniques that cause an ongoing flux in the client/therapist dynamic and the willingness to learn one or two techniques to access less conscious information.

Using Shame to Address Smoking
Let’s take the above concept and apply it to an actual situation. If a person requires professional help to stop smoking it is important to understand why they smoke, their relationship to smoking, as each smoker will differ in their reasons for taking up the habit. Using shame to identify the cause of why they smoke will not be of use here. I could say, “Don’t you read the warnings on the pack? Don’t you know they are bad for you?” Or, common Dr. Phil phrases, like “What are you thinking?” or “How’s that working for you?” This method of communication causes shame to take hold. Not only is it an obvious observation (that oversimplifies and compromises the intelligence of the client), but, it insinuates that if they are willing to hurt their health, there must be no deeper reason for sustaining their habit. This is just not true.

Each smoker is acutely aware that the habit is not good for their health, and if shame is used as a catalyst to move away from the need to smoke, a negative result will occur. The client is already feeling bad about allowing this habit to form, or they wouldn’t be seeking help to eradicate it, now, if they continue to be shamed, they will most likely feel even more resistant to changing their habit. This shaming attitude will only keep the client from the freedom of thought needed to deeply inquire into their desire to smoke and keep them from the integration necessary to release themselves from the habit.

Using Shame to Address Anger
The process of psychology is to uncover what is hidden from the client
, utilizing deep listening techniques, so, they are free to make choices as prompted by their deeper understanding of their personal and authentic needs and desires. Objectively anyone will tell you that anger as a form of communication is unpleasant, detrimental even. I am not claiming that anger is good for your health, but, when activated, I believe uncovering and understanding how, and why it occurs, then working through said anger can have a both profound and healing effect on an individual.

Using shame in relation to one’s need to express anger can be an insidious undertaking.

Dr. Phil might suggest eastern modes of ‘dealing’ with anger: meditation and breathing techniques. These approaches to healing anger are not incorrect, but, they are incomplete. Psychology is about exploration, so, in that vein, I say let’s explore anger, get behind it, examine it, allow it to manifest to its fullest capacity. That way we embrace anger, accept it, then we are not afraid of it, and more, importantly, our actions are not ruled by its force, because we were able to uncover, then demystify its origins by allowing it to manifest freely in a safe environment. When that happens, clients invariably find that hidden inside their anger is often needed energy, power or insight bout the ways they are being poorly treated inside of themselves or in the world around them. If people do not gain these insights, the anger is likely to reoccur- the healing intervention will not sustain.

I discuss Dr. Phil here, not to critique the man, but because he is a straw man for the application of shame as a common response to the question of healing, leaving people with nothing more than a superficial version of what the healing process actually entails.

Systematic healing derives from helping people learn about their deeper needs, impulses, and natures, not from negative shaming tactics, a version of psychology Dr. Phil has chosen to embrace.

Lastly, in the spirit of inclusion and fairness, let me acknowledge the contribution Dr. Phil makes to the understanding of psychology as well as to me, for if his paradigm did not exist, I would not be able to counter it, and, therefore, the world would not experience the diversity of opinions and thoughts to assimilate and choose from.

To learn more about David Bedrick’s alternatives to shame in psychology and his critique of Dr. Phil, see his book Talking Back to Dr. Phil: Alternatives to Mainstream Psychology.

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What Basson’s Sexual Response Cycle Teaches Us About Sexuality

by Jo Flannery, AMFT

The following article has been adapted from “Taking a Closer Look at Basson’s Model of the Sexual Response Cycle,” Jo Flannery’s article for Sexology International. It has been edited from its original format. To read the original article, click here.


There is no one reason people choose to have sex. Rather, human beings become aroused by various stimuli and have diverse motivations to engage in sexual activity.

In (very) simplified terms, that is how Dr. Rosemary Basson would like us to understand our sexuality. Basson’s nonlinear model of sexual response seeks to more accurately depict the components of desire and the underlying motivational forces that trigger it.  Her work has focused particularly on women in long-term relationships.

In contrast to the traditional model of human sexuality put forth by William Masters and Virginia Johnson (who you may know from the fictionalized portrayal on the television show Masters of Sex), Basson’s model is circular and more complex: it acknowledges that desire can be responsive or spontaneous and that it may come either before or after arousal. This model recognizes that orgasm may contribute to, but is not necessary for, satisfaction, and that relationship factors can affect one’s willingness and ability to participate in sex. Another unique aspect of Basson’s circular model is that a person can enter the cycle at several different points.

