Has your experience of relationship exclusivity (monogamy and non-monogamy, but also types of exclusivity within either monogamous or non-monogamous relationships) shifted multiple times?
Would you like to talk about it?
I’m putting together the beginning of a narrative project on this topic, and will be scheduling one group conversation and up to 5 individual conversations between now and November 15.
Depending on how these conversations go and whether there is interest, I will be organizing a six-week narrative practice group where we can explore and re-story our experiences of changing relationship structures. This group will be scheduled for the new year.
My goal is to better understand how people experience fluidity in relationship structure preference over time. I think that within polyamorous spaces there is often the idea that there is an ideal (and linear) trajectory from monogamy to a specific form of polyamory.
I’m interested in talking about this, especially since I think for folks who have a different trajectory (such as returning to exclusivity, or having relationship structure preference expand and then contract, or preferring exclusivity in one area of a relationship even if there is non-exclusivity in another), there can be feelings of shame or failure attached to this.
If this sounds interesting to you, let me know! Email me at sostarselfcare @ gmail, and watch this space for the group conversation information.
Editing to add: The group conversation has been scheduled for November 7 from 11-12:30 mountain time, and will be hosted on Zoom. Contact me for registration info!
Back in 2018 I presented at a conference that was also organized by my delightful and brilliant metamour, Pedrom Nasiri.
This presentation, on the topic of narrative therapy and polyamory, is going to be featured in an upcoming free online course that the Dulwich Centre will be offering! That’s pretty cool! I am sharing it here, as well.
If this is a topic that interests you, you may want to participate in tonight’s (March 18, 2021, from 6:30-8 mountain time) Possibilities Bi+ Community conversation on polyamory. You can register for the zoom link here. If you’d like to be involved in the project mentioned in this presentation, which is still in process, please get in touch with me!
(And I’m also going to come back to the project I talk about here, which got backburnered for a few years. The first nudge back in this direction will be in the Possibilities event this month, on the topic of polyamory. Mark March 18 in your calendar if you’re into that! And I’ll have a post up soon with all the March events.)
Here’s the video!
Here’s the transcript, if you’re more of a reader than a video watcher. (Plus the audio is not great – sorry!)
This conference is taking place on the traditional territories of the Niitsitapi, the Blackfoot, and the people of the Treaty 7 region in Southern Alberta, which includes the Siksika, the Piikani, the Kainai, the Tsuut’ina and the Stoney Nakoda First Nations, including Chiniki, Bearpaw, and Wesley First Nations. This land, traditionally called Mohkinstsis by the Blackfoot people, is now called The City of Calgary, and is also home to Métis Nation of Alberta, Region III.
Hi. I’m Tiffany.
And first I’d like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this Treaty 7 land and the Indigenous Elders of the past, present, and those that are emerging.
This presentation is about narrative therapy, and it’s also about polyamory. We cannot talk about monogamy, polyamory, or ideas of kinship without acknowledging how ongoing colonialism shows up in these relational norms, as Pedrom talked about at the beginning. The nuclear family, with its focus on monogamous and couple-centric families, is a sharp contrast to the extended kin groups that many societies cherished prior to colonization and that they have maintained after colonization. The colonial project has never been successful – there has always been resistance. An awareness of colonialism, and the cohort of harmful ideologies that often accompany it, which is sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, transantagonism, racism, and others – is critical for talking about how to do therapy that is justice-oriented.
I also want to specifically acknowledge the Indigenous and Australian Aboriginal narrative therapists – the influence that they’ve had on the field and on my practice particularly. I am particularly indebted to Barbara Wingard whose writings have helped my work with community members invite “telling our stories in ways that make us stronger,” and to Tileah Drahm-Butler, whose work on identity migration and ethics of welcome have allowed me to understand and co-research the shifting landscape of relationship orientations that many of my community members go through, and also to Kylie Dowse whose work on “thwarting shame” in responding to men who have used violence in their relationships has been formative for me in responding to abuse within polycules, regardless of the gender of the people involved.
This presentation is about how to support polyamorous community members using narrative therapy, and it’s also about what narrative therapy can learn from the polyamorous community. I think that there is the potential to co-create resources and practice innovations that can benefit both therapists and also the community members who consult us, and my goal is to invite the community into an ongoing co-research project with me.
This presentation is, at its core, an invitation for you to join me in this project, with the goal of creating resources and conversations that can push the field of narrative therapy forward, and that can help develop more supports for polyamorous community members, whether they’re practicing solo poly, relationship anarchy, whether they’re in quads or Vs or the triads that Lindsay will be speaking about later, whether they’re parenting, and supports that recognize that many intersections of identity that exist within polyamory are also influenced by what happens by what happens outside of polyamory. Because these intersections do show up in polyamorous relationships, as we’ve heard earlier today; that neurodivergence panel was fantastic, a lack of responsiveness and awareness on the part of professionals can contribute to injustice, isolation, and struggle for people who are dealing with polyamory and with other intersections that can be amplified within their polyamory.
Okay, so, what is narrative therapy?
According to Shona Russell and Maggie Carey, they define narrative therapy as:
Narrative therapy seeks to be a respectful, non-blaming approach to counselling and community work, which centres people as the experts in their own lives. It views problems as separate from people and assumes people have many skills, competencies, beliefs, values, commitments and abilities that will assist them to reduce the influence of problems in their lives.
I don’t know why I’m so nervous, but I super am.
[Audience support follows]
Okay, so this is an important therapeutic orientation when working with the polyamorous community, because so often, folks can feel destabilized, disoriented, and uncertain about how to navigate their polyamorous relationships. There are fewer maps available. We don’t see ourselves very often in books, in movies, TV shows, or in the media, and when we do, the representation available is pretty narrow.
But narrative therapy assumes that people have many skills, competencies, beliefs, and values – many insider knowledges – that they are already using in responding to the problems in their lives. In my work with polyamorous community members, I have seen this over and over. Even when people don’t have the language immediately available to them, they have the insider knowledges into what works and what doesn’t, what they cherish and what they stand against. People are already the experts in their own experiences.
This presentation is based on work that I’ve been doing over the last year, as part of a Masters of Narrative Therapy and Community Work program at the University of Melbourne and the Dulwich Centre. My work has centered around a few key questions:
● What do narrative therapists need to know about polyamory?
● How can these knowledges inform narrative practice?
● Which polyamory-informed narrative practices will be most influential in therapeutic relationships?
● How can these polyamorous-informed narrative practices be shared with other narrative therapists?
This last point is really important to me because I believe that polyamorous communities and individuals have valuable insider knowledges that could benefit the field of narrative therapy even beyond work specifically with polyamorous community members. This belief is supported by existing work on the topic of monogamies and non-monogamies, and the fluid and malleable boundaries between these two relationship states (Barker, 2011).
So, polyamory and monogamy are not a binary, after all. And many of the insider knowledges that have been developed within polyamorous communities, especially around consent, communication, valuing autonomy, community care, and collaborative approaches to responding to the needs of individuals, children, and extended families could benefit monogamous individuals as well.
Within polyamory specifically, I think that narrative therapy has the potential to significantly shift some of the norms within polyamorous discourse. I am particularly interested in exploring, deconstructing, and re authoring the norms that end up internalising problems; locating the problem within people by framing things like jealousy, insecurity, and anxiety as individual problems that can, and should, be solved by people on their own rather than problems that are external to people, with solutions that are contextual and collaborative.
By shifting our orientation towards problems, we can talk about jealousy as something that shows up in someone’s life, rather than something that is inherent to that person. I have never spoken with a person who is “a jealous person” and has never had exceptions to that problem story in their lives. These totalising narratives always have gaps, exceptions, and we start talking about what people cherish and value for themselves that the jealousy might be getting in the way of, and how they’ve been responding to this jealousy so far. And we can really start to loosen the hold that these problems have on people’s lives. And we can also invite other community members in, to present a united front that stands against the problem. This is a very different scenario than what can happen when we internalise problems, and when standing against the problem means standing against the person who is most being pushed around by it.
Externalising problems that are strengthened by mono-normative discourses, especially when we’re talking about jealousy, can be really powerful for polyamorous folks. We’ve already taken a strong stand against monogamous discourses that don’t align with our values. We already have experience, and valuable histories of action, that can help us in responding to problems when they show up.
By this, I mean that we’ve chosen not to cooperate with certain cultural ideals that dictate that we should find a single partner, that we should have a sexual and romantic relationship with this partner, that we should devote our entire lives to this partner, have all of our needs met by and meet all of the needs of this partner, and that if we love anyone else, we are cheating or have betrayed this partner. This does not mean that we have taken a stand against monogamy, because none of these norms are inherent to monogamy except the single partner bit, arguably, depending on how you define ‘partner’.
So what I mean is that we have taken a stand against certain monogamous norms. Sometimes these norms are referred to as “toxic monogamy”. And it’s important to be clear about that, because just as I wouldn’t want to locate a problem within a person, I also want to take a note from Sekneh Hammoud-Beckett, a Muslim-Australian narrative therapist, and be clear that the problem is not internal to the person, it is also not internal to the relationship, to the culture, or to the community. We can resist or challenge elements of monogamy without assuming that monogamy is itself a problem.
So when we can tap into the existing skills and values that have allowed us to stand against monogamous norms that we don’t agree with, we can approach problems like jealousy or insecurity from a position of stability. In narrative therapy, this is called “finding the riverbank” – if you’re in the river and there are snakes and crocodiles all around you, it’s very hard to figure out what you’re going to do about this. You’re just trying to keep your head above water. And this is often what it feels like when jealousy shows up and dunks us. By finding some solid ground to stand on, we can see the river from a bit of distance. We might be able to see a way through that wasn’t apparent before. And we might find that some of the crocodiles are actually logs.
[Fourth slide] Narrative Relationship Therapy
So Jill Freedman and Gene Combs, writing specifically about narrative relationship therapy, say:
We are all born into cultural stories, and they shape our perceptions of what is possible. For [relationships], stories about gender roles and heterosexual dominance, for example, may shape perceptions of what is possible. However, people do not usually think of the stories they are born into as stories. They think of them as ‘reality’. Cultural stories have the power to shape our experience of reality.
We think of relationships as being multi-storied. That is, every relationship can be expressed and experienced through a great variety of narratives; many ‘true’ stories can be told about any experience. Therefore, we do not look for health or pathology or quality of functioning in [relationships]. Instead, we look at the stories that are currently shaping a relationship, and seek to facilitate a collaborative re authoring process in which more suitable stories can be expressed and experienced.
So when we’re talking about the problems that show up in the lives and relationships of many polyamorous folks, many of these problems are strengthened by stories – which end up seeming to be reality; about what love looks like, and what’s possible within relationships. Culturally, we have ideas about what it means to parent, and it doesn’t usually include metamours. We have these ideas about what’s “developmentally appropriate” for children, and because of discourses that hypersexualise queer, trans, and polyamorous folks, polyamorous is framed as being “bad for the kids”. We have ideas about what it means to be in love, and even if we have taken a stand against some monogamous norms, we may find ourselves on the relationship escalator, waiting for that next logical step.
And maybe that works for us, but maybe we’ve already ridden that escalator with one partner, and we’re living together and we’ve got kids together, and then suddenly there’s a new person in our lives and we need to figure out if the escalator is still something we’re going to choose. If not, what are our options? What do we want?
Narrative therapy offers suggestions for how to approach this. We can explore the stories that are currently shaping the relationships, and start co-researching together.
● What matters to you in this relationship?
● What do you cherish or value about this relationship?
● Who taught you to cherish these things?
● Who supports you in these values?
● Do your partners share these values, a lot, a little bit, or not at all?
● How are you navigating that?
● What does it say about who you are, that you hold these values?
And even beyond exploring the ways in which dominant monogamous discourses influence the lives of polyamorous community members, I wonder what would become possible if we examined some of the stories that are frequently told within polyamorous culture.
As much as polyamorous community members have often written new rules for ourselves when it comes to relationships, we are still influenced by dominant culture.
[Fifth slide] Cultures of Therapy and of Polyamory
This list of principles is adapted from Michael White’s writing in “Notes on power and the culture of therapy”, and I try to be guided in my work by these principles. They are that:
● The cultures of therapy and of polyamory do not have a privileged location outside of culture at large.
● The cultures of therapy and of polyamory are not exempt from the structures and ideologies of dominant culture.
● The cultures of therapy and of polyamory are not exempt from the politics of gender, race, class, age, ethnicity, heterosexism, transantagonism, ableism, ongoing colonialism, etcetera.
● The cultures of therapy and of polyamory are not exempt from the politics associated with hierarchies of knowledge and the politics of marginalisation*
*And that’s particularly important because even though narrative therapy explicitly and intentionally takes a position that people are the experts in their own lives, as a narrative therapist, I am still influenced by the dominant discourse of therapy as something that includes an expert therapist and a client. I internationally never use the word ‘client’ when I’m talking about the people that I work with, because I wanna destabilise that, but it still shows up in the therapy room; it still has to be challenged intentionally every time it shows up.
So this – all of this [gestures at the slide on display] – became very apparent to me when I began this project, because it was the first thing that came up when I began my community consultations.
[Sixth slide] Consulting Community Members
And what I did was I asked members of the community to tell me what I needed to know, basically.
[Seventh slide] Community-assigned Areas of Focus
So, in these consultations, which are ongoing, I met with community members who were not looking for therapeutic help but did have ideas about what narrative therapists (and other therapists) should know about polyamory. I wanted to hear from people who had experience with seeking out therapy or counselling, and who had insider knowledge about what was, and wasn’t, helpful.
These are some of the topics that community members brought up. They suggested that I needed to know about:
● How to help people strengthen connections to histories of choice and agency
● I need to figure out how to invite stories of resistance and declining to cooperate with non-preferred monogamous norms
● I needed to figure out how to make visible the harm of marginalising discourses within polycules, particularly:
○ Hetero and cis-normativity
● I needed to figure out how to help people strengthen their connection to preferred values and
● Address abuse within polycules
● And I needed to figure out and understand couples privilege, which is the hierarchical norms that privilege married, domiciled, or pre-existing couples over non-married, non-domiciled, or newer relationships.
All of this work is informed by a strong ethic of collaboration. The polyamorous community has faced significant marginalisation, and this marginalisation has been differentially felt. I have not experienced all of the marginalisations that are felt by people in the polyamorous community. So I needed help figuring some of that stuff out, and I need ongoing help in that.
Black, Indigenous, and racialized polyamorous community members face an intersection of racism and mononormativity; disabled community members face an intersection of ableism and mononormativity; queer and trans community members face mononormativity intersecting with transantagonism and heteronormativity, or an assumption of non-monogamy based on stereotypes of queer promiscuity.
And yet, community members advise that these intersections are often unacknowledged in therapy sessions. All of these intersections, and many others, must be accounted for in the research process, or the work runs the risk of cooperating with dominant discourses that cause considerable harm. This is in line with other narrative projects, like Salome Raheim’s “invitation to address privilege and dominance”.
So with this information, I started wondering: How can these knowledges inform narrative practice? That was the second step.
[Eighth slide] Case Studies and Strengthening Community Wisdom into Practice
These are some of the areas where I’m trying to bring these insights into practice, I’m not gonna talk much about beginning polyamory, although that is in an area where I’m doing quite a bit of work. I want to focus on the last three, mostly in the interest of time:
So, polyamorous families, which we’ve talked quite a bit about today.
Parenting outside the box is often challenging. Parenting inside the box is also challenging, considering the unreasonable expectations placed on parents, particularly mothers, regardless of whether they are cisgender or transgender; whether they are biological or not. “The box” might include many different dimensions, but most often it is the way that parenthood is assumed to be the domain of people – most often women – who are heterosexual, cisgender, abled, neurotypical, monogamous, and biologically related to their children.
Speaking as a non-binary, non-procreative, bisexual, polyamorous stepparent, these pressures came down hard as soon as I started spending time in public with my nesting partner and his two children. This experience, of suddenly finding ourselves defined primarily in relation to the children we parent, is one that many of my community members also describe experiencing.