Understanding Why People Have Sex
What makes someone want to have sex? People have varied, differing motivations—some obvious, others unexpected. Often, people have sex for the predictable reasons: to feel emotional intimacy, because of attraction, to engage in physical pleasure, and to express love. These are called approach motivations. They focus on positive feelings and desires such as affection and enjoyment.

Not all motivations to have sex are positive, however. There are also avoidance motivations, which are characterized by a desire to stop or prevent something. A person may choose to engage in sexual activity, for example, to stop a partner from leaving the relationship or for fear of not being loved.

Staying Mindful of Sexual Stimuli
Certain stimuli may turn someone on—that is, increase their interest in having sex. A sexual stimulus may come in the form of a kiss or touch from a partner. It could be something visual, or perhaps a smell or a sound. Regardless of their form, these stimuli are what initiate sexual arousal when all other conditions are met, including one’s willingness to engage in sex and commitment to remain engaged in the act. In other words, people have all kinds of different turn-ons, but turn-ons alone are not always enough for a person to have sex.

According to Basson, the context of a sexual encounter and a person’s state of mind may be the most important parts of the sexual response cycle. Context refers the current situation or environment in which sex could happen.

The predominant context is a relationship: for instance, a relationship characterized by trust, emotional connection, and flirty playfulness is much more likely going to increase the strength of a person’s sexual response as opposed to a relationship that is in turmoil and rife with resentment, contempt, and conflict.

A person’s mindset matters, too. One’s mindset includes all of their inner psychological processes, such as emotions, thoughts, and beliefs. If one is feeling calm, confident, attractive, and secure, they are more likely to become aroused and desire sex than if they are feeling anxious, unattractive, distracted, or unsafe. Sexual scripts—what one thinks sex looks like, or should look like—will also have an impact. If someone has a particularly negative view about sex, that person may feel closed off and be less likely to approach sex openly.

A Person’s Sexual Response Can Be Ignited at Any Phase in the Cycle
Not all sexual encounters begin with spontaneous sexual desire. It is common for partners to feel desire at different times, especially in long-term relationships. However, if someone is open and willing—and has the ability to stay mindful and engaged—they are likely to feel desire with appropriate sexual stimuli and context.

A rewarding sexual experience, which may or may not involve orgasm, usually encourages a person’s willingness to engage in sex in the future. On the other hand, a pattern of negative experiences may decrease a person’s interest in sex overall.

Spontaneous sexual desire manifests in the sense of sexual urgency, passion, or “horniness.” In Basson’s model, feelings of sexual urgency can happen at several points during a sexual encounter, and are particularly evident at the beginning of relationships, when sex is frequent.

However, spontaneous sexual desire is not necessary to become aroused and have fulfilling sex. Responsive sexual desire is equally as powerful. Responsive sexual desire occurs when one is willing to engage in sex even when they do not initially feel desire or arousal. With sufficient sexual stimuli—and in the appropriate context—one can move from a place of neutrality to feelings of arousal and desire.

Knowledge of Your Sexuality Is Power
Are you aware of and comfortable with your own sexuality? Just as there is no universal reason or motivation to have sex, there are many different ways people identify with and express their sexuality. The frequency and intensity of sexual encounters vary person by person, as does a person’s number of sexual partners at any given time. You may choose not to engage in certain activities during sex, or abstain from sex entirely. Additionally, your sexuality and feelings about sex may shift and evolve throughout the course of your life. There is no right or wrong way to have sex—or not have sex—or to define your sexuality.

Understand that sex may or may not be a component of your intimate, romantic relationship(s). Some relationships center on sex; others involve it very little or not at all. The sexual components of a relationship typically change over time.

Regardless, mutual happiness, fulfillment, and consent among partners are necessary ingredients in all healthy sexual encounters. Significant problems at any stage of the sexual response cycle can lead to conflict in relationships, as well as physical and mental difficulties and dysfunction. No matter what, it is important to know your mind, body, and areas for growth regarding intercourse, arousal, and desire.

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How to Create Fulfilling Relationships After Experiences of Abuse

by Niyati Evers, MAPW

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

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

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

What Constitutes Abuse?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. Know Your Triggers

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

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

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

  1. Get to Know Your Triggered State

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

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

  1. Learn to Set Boundaries in Direct and Constructive Ways

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

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

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

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

  1. Understand Your Inner Abuser

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

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

  1. Let Go of Impossible Expectations

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

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

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

The Power of Sensitivity

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

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

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

To read more LifeWorks blogs about Trauma, use the search box to the right, under Articles by Topic.