Narrative therapy offers helpful practices, particularly around deconstructing discourse, strengthening connection to cherished values and hopes, and inviting families, including extended kin networks, to ‘join together’ (Newman, 2010) in responding to the problem. Every polycule is unique, and I try to bring a spirit of curiosity to these narrative conversations (Freedman, 2002).
The social challenges and pressures facing polyamorous parents are often strengthened by the lack of language and available narratives for understanding polyamorous parenting. In this way, it is similar to any other step or blended or extended family. As Lisa Doodson (2016) notes:
Not only do we struggle as a society to define a stepfamily but also individuals often fail to identify themselves with the definition. Thus stepfamilies are often unacknowledged and unrecognized in society. It could be argued that a general negative perception of stepfamilies and stepparents can lead to a reluctance to identify oneself as part of a stepfamily and this, in turn, will perpetuate the under-representation.
These “negative assumptions” that she talks about can be compounded for polyamorous families, because there are negative assumptions associated both with stepfamilies/stepparents, and also with polyamorous individuals.
There are also sometimes fears of overstepping a boundary. For example, some of my community members have expressed concern over self-identifying as a stepparent in a polyamorous context, particularly if they have taken on parenting responsibilities within a family that still includes multiple biological (or pre-established) parents.
If there are already two parents parenting together, then is another adult in a parental role a stepparent? A live-in nanny? An occasional babysitter? An amorphous blob of emotional energy floating through the children’s lives?
This last is a joke, but it also reflects a real dynamic that I have seen in multiple polyamorous parenting situations, where the newer parent or parents, even after moving in or becoming significantly involved in childcare responsibilities, do not have any easily available label. The lack of accessible naming can invite problems into the relationship, because it can be, as one community member articulated, destabilizing.
There are all of the complexities of stepparenting, which is already a role fraught with expectation, assumption, and frequent invalidation, but without even the thin social acceptance that comes with “real” stepparenting: much of the responsibility, little of the social acknowledgement. If we are constructed in and through our relationships, as narrative therapy would suggest, then the labels and titles available to us make a difference in how we are able to construct ourselves in relation to the children that we parent.
This means that one focus of my work with polyamorous families involves deconstructing discourses around parenthood and family. For many community members, this involves specifically deconstructing discourses of motherhood, because of pressures felt by women and non-binary folks who are read as women are so deeply rooted in pervasive cultural narratives. Spoiler alert: misogyny!
I have found it useful to use questions like:
● Who taught you what it means to be a mother or a parent?
● Who is able to be in this role?
● Have you seen people in this role that you might not expect? Would they also be called mothers or parents?
● Does this definition of motherhood or parenthood feel like it aligns with your own values?
● Are there ways that you resist this definition of motherhood or parenthood?
● Are there ways that you enjoy this definition?
● Are there other words for this kind of caregiving role?
There are so many ways in which polyamorous families are strong, supported and supportive. One of the most important goals of my work with polyamorous families is to uncover the histories of the skills and values that are helping them navigate what is often a joyful, messy, rewarding part of their lives. Sometimes this joy can be obscured by the lack of structural support and by all the ways we get pushed around by monogamous discourses and fears for our kids. Strengthening connections to people’s values, hopes, dreams, skills, and insider knowledges can be helpful.
Narrative therapy with unsupportive family members.
One of the problems that many polyamorous community members are struggling with is unsupportive family members. This is particularly true when children are involved and grandparents are very worried.
Narrative therapy offers tools for responding to this. Many of these are adapted from work that I’ve had the privilege of witnessing at the Gender Health Centre in Sacramento, to help families of trans youth find ways to join together to support their young person despite their own fears and the ways they’re being influenced by transphobic discourses. This is also influenced by the work of Sekneh Hammoud-Beckett; she works with queer and gender diverse Muslim youth and their families in Australia.
In both of these spaces, one of the most powerful responses has been to search for gaps in the problem. So if the problem is that the parent is unable to see a positive way forward for the child, or the parent is unable to loosen the grip of the discourses that have a hold on them or are pushing them around, either transphobic discourses, or mononormative discourses, queerphobic discourses; there are always gaps. Problems are never as solid as they first appear to be. So parents or family members who are being influenced by transphobic discourses might have experienced the pressure of rigid gender norms themselves. Have they ever felt restricted by this? How did they respond? What let them know that a response was possible? It’s actually because of the way that rigid gender norms work; it is impossible to find a person who has ever succeeded at meeting those norms all the time throughout their life. And so at every point where they have not succeeded in meeting that norm, there’s an opportunity to talk about what was happening there, and bring that into a conversation about how they support their trans family members. Same thing with monogamy because the ideal of monogamy is this impossible standard that no one has ever been able to meet at all times, in all ways. So there’s always an opening, you just have to sometimes really dig for it.
So this can also be true when we’re talking about polyamory. Even many folks who are fully in alignment with the most rigid definitions of monogamy, have resisted cultural norms, either in monogamy or in other ways. Those stories can be a gateway to understanding and joining together.
It can also be helpful to explore their hopes for their family member. Why are they afraid of their family member practicing polyamory? What does this fear say about what they want for their family member or what they hope for their member? If they “just think it’s wrong”, who told them it was wrong, and have they ever questioned this authority?
At a recent presentation, Sekneh said that her work with the families of queer and gender diverse Muslim youth often takes years. In my own journey with my mom, who has struggled with my polyamory, this makes sense to me. However, I now have a great relationship with my mom and she knows all of my partners, and narrative therapy offers tools that can make this a bit easier than some of that struggle.
Responding to abuse within polycules.
I left this to last. This is the one that I am most passionate about in my work. It’s also the one where I see the least amount of literature. There is very little writing that addresses abuse within non-monogamy. Tonnes of writing about abuse, a growing body of writing about non-monogamy. I have not seen that intersection addressed specifically, and I think it’s really important.
In my work so far, I have noticed that there are polyamorous folks whose experiences of suffering abuse are minimized or made invisible through reliance on the individualising and pathologising narratives that have been taken up within polyamorous discourse. What I mean by that is that if someone is experiencing abuse and it doesn’t fit into a narrative that we have available to us, it can be way too easy to locate the problem in the person, and that this actually happens fairly often, and that pathologising discourses…I should have a spoiler on this subtext, or maybe I should just follow my script. Anyway, I’m gonna talk about it. I am curious as to how existing narrative practices can be adapted to respond to abuse in polycules.
I wonder: could a group be formed, and accountability circles be used in ways that adapt the work of Michael White, Kylie Dowse, and Kiwi Tamasese of the Just Therapy group. In my specific context, this seems daunting because I do not work with an agency, and I have already encountered the difficulties of engaging in open discussion of abuse in polyamorous contexts. So Kiwi Tamasese, who I just name dropped there, she worked with the Just Therapy team in New Zealand. They had a project called the “Stop Abuse” project, that responded to I believe it was a radio interview, and someone said something about the high rates of abuse within Polynesian, or Pacific Islander communities, and so the Just Therapy team heard this, and thought well, our community is not actually more abusive than any other community. The problem is not racialised communities being more abusive than other communities, and also there is abuse that happens within our racialised community.
On the Stop Abuse project, they were responding to abuse within the community and harmful stereotypes about the community, so the polyamorous community is also contending with both within-community and about-community challenges. We need to find a way to respond to abuse within polycules that doesn’t end up or that resists easily being weaponised against the polyamorous community.
I’m also curious, how can abuse be named and acknowledged when it is experienced by “secondary” or non-domiciled partners? There are so many discourses that suggest these partners should be “happy with what they’re offered” or that they “knew what they were signing up for,” and these discourses are present in discussion groups, they’re present online, and they’re present among many therapists. If you want an example of that, Franklin Veaux, in his book The Gamechanger (2015), talks about a response that a therapist had to a secondary partner bringing up concerns with being treated in rally dehumanising ways, and the therapist saying well, didn’t you know what you were signing up for?
I’m also curious, how can this work address the particular vulnerabilities of “unicorns” (bisexual often women, often younger than the established couple, who are often brought into the polyamorous context at financial disadvantage), or other vulnerable community members who often end up in “secondary” roles? This is a particular struggle for me, because I find the language of hierarchical polyamory, particularly the “primary”/”secondary” thing really challenging, and in sessions where that language is introduced, I have to work pretty hard to maintain a narrative stance rather than centering myself.
I’m also interested in how couples privilege can be addressed in narrative ways. I have done some work in this area, adapting learning from my time interviewing therapists at the Gender Health Centre. David Nylund, who works there, suggested starting a narrative session by asking questions that encourage descriptions of why people chose polyamory and what they value about polyamory. In my discussions with folks I have noticed that “ethics,” “consent,” and “freedom” are words that are used often. So this can then become a framework for discussing whether their actions within the polycule align with these stated values, and asking questions that elicit stories of times when they have acted in alignment with these values.
How can issues of race, class, neurodivergence, and ability be addressed in this work? And how can abuse be discussed in ways that acknowledge how abuse experienced within the polyamorous context may be an extension of violence experienced in everyday life? This feels particularly important, and is one of the points that came up again and again in my interviewing folks about what they wished therapists knew about polyamory. A strong grasp of intersectionality and how intersections of marginalization and privilege operate within polyamorous contexts was a key requirement, and one that many folks had experienced as lacking in their experiences of relationship therapy up to that point.
I have seen that this intersection of polyamory and abuse can occur in a couple areas. I’m going to talk particularly about racism and ableism. Regarding racism – racism within polycules is quite common. Abusive behaviours rooted in racism are so commonplace in many polyamorous communities that it is, to quote another community member, “terrible but not unexpected.” I think that Kiwi Tamasese’s work can be adapted to this context, because we’re working on addressing ‘justice across cultures’ (White, 2007).
It can also occur in relation to ableism, where individualising narratives can serve to isolate chronically ill or disabled folks, and narratives of emotional labour can be weaponised against community members who have more or different needs than their partners. Ableist abuse is particularly insidious in polyamorous contexts, where individualizing narratives have taken root so strongly. Although polyamory offers hope and opportunities for community engagement and support, this hope can only be realized when internalised and structural ableism is addressed directly. Opening up conversations about what support looks like, how folks might value support, and challenging individualist discourses has been an important part of my narrative work with disabled polyamorous community members and their partners.
Polyamorous communities are often cut off from mental health supports, and are legitimately invested in maintaining an image of “an ethics based on honesty, respectful negotiation and decision making, integrity, reciprocity and equality” (Klesse, 2011). Polyamorous folks are, as Kevin Patterson in Love is not Colorblindphrases it, in a position of “forced ambassadorship,” where quote: “[t]he structure of your relationships, the success or failure of your relationships, and even your demeanor within those relationships will be used as an example by monogamous people talking about polyamory amongst themselves…forever” (2018). Facing considerable discrimination from both society at large and many therapists who are “under-educated about the lives and needs of polyamorous people” (Weitzman, 2006), polyamorous folks are often hesitant to speak with their therapists about their polyamory.
I think that this will be a particular challenge in adapting narrative practices to my work with polyamorous communities – how can I create spaces that invite conversation about experiences of abuse (both using abuse and experiencing abuse) in ways that “thwart shame” (Dowse, 2017), which is such a silencing factor, that name abuse and invite a breaking from its effects (White, 1995a), and that engage folks in rich explorations of how they have been recruited into abusive behaviours and how they have resisted (White, 2011). There are already barriers to speaking out about abuse, and narrative therapists have already been engaging with undermining and subverting and getting around some of these barriers. I suspect that these barriers are amplified in some polyamorous contexts and we would need to do some additional work to bring some of that good work that’s happened in narrative therapy already. To bring it into polyamorous contexts, we’ll need a bit of extra work.
Folks can sometimes expect less support from friends, family, and professionals when experiencing abuse within polyamorous contexts. If the partner using abuse is a nesting or married partner, the practice of polyamory can be blamed as the trigger for the abuse. Polyamory, like bisexuality, can invite what one narrative therapist called “the wild reputation that might have meant people wouldn’t believe me” (Kate, 1999) in terms of describing abuse. And when the partner using abuse is a satellite, secondary, or non-domiciled partner, the same victim-blaming rhetoric of “why don’t you just leave” or end a relationship can be amplified by monogamous-normative discourses that frame polycules as inherently unstable, less committed, less loving, etcetera.
It is already perceived that is is “easy” to leave an abusive partner, despite all evidence to the contrary, and this can be exacerbated in polyamorous contexts. What polyamorous folks want when seeking a resolution to the abuse may not be to “just leave.” Although she writes specifically about marginalised women, Amanda Burgess-Proctor’s work seems relevant to marginalized folks of all genders who have experienced abuse. She says: “Obviously, all women desire cessation of abuse. However, the prevailing assumption that women also wish to leave their abusive partners may not reflect the specific desires of certain battered women, including minority-group women” (Burgess-Proctor, 2008).
So there is complexity in polyamorous contexts. And in my own specific work, many of my community members are queer or trans. On that note of complexity, I wonder what is the role of a metamour in a polyamorous context when abuse is present? If a partner has witnessed or heard about their partner experiencing abuse from another partner, the maps for best action are scarce and confusing. This seems to me like an important area for learning and for working and for figuring out how we can invite collaborative action and community response to abuse in polyamorous contexts.
So one of the first times I presented at a conference was in 2013 at the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association’s first conversation. I spoke about the norm within polyamory to “not stick your hand in the crazy”; a phrase that had been used in a discussion group to describe the ways in which certain mental health challenges were understood to render people unfit to practice polyamory. I was a mental health advocate before I discovered polyamory, and I am exactly the types of crazy that were generally considered ‘unpolyamorable’. [laughs] So this norm did not align at all with my values. This norm still exists in many polyamorous contexts. One of my community members recently referenced the ‘rumour network’ that occurs within polyamorous communities, many of which are small and close knit. “So-and-so has Borderline; don’t date them!” is something that this community member has heard multiple times, and this has made their own experience of navigating, searching for a diagnosis and fearing a diagnosis particularly fraught. In contexts where a partner has been abused, and the abused partner has a diagnosis that falls under the ‘unpolyamorable’ category, their abuse may be minimised or dismissed and they may experience further isolation from communities that are often already small and dealing with the scarcity of social support resources.
At this point, it seems important to note the prevalence of Borderline Personality Disorder diagnoses, particularly among individuals who have experienced trauma. Even the research into this topic seems deeply embedded in pathologising discourses (Cattane, Rossi, Lanfredi, and Cattaneo, 2017). I see this diagnosis either formally offered by a mental health professional, or armchair diagnosed by friends, family or partners used to dismiss the experiences, particularly of polyamorous women, frequently in online spaces. And I also see this in the experiences of polyamorous women who consult with me. It is really important to note, and there has been research on this, that gender divide in who actually receives a Borderline Personality Disorder diagnosis. Many of these folks seem to have been handed a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder despite this not being an easy or comprehensible fit for them (Druker, 2014). A BPD diagnosis is sometimes used to discount the insider knowledges or experiences of the individual who has been diagnosed. And this can leave these individuals more vulnerable to abuse and less able to access support. These patterns perpetuate the pathologising and controlling ways in which biomedical discourses have responded to “difficult women” (Dolman, 2015). There are always exceptions and resistances. I’m describing a problem, and so you know there are gaps in the problem.
People are always responding to and resisting the injustices in their lives. Two of my community members have self diagnosed as BPD and have found a significant amount of freedom and comfort in the diagnosis. Both of these individuals also use it as a partner selection tool, in this case weeding out the ableist jerks who can’t handle the diagnosis. I appreciate the skillful ways in which these individuals have taken a diagnosis that is often weaponised against vulnerable folks and turned it into a screening tool. Bringing a narrative stance into my session with these community members, and specifically maintaining an awareness that they are the experts in their experiences, and that they are already responding to injustices, allowed me to engage in conversations about BPD without cooperating with ableist discourses. That whole thing about how neither polyamory nor therapy are outside the culture is really real. It takes intentional effort to choose not to cooperate with harmful dominant discourses.