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Anam Cara: Soul Lessons From Anxiety & Panic

by Elizabeth Duke, PsyD

There is a phrase in Gaelic, anam cara, which means “soul friend.” According to the Anam Cara Therapy Center in California, anam cara is:

A teacher, companion or spiritual guide…Where consciousness is dulled, distant or blind, the presence grows faint and vanishes. Therefore awareness which brings integration and healing, is one of the greatest gifts of this friendship. As a result, you look, and see, and understand differently. You refine your sensibility and transform your way of being in the world. The Anam Cara is a loved one who awakens your life in order to free the wild possibilities within you (2010).

Even though this passage seems to be referencing a relationship between human beings, I can’t help but think about my relationship with panic and anxiety. It has hardly been a love fest, but they are with me always and have certainly been awakening forces in my life.

I have a number of fears and when I am in their grip that might mean not leaving my apartment, drawing the shades for an entire 48 hours, or falling tear-stained-face-first into a giant display of teddy bears at Costco.  Despite these experiences, panic and anxiety have taught me about the gift of being sensitive, connected me to deep rhythms of nature, and have served as a warning light and guide post. On more than one occasion, panic and anxiety have taught me to see the world through new eyes and invited me to witness subtle yet pervasive disturbances in our culture. They have helped me cultivate intense compassion, empathy, and connection with others. I’m grateful for them, and yet they have profoundly disturbed my life.

I have a bone chilling fear of the internet, some might even call it a phobia. Any time internet security is mentioned, I will absolutely have a panic attack. The widespread use of technology makes it possible to capture and isolate aspects of ourselves, when we are not at our best – and then hold those one dimensional screenshots up for evaluation by billions. Ultimately, I am horrified that something I have said or done could be taken completely out of context and my worth could be appraised according to that one moment.  I have spent close to a decade working with this fear and learning what wisdom it might hold for me. My “internet phobia” has taught me how vital it is for me to be able to stand confidently in the story of my life, even the parts that would not stand up to scrutiny if they were recorded and broadcast. It reminds me that vulnerable moments are tremendously human and should not ever be frozen in time, isolated from the immeasurable factors that influenced and co-shaped them.

I have always been highly anxious. I can recall now my first panic attack at age 6. And while there have been years in my life when the panic hung around in the background, panic attacks have often returned to me with a vengeance; especially during six, seventh, and eighth grades, as well as freshman and sophomore years of college, much of graduate school, and for most of today. I recall fighting with myself to go to classes or volleyball games, drowning in gut-wrenching fear of absolute catastrophe, jerking upright in bed as the choking panic took hold, and crying as I left my apartment for the day.

Anxiety and panic are part of me, they are one with who I am. Try as I might have to jettison myself from them (And believe me, I have tried everything.), panic and anxiety always resurface. I do not quite know how to explain that I both suffer greatly because of my panic and anxiety, and also that I accept them as my life companions. It is not because I dig suffering, or because I am some kind of martyr.  It is really because I do not want to ever let panic and anxiety take the wheel.

In Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic  (2015), she talks about never letting fear take the driver’s seat – she says it cannot even touch the map, or decide what music plays on the long journey… but she says it can come along for the ride.

I feel a little like that. I am the one who decides what my life will look like every day. When I explore and understand my panic, it helps inform my decisions, but my panic attacks cannot make decisions about my life for me. My internet-induced-panic attacks make it difficult for me to have an online presence, but they don’t stop me from using the internet at all. Instead I use it with the understanding that it comes rife with opportunities for misunderstanding and reducing human beings to gigabytes.

More often though, my strategy looks like simply riding the wave. Panic attacks come and go about as often as the weather shifts here in Chicago. I ride them out, I breathe through them. I go to therapy every week and try to better understand what I can learn about myself from them. I honor them as an important part of my journey. But they do not touch the steering wheel.

The point is not to power through, pick myself up by the bootstraps, and not  let my emotions get in the way. I want to get to know them better and not be paralyzed by them so that I can continue to learn from them.

My panic attacks are really deeply rooted in some seriously disturbing cultural dynamics that shake me to my core and I feel lucky that my Being ensures that I tune into them.  For example, how my fear of the internet reminds me to stand confidently in my own story, even the bumpy parts. My panic attacks are a constant reminder of how profoundly connected we all are and I do not want to lose that sensitivity. I do not want to power through them or ignore them in favor of something more enjoyable.