I’m just gonna side note here. These conversations with these two community members are slowly evolving into a collaborative project to create a resource that will be available for folks who identify with the Borderline Personality Disorder diagnosis, and who want a resource that centres their voices. That’s probably not gonna happen until spring, probably. But anyway, if anyone here who self diagnosed, or has a diagnosis, or is interested in that project, you can get in touch with me, because I will be doing interviews with people to create this collaborative resource that centres BPD voices. They’re often really missing from discussions of borderline.
Individualizing discourses are incredibly powerful. The experience of anxiety, depression, jealousy, or other difficult emotion or mental health experience becomes disconnected from the context within which they occur, and fall so easily into alignment with norms such as “own your own feelings” or “take responsibility for yourself.” As one community member put it recently, while dealing with an experience of jealousy, “none of us want to be a bad poly people.” When these experiences impact the polycule, they can be framed as an imposition, a problem that exists within one person. One way I have adapted narrative practices within my context is to ask questions that elicit stories of times when the polycule has joined together, or might join together, to respond to the problem. Since all the members of the polycule are already responding to the problem, whether that’s by ignoring the person who is having the problem, throwing bath bombs at them, whatever it might look like; everyone in the polycule is already responding to the problem, which means that we can find ways to respond in more preferred ways to the problem. So it’s just a short jump over to “joining in with” the person experiencing the concern directly (Newman, 2010). So I have a long quote here from Michael White (1995b):
The discourses of pathology make it possible for us to ignore the extent to which the problems for which people seek therapy are the outcome of certain practices of relationship and practices of the self, many of which are actually informed by modern notions of “individualism.” And the discourses of pathology make it possible for us to ignore the extent to which the problems for which people seek help are so often mired in the structures of inequality of our culture, including those pertaining to gender, race, ethnicity, class, economics, age, and so on.
I think that’s really important whenever we’re talking about a diagnosis or pathology to think about whether we are cooperating with norms that make context invisible.
Within my own polycule and polyamorous community, many of us deal with unwelcome guests such as anxiety or depression, or have experienced suicidal thoughts or have been bequeathed various diagnoses, which fit to varying degrees. Despite this insider knowledge, and the corroborating insider knowledges of my community members, there is still a lack of engagement in many polyamorous documents and in polyamorous norms to engage with mental health as something that does exist within contexts of structural inequality. Individualizing narratives frame these problems as being located in the people experiencing them, and invitations to join with each other to respond to the problem can be seen as impinging on freedom or autonomy, or falling into “codependency”. That’s a term I have seen used often to explain why a polycule might not join together, and it ignores the ways that the problem is already affecting everyone in the polycule.
Polyamorous writer and educator, Clementine Morrigan, writes about the “discourse that bemoans the exploitation of emotional labour but simultaneously does not acknowledge the ways in which emotional labour is the glue that holds our communities together” (2017). Avery Alder writes, “If we’re going to be politicising basic kindness between friends and community members, I worry about doing so with the language of labour. Because labour demands compensation, and I think “my kindness to you demands compensation” has insidious implications” (2017). Both of these writers, who are personal heroes of mine, are challenging some of the individualism that has crept into polyamory, and even into social justice networks. This challenge is important!
Alright. This is near the end of my talk.
These are just some of the ways that I’m exploring narrative therapy and polyamory. I’m really excited about this work, and I’m looking forward to eventually generating resources that can be useful for community members as well as other therapists.
If you’d like to get involved in this, either by telling me what you think narrative therapists should know about polyamory, or by working together, get in touch!
Kevin Patterson says: “Once you’re aware of the struggle, we all need to find the room to be better and do better” (2018). My community members have taught me so much about the shape and contours of their struggle, and now we’re working to find the room to be and do better.
So, we have no time/some time? Oh right, we started a little late.
Question clipped for audience anonymity
So, confronting individualism and challenging that. I think externalising is actually the most effective way to do that. Like, just asking where is this problem being located, and if it’s being located in a person, shifting that. I mean, it’s not that easy, like it never is that easy, but thinking about problems as being specifically outside of individuals and not being the responsibility of individuals to fix themselves. So if you ask the question “where is this problem located?” and the answer ends up being “well, it’s…my metamour’s anxiety”, that’s something that is inside that person. Once you notice that, you can start asking questions like “I wonder when the anxiety showed up for my metamour; maybe we can talk about that”. “I wonder what strengthens the anxiety?” “I wonder what skills my metamour has been using since the anxiety first showed up?” “Where did I learn that anxiety is something that exists within people rather than within contexts; I wonder if I can think about that?”
Q: So I think that really interesting point about, – and spoiler alert for some of what I’m gonna talk about later, but – one of the areas the polyamorous I think are legally vulnerable is the stereotype and narrative that polygamy is inherently harmful and inherently abusive. And the overlap between polygamy and polyamory. And so I’m wondering, can you expand on that a little more about that interplay? Are there narrative therapists working on this? I think that narrative therapy’s a really powerful tool to address this too and the fact that it’s a legal problem, because it’s decentering the notion that this is a useful narrative.
Tiffany: So yeah. There is not a lot of writing within narrative therapy about polyamory. I know there are quite a few narrative therapists interested in it. I think the thing narrative therapy does best, that would be most helpful in this area, is collective narrative practice. So, reaching out to community members and collaboratively generating documents that demonstrate how people are responding to injustice or to hardship or to harm. In this case I would say the injustice would be that narrative. How are people responding to that? Because part of the reason that is such a strong narrative culturally, is because those are the stories that we’re surrounded by, so. And then maybe also get every legislator in a room and do some deconstructing discourse sessions; that would also be a way narrative therapy would be helpful [laughs].
Barker, M. (2011). Monogamies and non-monogamies: a response to “The challenge of monogamy: bringing it out of the closet and into the treatment room” by Marianne Brandon, Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 26:3, 281-287.
Burgess-Proctor, A. (2008). Understanding the help-seeking decisions of marginalized battered women. (Order No. 3312668). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (304580274).
Cattane, N., Rossi, R., Lanfredi, M., & Cattaneo, A. (2017). Borderline personality disorder and childhood trauma: exploring the affected biological systems and mechanisms. BMC Psychiatry, 17, 221. http://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-017-1383-2
Dolman, C. (2015). Re-contextualising conversations and rich story development. International journal of narrative therapy & community work 4, 12-24.
Doodson, L. (2016). Understanding stepfamilies. Open University Press.
Dowse, K. (2017). ‘Thwarting Shame: Feminist engagement in groupwork with men recruited to patriarchal dominance in relationship.’ International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, 1, 1-10.
Drahm-Butler, T. (2015) “Decolonising identity stories: Narrative practice through Aboriginal eyes” In B. Wingard, C. Johnson, and T. Drahm-Butler (Eds.), Aboriginal narrative practice. Dulwich Centre Publications.
Druker, A. (2014). What to do when a diagnosis doesn’t fit? International Journal of Narrative Therapy & Community Work 4, 16-23.
Freedman, J. & Combs, G. (2002). Narrative couple therapy. In Narrative therapy with couples… and a whole lot more! A collection of papers, essays and exercises. Dulwich Centre Publications.
Hammoud-Beckett, S. (2007). Azima ila Hayati – An invitation in to my life: Narrative conversations about sexual identity. International Journal of Narrative Therapy, 1, 29-39.
Kate. (1999). ‘A story of survival’ In ‘Taking the hassle…’ Dulwich Centre Journal (2&3). Republished 1999 in Dulwich Centre Publications (eds): Extending Narrative Therapy: A collection of practice-based papers (117-124). Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications.
Klesse, C (2011) Notions of love in polyamory – Elements in a discourse on multiple loving. Laboratorium 3(2): 425.
Newman, D. (2010). Using narrative practices with anxiety and depression: Elevating context, joining people, and collecting insider-knowledges. International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work 2, 22-29.
Patterson, K. (2018). Love’s not color blind: Race and representation in polyamorous and other alternative communities. Thorntree Press.