Honoring the role panic plays in my life is a constant dance. It is always trying to “take the lead,” and I am always trying to join the movement. I know that it has something to show me…but it is not the only part of me, and it does not have a monopoly on what I need/get/want to learn in this life.  If I let it totally take over, then I do not get to welcome in other sage parts of myself and others. I become myopic in my thinking, and honestly I am not sure how often I would leave my apartment or try anything new.

I do this by accepting the panic attacks as they happen, knowing they will end, and breathing through them. I take time later to process them while growing tomatoes, playing with my dogs, learning the ukulele, crafting, going to therapy, reading various books/articles about panic attacks, drinking tea, cleaning, talking to old friends, watching really bad TV, and by planning alone time.

I hope I am not coming across as having figured this out. I have not. There have been countless days in my life when I have tried everything not to let panic or anxiety take the wheel. It has, however, driven for months. Lots of times when I make a decision to let it win for a while because I am too exhausted to fight it.  And, at times in an effort to avoid letting panic take over, I have made incongruent decisions that I might not have made if I was not trying so painstakingly hard to prove myself.

I try to make good decisions when I know that I am at risk of having a panic attack. I know what sets them off and I prepare for them as best I can. I do my best to ride the wave, breathe through them, and ground myself when they happen unexpectedly. But ultimately I am still learning. I just thought it might be helpful to share what I have learned so far.

Anam Cara Therapy Center (2010).  Meaning of anam cara.  Retrieved from http://www

Gilbert, E. (2015). Big magic: Creative living beyond fear. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

To read more of Elizabeth Duke’s posts, click here.

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Interpersonal Boundaries: How Trauma Keeps Us Silent

by Morgan Concepcion, LCPC

What are personal boundaries?

Personal boundaries are what separate us from other people and things and help us form a distinct identity.

Boundaries help us protect ourselves.
Boundaries help define what belongs to you and what belongs to someone else.

Boundaries can define what is “ok” and what is “not ok.”

Boundaries help others know what you want.

Boundaries can show what is important for you in relationship.

Boundaries are personal. Your feelings, your body and your boundaries belong to you as a person, no one else.

                                                                 What is trauma?

Simply stated, trauma is the effect of an experience or event that overwhelms our sense of safety, often to the point where the world, the future, or other people are no longer seen as positive or safe.

Traumatic circumstances can involve physical or emotional harm or threats of harm, and can be brief or occur for years. Natural disasters, war, domestic violence, physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, bullying, financial intimidation, personal injury, illness, job loss, and death are some of the experiences that can bring trauma into our lives.

The effects of trauma can take many forms including flashbacks, nightmares, angry outbursts, heightened anxiety, avoidance of people or activities, depressed mood, trouble connecting in relationship and more. Trauma often leaves a sense of powerlessness, a belief that a person should have avoided or prevented the traumatic experience. This feeling of powerlessness can affect how we interact with our world.

Trauma can damage boundaries.

If you have experienced trauma, you may be less likely to actively defend yourself, your desires, and your personal boundaries in new situations.  Trauma impacts the way you understand and relate to your own boundaries.

Experiences that are very painful, or overwhelming, can flood your awareness and you may forget that you can say “no” to others who ask too much of us, don’t see or respect our boundaries.  This behavior is sometimes called boundary pushing or boundary crossing.

Boundary pushing and crossing can cause emotional damage. The damage is to our beliefs about ourselves: our belief that what we want or need or feel matters.  Trauma can cause us to replace a healthy sense of our boundaries with a new belief that others are more important than we are, and we need to keep other people happy and “not make a problem.” That way, we hope, others won’t violate our boundaries.

How do you know when boundaries are crossed?

Feelings are messages from the subconscious and in the case of trauma can be reactions to danger. Feeling angry, afraid, frustrated and uncomfortable are signs that your boundaries may be pushed or disrespected in some way.

When your boundaries, personal space or body are disrespected or intruded upon by another, it can feel scary, invasive, forceful, painful, humiliating and more.

Examples of boundary pushing and boundary crossings:

  • A person corners you and won’t stop talking to you.
  • Your boss looks you over or makes comments about your appearance and asks: “Are you going on a hot date tonight?”
  • A friend often calls you for an hour and only talks about themselves and their relationship issues.
  • A coworker stops by your work space and starts picking up items on your desk and rearranging them.
  • Someone stands uncomfortably close to you and doesn’t notice when you back away.
  • A new person suddenly hugs you when they are introduced and says: “I’m just a hugger.”