Russell, S. & Carey, M. (2004). Narrative Therapy: Responding to your questions. Dulwich Centre Publications.
Tamasese, K. (2003) Stop abuse project. In Waldegrave, C. (Ed.) Just Therapy: A journey. Adelaide, Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications
Veaux, F. and Flox, AV. (2015). The game changer: A memoir of disruptive love. Thorntree Press. (See footnote 1)
Weitzman, G. (2006). Therapy with clients who are bisexual and polyamorous. Journal of Bisexuality, 6(1-2), 137-164.
White, C. (2007). ‘Working for gender justice across cultures’ An interview with Taimalieutu Kiwi Tamasese by Cheryl White. In Conversations about gender, culture, violence and narrative practice, 99-107. Dulwich Centre Publications.
White, M. (1995a). ‘Naming abuse and breaking from its effects.’ In White, M. (Ed.) Re-Authoring lives. Dulwich Centre Publications.
White, M. (1995b). ‘Psychotic Experience and Discourse’ an interview with Michael White. In Re-Authoring lives. Dulwich Centre Publications.
White, M. (1998). Notes on power and the culture of therapy. In C. White & D. Denborough (Eds.), Introducing narrative therapy: A collection of practice-based writings. Dulwich Centre Publications.
White, M. (2011). ‘The responsibilities: Working with men who have perpetrated violence.’ In Narrative Practice: Continuing the conversations. Dulwich Centre Publications.
Wingard, B. & Lester, J. (2001). Telling our stories in ways that make us stronger. Dulwich Centre Publications.
 Given the revelations of Franklin Veaux’s own abusive behaviours, I am following the directives of the people who have shared their stories and leaving this reference to his work here, but sharing the information about what has happened. I would not recommend The Gamechangergiven the information that has come to light. If you would like to read more, you can find the survivor pod FAQ here – https://www.itrippedonthepolystair.com/frequently-asked-questions/.
You can find me at a bunch of public events this month. I’ve put them all together here to make it easier!
Shiny! speculative writing group
November 8, 4-5:30 pm mountain time
Our offshoot group from An Unexpected Light is open to anyone who wants to join, whether they’re in the course or not. October’s event was cancelled, and I’m excited about getting back to this group because it is always so lovely to share space imagining better futures, and I think it will be particularly needed this month.
This month, Possibilities will have two events (this is not because I am so ambitious, but rather because I forgot I had already scheduled the paint night when I scheduled the chat event with the October participants. *facepalm*)
Everything* to do with bi+ sex
November 7, 6-7:30 pm mountain time
* “Everything” includes: representation in media and pop culture; accessing sexual health care; learning how to have bi+ sex; and asexual erasure in pop culture and social spaces; and how we’re navigating sex in the pandemic.
Our second paint night will be painting acrylic galaxies. I will not be providing craft packs as the default, but I will be offering to help anyone who doesn’t have access to supplies (paint in black, white, and a few bright colours for the nebulas; at least one paint brush; a sponge; and paper or canvas).
My time isn’t confirmed yet, but I believe I’ll be doing a short (15-minute) presentation at 9 am mountain time on November 23, followed by a 45-minute chat with participants, on the topic of polyamory and speculative fiction. Planning for this talk has been fun, because polyamory has such deep roots in speculative fiction – Robert Heinlein’s influence on North American polyamory is significant! But I am way more interested in the speculative work of marginalized writers, so although obviously I’ll acknowledge Heinlein, I want to focus on works like NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth and the polyamorous representation in Sense8.
I will also be talking about An Unexpected Light at this event.
Anyway! If you want to get up early on a Monday morning to geek out with me about speculative fiction, do it! http://polycon-canada.com/
Ally Toolkit Conference 2020: Free Community Day Programming
Imagining Possible Futures: Speculative Fiction and Social Justice
November 26, 3-4 pm mountain time
I’ll be presenting a workshop on reading and writing speculative fiction as a tool for social justice, for the Calgary Queer Arts Society’s Ally Toolkit Conference. Especially for allies, reading visionary fiction (Walidah Imarisha’s term for fantastical work that makes existing power structures visible and helps us imagine pathways to more just futures), can be one way to be in solidarity with marginalized communities. That’s the angle I’ll be taking in this workshop – how to use our reading (viewing, listening, etc.) more intentionally as a tool for justice and liberation.
Supporting non-monogamous and polyamorous community members: a workshop for therapists, social workers and other support providers.
When: July 25, 2019, 6 – 9 pm Where: 2632 24 Street SW, Calgary, Alberta Cost: $60, with sliding scale available. Tickets can be purchased on Eventbrite and on the Facebook event. Since space is limited, please do register ahead of time.
Do you work with polyamorous or non-monogamous community members? Do you want to? This workshop is for you!
In this workshop we’ll talk about what polyamorous and non-monogamous community members might need their providers to know, as well as some of the concerns that non-monogamous and polyamorous community members might bring into therapy sessions.
We’ll touch on:
Discourses of monogamy, some of the history of these discourses (including their link to colonialism and the suppression of Indigenous and other kinship structures) and how these discourses show up in people’s lives (including our own)
Marginalizing discourses within polycules (ableism, racism, sexism, cis- and hetero-normativity)
Abuse within polycules
This workshop will also introduce some helpful narrative therapy practices, although it is open to practitioners from a wide range of therapeutic models.
The cost for this workshop is $60, with sliding scale available. If you would like to attend but the cost is an issue, please get in touch!
This location is *not* wheelchair accessible – there are stairs to get to the boardroom. If you would like to attend but will not be able to access the physical space, please get in touch and I will try to arrange to have the workshop set up on Zoom so that you can log in. There are gender inclusive washrooms at the location.
This is part of an on-going project creating resources and supports for polyamorous and non-monogamous community members seeking therapeutic support, and for narrative therapists and other providers who are engaging with polyamorous and non-monogamous community members. Some of this work was presented at the Horizons: Polyamory, Non-monogamy, and the Future of Canadian Kinship conference last year.
Tiffany Sostar is a narrative therapist and community organizer on Treaty 7 land. They are a white, non-binary, queer settler with eleven years of lived experience within the polyamorous community.
Tharseo Counselling is providing the space, and suggested this event. Thank you, Jill!
Image description: On the left a paper heart hanging among many hearts, on the right a single torn paper heart. Text in the centre reads “it’s complicated.”
There is already so much good writing available on the topic of love, and I find myself hesitant and slow to write this post, which feels so important but feels so superfluous, redundant, pretentious. What can I say that hasn’t been said better by others?
I think that this, the stumble at the beginning of this post, is part of what and why I kept coming back to this text file again and again over the last month. Can anything new be said about love? Does it matter? Is what we want to say valuable even if it is not new? There are questions here about authenticity, originality, value and voice. Discourses of love.
So, first, I want to share some of the great writing that has inspired and moved me on the topic of love. I’m sharing these at the beginning of the post rather than the end, because within those questions of value and voice there is also the question of privilege. Whose voice am I lifting up? And many of these pieces of writing come from people who are more or differently marginalized than I am, whose voices need to be heard.
“Why look for The One, when what we want, what we need, is the many? The multiple? Not partners, but practices of love. Why is single (singular, alone) the opposite of the couple? Why is the alternative not an even greater plurality? Again, not only of lovers, but of life-sustaining arrangements of relations that we navigate without containment?
This issue is an attempt to locate and articulate ways of shoring up against the hurtful shape of love we’ve been handed by the state, by colonialism, by the family, by patriarchy. The artists and writers featured here are seeking a less deadly sort of love—forms of love that are not so easily weaponized against one another.
It’s about clearing and defending ground for new shapes to emerge when we see them struggling into life. This issue is looking for those nascent configurations about to come into view.”
“I don’t want to be loved. I want to be cared for and prioritized, and I want to build a world where romantic love is not a prerequisite for these investments—especially not under a current regime with such a limited potential for which bodies are lovable. Which bodies can be loved, cared for, and invested in.
It does not have to be this way. We can commit to keeping each other alive despite our sexual capital. We need to care for each other to keep each other alive. The myth of self-assurance is neoliberal victim-blaming in an attempt to obscure, neutralize and depoliticize our actions in the name of independent thoughts and actions and to skirt accountability.