 So, what happened?

In each example above, one person’s physical space, time, belongings, feelings or body were for a moment “trespassed upon” by the other person.

Trespassing means pushing into or crossing over a physical or subjective limit, like someone who stands too close to you or asks questions that feel too personal or private.

If you or your boundaries were violated by a family member, a person in authority, or a bully, you may have learned quickly how to avoid getting hurt again by being quiet and unnoticed, instead of speaking up for yourself, saying no or getting help from others.

This is the vicious circle of trauma: boundaries are violated, in pain, we withdraw and don’t speak up or get help; this makes it likely that future boundary pushing or crossing will erode our limits further, exacerbating our trauma and sense of helplessness.

Why should I talk about my boundaries?

You have a right to talk about your boundaries, to share how you experience others interacting with your boundaries and to have your concerns addressed respectfully.

Boundaries define you whether you talk about them or not. The best way to get what you want with regard to your boundaries or limits is to ask. Talking about your boundaries helps you to practice asking for what you want and learn more about how others experience you.

What if I don’t feel safe to talk?

You may not want to talk about boundaries because you feel unsafe. That is an important emotional signal that might be saying “Pay attention,” “Slow down,” “Back up,” or something similar.

Feeling unsafe to “speak up” might mean you’re in an unsafe situation, and need help to get out of it or to change something in yourself or the environment.

If you feel unsafe, don’t press yourself to continue in the situation, conversation or activity.  Instead, seek out someone who you can trust to get support or help addressing your concerns.

Even without words, you can act in a way that respects your right to have boundaries.  Pausing, taking your time to respond to requests or questions, dropping eye contact, leaving the situation, moving closer to someone with whom you feel safer or reaching out physically to a supportive friend or relative are ways to take time and space for yourself.

Again, why are boundaries important?

Protecting ourselves is important. That is why learning about and finding ways to heal from trauma, strengthen and honor our boundaries is critical.

Many of us who have been hurt, traumatized or violated in some way, stay silent and accept “hurting a little to not make it worse.” We avoid the risk of “real” consequences at work and in personal situations and try to ignore the ways others step over our boundaries.

Trauma may have taught us that we’ll be hurt more by standing up for ourselves.  Sometimes we don’t speak up about our feelings because we’re afraid to hurt someone else. So, many of us have areas in our lives where we need to repair the damage done by traumatic events or situations and restore our boundaries. This takes time but can be done.

What next steps can I take to firm up my boundaries?

  • Bring your attention to areas where your “personal boundary lines” have been pushed or crossed before.
  • Identify to the best of your ability how, when & by whom boundaries have been crossed.
  • Ask yourself: “What do I wish would have happened instead?”
  • Reach out to someone you trust, or believe has your best interests at heart. Talking with a safe person can provide support, help to brainstorm solutions, or identify other resources you may need.
  • Begin moving forward in positive ways towards setting clear limits and communicating about your boundaries.
  • Seek out a therapist or counselor who can help you to sort out your experience and begin the healing process.

You have the right to be valued and protected as your own person, with your own desires and boundaries in relationships.

Defining and respecting your boundaries can be the bravest and best next step for your life.

If you need help assessing whether your boundaries have been violated or want support in recovering from trauma and past transgressions, call LifeWorks for an appointment with a therapist, 847-568-1100.

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Meet Jacque Pfeifer, MAMFT

Preferred pronouns; she/her or they/them

Jacque Pfeifer, MAMFT is one of four therapists to join LifeWorks this year through the Green House, our postgraduate psychotherapy training and mentoring program.

What first drew you to the Green House?

Initially, I was drawn to the Green House program because I am passionate about working with marginalized communities, especially the non-monogamy and LGBTQ communities. As I learned more about the Green House and the clinicians who developed it, I confirmed this opportunity would be an asset for me as a couples and family therapist.

As a new clinician, I believe that it is my responsibility to continue to embrace, understand, and mold my therapist identity as well as continually challenging myself to be a culturally sensitive, socially just therapist.  Lastly, coming from a child welfare/community mental health background, I was enthralled to have the opportunity and privilege to gain more experience working with long-term clients outside of an agency setting.

Tell us about your goals, challenges and aspirations—what are you hoping for in 2017 and beyond?