Can we care for each other outside of love? Can we commit to keeping the unloved and unlovable alive? Is this a world that we have the potential to build?”
“When we see our interactions and our strengths as ways to give to each other, as a flow back and forth, it’s easier to see how self-care and community care are naturally intertwined. We move the nexus of self-care to the community and spread our relative wealth out. Like a microloan or a community bank, we can take what is too small to support one individual and enlarge the potential impact by pooling our collective resources. We begin to work on trusting each other in slow, small ways.”
“This brings us back to the beginning: my anxiety about being abandoned. In reality, I should be calling this, my anxiety that all my friends are going to find romantic partners and leave me behind and I’m going to lose the world I’ve learned to live in. I cried recently, in a cab at 5am, because I had an anxiety attack at a party sparked by my friend showing interest in someone. I know this isn’t normal; I’m well aware, delete your comment right now. This was super embarrassing but my friend and I talked about it and I admitted why I had a melty. It has been a good and ongoing discussion and a growing opportunity. But it was the first time in my entire life that I have ever expressed this fear to someone, especially a close friend who is implicated in this anxiety. My friend is really supportive and didn’t run when I unloaded years of hurt and trauma onto the living room floor. Living in my body also means being terrified of telling anyone anything that might scare them because you don’t want to be “crazy” and fat. You already feel like you’re too difficult to love. So laying out my vulnerabilities shook me. I’m still shaken, and I’m still processing. It’s scary to straight up tell someone: “I’m scared that one day you’re not going to care for me like you do now because you’re going to do something that is completely normal and expected in our society that I can’t participate in on an equal level.” It’s scary to ask someone to rip apart the world we live in and help you create a new one where you feel safe.”
And there’s more. There’s so much amazing work being done on the topic of loving, and liberating love from oppressive discourses, demands, expectations, entitlements. People are telling their stories, and their stories are incredibly moving.
Please share your favourite links in the comments – I would love to read more.
Languages and/of Love and/of Loneliness
I’ve been thinking about love languages a lot lately. And I’m always thinking about stories – the stories we tell and are told, about ourselves, about each other, about what’s real, what’s valid, what’s worthy. I’ve been thinking about loneliness and the language of loneliness, lately. I’ve been thinking about connection, and collective action. Community, and communities of care.
I’ve been thinking about silence and silencing and quietness.
I’ve been thinking about love.
(I’ve been thinking about leaving Facebook and starting an email newsletter.)
I’ve been thinking about the apocalypse, and about neo-liberal fatalism. (Articulated by Paolo Freire, this is “an almost casual acceptance of ongoing social inequalities as inevitable,” and a sense that just because the solution has not been discovered, it does not exist. This is particularly prevalent among privileged progressives, and I am absolutely guilty of it, of not seeing a way forward and feeling deeply fatalistic about this. Powerful antidotes exist within Indigenous feminism, Black feminism and Afrofuturism, and in the insider knowledges and transgenerational survivance of so many oppressed peoples.)
I have been thinking, especially, about how we speak our love, hear our love, receive and transmit our love within scarcity.
I have been thinking about the loneliness of “burn-out.” I agree entirely with Vikki Reynolds critiques of the discourse of burn-out (link is to a PDF of her article, “Resisting burnout with justice-doing”). Reynolds calls out the discourse that frames burnout as an internal rather than contextual problem, and suggests that one way to resist burnout is through solidarity and collective care.
I think, yes!
And I think, how?
From October 2017 to October 2018, I participated in the Tender Year project with two of my dearest loves. We each engaged with the project in our own ways, and our ability to participate actively ebbed and flowed over the course of the year, but in that year, I felt myself to be actively in solidarity with community. The project has been over for months now, and I still miss it. I have not managed to maintain that feeling of connection.
I am lonely.
I struggle to do the work of connection and cultivating community in ways that feel nurturing to me. I do the work. I can even say, and believe, that I do the work well (sometimes, in some ways). But do I do it in ways that feel nurturing to me? That is an important question. It feels critical, actually. How do we tell stories about ourselves in loving relationship, in community, in connection, in ways that honour the prickly static that surrounds so many of us who are living in pain and under financial pressure?
How do we tell stories that honour the complexities of our experiences, that resist reducing our experiences down to totalizing narratives of connection or disconnection, love or lovelessness, hope or hopelessness? How do we hold space for this complexity? How do we find language for these contradictory and still concurrently true stories?
Because it is true that I am lonely these days. I feel this truth so often, particularly in weeks (and there are many of them) when all of my interactions are somehow related to my work.
And it is also true that I am blessed with an abundance of love in my life.
I know that I am not the only person experiencing this complexity, and feeling guilty and overwhelmed at my own emotional responses.
I feel that if it is true that I am surrounded by loving community, including: loving partnerships, some of which have survived multiple major relationship structure transitions, one of which includes co-parenting, all of which are deliciously and actively and intentionally anti-oppressive; loving platonic friendships; loving family-of-origin relationships (shout out to my amazing sister, one of the foundational relationships in my life); loving chosen family relationships; and loving extended community relationships – if this is all true, and it is, then what right do I have to feel lonely? To feel isolated? To feel stretched too thin and with support that does not meet my needs? What kind of ungrateful, entitled wretch am I?!
And the companion narrative to this self-flagellation – when will everyone realize how ungrateful I am, and abandon me? And, even more profoundly present in my life – when will everyone in my life become tired of subsisting on the little I have to offer, and abandon me?
So I feel simultaneously overwhelmed with gratitude when I think about the people and the relationships in my life, and overwhelmed with guilt for the fact that I am still struggling and the fact that I feel I often have so little to offer outside of (and even sometimes within) my work.
I rarely see my people outside of work contexts, except the ones I live with. (And even there, do I do enough work around the house? Do I tidy up enough, do I cook enough, do I do enough childcare? The uncharitable answer I provide myself is no. Absolutely not.)
I am too busy, all the time. I am achy. I am tired. I am always, always (almost always) feeling overwhelmed. I don’t get enough done. I’m barely keeping up. Yesterday, I forgot to call someone who wanted to talk about working together. A referral! Of all the things to forget. I forgot to email someone potential dates for our next narrative session. I’m behind on everything, constantly. My editing work. My freelance writing work. My own writing work, which is precious to me, and yet constantly falls away. The blog posts and zines that seem to constantly be “getting there” but never actually get there.
There is a pervasive feeling of chaos in my life, and this feeling can obscure the concurrent truth that I do actually get a lot done.
When I reread Shivani Seth’s piece before writing this post, I felt the sharpness of my longing for just a little more time, more rest. More ease. More space for more care.
My pain has been unreal this last month. Every day, it hurts. My body hurts. My head hurts. This means my heart hurts. And I question myself constantly – who am I kidding, thinking I can be a narrative therapist, thinking I can make this my life? When that means that I need it to be financially sustainable… I can’t even finish these thoughts. They trail off into the abyss.
This impacts the experience and the language of love.
When I send a message to a partner or a beloved friend or to my sister or someone else, and I say, “I love you,” I mean this with such intensity and intentionality. And when they say it back, I believe it. And also, I struggle with it.
One of my community members recently described an experience of being “immune to niceness” and another described a type of “dissociating from affection.” These descriptions resonate for me. It’s like stress and contextual pressure and fear of failure and fear of abandonment create a buffer of static around me, and the feeling of being solid in the love ends up dissipated and repelled.
But this is complicated. This story of static and fear is not a true story that exists in an absence of other true stories. There is also the true story of receiving and knowing love. I am thankful for this complexity. I am thankful for stories that do not ouroboros into a tidy bow, stories that contradict themselves. Like this story of scarcity and fear, which contradicts itself constantly.
Earlier this week, I shared the following:
I often have considerable anxieties about my narrative therapy practice.
Like, I’m not accredited as a counselling therapist and I probably won’t be unless I do another degree.
And I don’t work with an organization.
And I have a ton of community organizing experience but does that count *really*?
And I have some pretty strong political views and they absolutely are present in my narrative sessions.