Hmmm… 2017.  2017 looks like it has a lot to process already. With all of the political turmoil and confusion, I am trying to find some peace and grounding in my therapeutic practice, both here and at the agency where I am currently practicing. I think that LifeWorks is providing a helping hand in giving me some much-needed balance and structure.  I am hopeful that this year of learning will provide a gracious next step regarding my self-work, in order to move forward in my role as a therapist with intentionally and raised consciousness.

What are you most looking forward to in the Green House?

I anticipate using this training to become a more skilled and aware clinician within the marginalized communities that I want to support. I am excited about diving into process work and depth psychotherapy and incorporating that into my long-term practice. I am naturally partial to a more in-depth relationship with my clients, to helping them understand what may not be fully in their awareness in hopes of guiding them through the chaos and supporting their healing from the trauma and confusion of their past. I have always felt drawn this level of commitment to my clients and wanting to sit alongside them in their healing. I am also looking forward to connecting deeper to my cohort of colleagues and to collaborating with them through my Green House year as well as throughout my career.

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Connecting with Personal Power After Abuse, Trauma, or Marginalization

Why do some people abuse power while others don’t? That question is at the core of POWER: A USER’S GUIDE, the latest book by coach, facilitator, educator, and author Julie Diamond, Ph.D.

As its title suggests, Power: A User’s Guide is a how-to manual for anybody—parent, boss, teacher, politician, social activist—for whom wielding authority justly and effectively is a daily necessity and a daily challenge.

In this video, together with LifeWorks’ Cindy Trawinski, Julie discusses the nature of personal power and how therapy can help those who have struggled with trauma, abuse, and marginalization connect with their deepest selves. According to Julie, personal power is an inner source of strength that can never be taken away, although it sometimes manifests in surprising ways.

The conversation was recorded at LifeWorks’ offices in Chicago, during Julie’s visit in 2016, when she spoke before KPACT: a networking & dialogue group for Kink and Poly Aware Chicago Therapists, established by LifeWorks.

More information about Julie, the book, and KPACT can be found here.  

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Meet Meryl Morris, LCSW

Preferred pronouns: she, her, hers

Meryl Morris, LCSW is one of four therapists to join LifeWorks this year through the Green House, our postgraduate psychotherapy training and mentoring program.

What first drew you to the Greenhouse?

I first became aware of LifeWorks after meeting Rami Henrich and Cindy Trawinski at the 2015 Alternative Sexualities Conference. They invited me to a KPACT seminar and I remember my surprise.  I had found a practice that specialized in helping groups of people who for many reasons may have had to keep parts of their lives secret from family, friends, society and even from their therapists.  The people and lifestyles that LifeWorks embraces – LGBTQIA, polyamory and non-monogamy, kink and BDSM, trans and genderqueer– included my colleagues, my friends, friends of friends, partners of friends and many acquaintances. I have heard their struggles, I knew my own. Marginalization was not new to me, it had always been a part of my life. I felt a kinship with the population they served.

I am a licensed clinical social worker and have for many years wanted to find my way back to doing therapy and to create a safe space for people to talk about those secret lives and struggles. I knew that I needed a way to hone my therapeutic skills and combine them with all I had learned through my work as a mediator with families for many years. So, I was delighted to find out that LifeWorks had a new program that offered what I had been searching for. I loved the idea of getting the training I needed and collaborating with brave and wonderful therapists who were embracing the idea of creating a sex-positive and life-affirming space for their clients.

Tell us about your goals, challenges and aspirations —-what are you hoping for in 2017 and beyond?

My goals are to integrate all that I can from my training at the Green House with the knowledge I already have to become a therapist that can help make a difference in others’ lives and to use who I am and my own experiences to form  my identity as a therapist. I also want to challenge myself to use not only my strengths, but my weaknesses and my life experiences to collaborate with my clients on their journey to self discovery and healing. I am hoping to build a foundation for a private practice serving people who at times feel marginalized for how they relate to society or for who and how they love. I want to participate in creating a safe, inclusive, sex-positive space for people to explore themselves free from judgment and rejection.

What are you most looking forward to in the Green House?

I am looking forward to embracing and being an integral part of LifeWorks’ mission. I am hoping to collaborate and learn with my three colleagues in the Green House and with the therapists at LifeWorks. Expanding my knowledge base and getting to know all of these talented clinicians is very important to me and represents a very important part of my future and growth not only as a therapist, but as a person.

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