And sometimes I’m a bit of a “down the rabbit hole” kind of person, and often it works out but every so often it doesn’t.
Like, these concerns come up really often for me. There have been so many times when I’ve sat in front of my computer, or stood in the shower, or been driving, and my head is just *full* of thoughts like, “what do I think I’m doing? why should anyone trust me?”
Do I actually know what I’m doing?
Am I actually making a difference?
And the stresses of living under capitalism also come into play – am I ever going to have enough business to make this sustainable? How will I develop this business without cooperating with the overwhelming whiteness of the wellness industry (because I am not willing to do that)? A lot of folks have said that I need to find the folks who can pay my full rate to subsidize the folks who can’t, and I need to aim my marketing towards that, but… that implies I know anything about how to do marketing in the first place?
And I know that narrative therapy, narrative practice, explicitly and intentionally welcomes people like me – outside of institutions and organizations, working in community, noodling along without as much formal training (or the kind of training) that is expected. But still. That anxieties are there. A lot.
What I’m saying is!
I have these concerns pretty often and then other times I just feel so good about my practice, and I love what I do, and I love joining with my community members to co-research the problems in their lives. I just love it. And it feels like home for me. And there are times when I have a narrative conversation and I’m like, “damn. this is exactly what I want to do with my life. I am going to keep doing this, and just have some faith that it will work out.
My community showed up for me with such incredible words. Here is some of what they shared:
“As someone you have helped I want to say that you have made a difference in my life, and that what you do matters, and that you’re very good at it, and that I hope you continue doing what you do. Also, thank you.”
And someone else responded, “I couldn’t have said it better. Ditto!”
“I keep meaning to tell you that I got one of your fridge magnet in one of my event bags like last year and it’s still on my fridge so I can remind myself of the advice on it. In case you ever wonder if you are making a difference.”
“Our medical system is incredibly broken, especially when it comes to mental health and wellness. To do the amazing work you are doing, and want to keep doing, it’s probably actually part of your incredible strength and versatility that you _don’t_ go through the systems of control and conformity that characterize “accredited” mental health care. <3″
“You are a true gift to me and so many others like us.”
“Tiffany, I can confidently say that you have opened windows in my heart that I didn’t know were closed. I have referred many friends to your blog writing and Facebook page because what you say and how you say it is profoundly validating and stimulating. Keep going, you must!”
“Could some of what you frame as anxiety or self-doubts be part of your own process of self reflection? Is it a way of exploring your space/faith in yourself and shaping the balance between the more rigid spaces in healthcare and capitalism? I’m a part of the mainstream healthcare system, and I intentionally try to point out how little capitalism and the way it shapes the societal rituals and beliefs has anything to do with humanity and wellness. And part of how I measure success has to do with feeling uncomfortable in the space I’m in, and knowing that I simultaneously want to be of service to my community and also stay aware of the fundamental flaws in the system I’m a part of. When I read your words I feel like there’s a lot of similarities. I feel like your niche and your place of belonging is more focused than mine, and we’ve touched on the difference between narrative therapy and OT. I pretty much just want to give you a big hug and remind you that marketing is the word capitalism uses to frame networking and connection and building community capacity and recognizing skill and ability and specialization that doesn’t make someone better than another person. I love the scope and heart of what you do. I love your bravery and not compromising your ideals and values in order to ease your path.”
“I definitely see value in your narrative therapy practice! I could choose to go to a counselor who’s accreditation is acknowledged in Alberta and have part of the fee reimbursed by my insurance provider… But I find way more value in meeting with you. Your political stances create a space where I feel safer, as I know I am unlikely to experience queerphobia or fatphobia in that space. I could be wrong, but I’m also guessing that working outside of an organization might mean you are more accessible to people who are typically oppressed by organizations (especially health and mental health organizations). The sustainability piece I’m totally feeling right now. That might be the toughest one to figure out, but that also has little to do with your skills as a narrative therapist (cause you are amazing with that), and everything to do with capitalism and gatekeeping of access to mental health care.”
“I’ve often had these ideas and fears along the way…especially when starting out….it gets pretty scary at times…but not as scary as some other places I’ve been. There is a real accountability with the folks we meet when doing this work in these ways….not just accountability as an abstract idea. Keep going till you can’t I say!!”
“All of those concerns are exactly why you are going to be & are great… its the self awareness … please remember to use a great narrative mentor of your own … I’d certainly pay for your services as one.”
“I don’t have any words of wisdom, but want to say that I also experience these feels and impostor syndrome likes to push me around. I’m only just starting to get to know the way that ideas in social work/counselling like “competence” and “credibility” and “professionalism” bully me into thinking that I don’t know enough and don’t deserve to be paid the “big bucks” unless I meet the “qualifications” and become “registered”. (oh man, just putting all those words into quotations felt good and took some of their oppressive power away for a moment!) Anyway, from not knowing you very long and having never met in real life, you’ve already offered me emotional support and been thoughtful and kind when you witnessed something happening that you felt wasn’t right. You reaching out to me at that time was exactly what I needed. I am thankful that you exist and that you are able to be there for your community members.”
I’m going to put these into a book of reassurance for myself, and keep it in my office.
I’m going to keep doing my work.
I’m going to keep cultivating my loving relationships, across the wide range of their expression, and I’m going to continue to speak the language of scarcity and fear while I’m doing it.
I’m going to let this be complex.
I think that’s my primary love language – if I love you, I will step into complexity with you and for you. And that’s also how I want to be loved, with contradictions and complications.
That’s what I have to offer, and what I hope to receive.
(Maybe with a little bit of ease in there, too, sometimes. Just a bit. A bit more. More. A little more than that. Okay… maybe a lot. Someday, a lot.)
Image description: A swirl of colour. Text reads: “Relationship therapy for the polyamorous community. Access sliding scale narrative therapy and participate in a practice innovation project. Contact Tiffany Sostar firstname.lastname@example.org.”
I’ve spent the last few months talking with folks about what they wish their therapists knew about working with polyamorous individuals and relationships.
I’ve learned that a lot of folks don’t talk about polyamory with their therapists, even when they’re doing relationship therapy!, because of fear of judgement. And I’ve also learned that those fears are sometimes valid, and folks have been met with a lack of awareness, sometimes even judgement, and often a lack of understanding of how intersectional issues like racism, ableism, classism, and sexism can show up in polyamorous relationships.
I’m hoping to change that!
I am hoping to work with polyamorous folks who are either dealing with hard times in their relationships, or have dealt with hard times in the past and want help processing that, or who are opening up their relationship and want support in that process. These narrative therapy sessions will be part of an ongoing “practice innovation project” – a project designed to create a resource that other therapists can learn from and use. I’ll be documenting what works and what doesn’t work in responding to the specific challenges faced by polyamorous folks (including solo poly folks), both within relationships and from outside the relationship in our mono-normative culture.
This process will include the invitation to engage in collaborative work, and any writing that I generate about the process will be shared back with the people who have attended therapy and been part of the process. Your feedback, insight, and critiques are welcome, though not expected, and will be included (with credit) in the final project(s).
You will have access to narrative therapy to help in your polyamorous relationship, and you will also have the opportunity to participate in creating a resource that can help other people.
My office is located in central SW Calgary, Alberta, but I also work remotely via Skype (or other video chat).
To set up an initial chat, send me an email or message, or call/text me at 403-701-1489.
So, what am I hoping to accomplish in this project?
Most importantly, I want to offer some help with the gap in services that polyamorous folks are facing in the city, particularly BIPOC, disabled, trans, and neurodivergent polyamorous folks.
But then, I also want to answer these questions:
How can narrative therapists better serve polyamorous communities?
What narrative practices can help make a difference for polyamorous individuals, groups, and communities?
How can narrative therapy, which already positions people as the experts in their own experience, help strengthen and support polyamorous folks’ existing insider knowledges as they navigate challenges?
I’m interested in this practice innovation project personally, because I am both a narrative therapist and also polyamorous. I’ve been practicing polyamory for ten years in my personal life, and I have made a lot of mistakes along the way. I’ve benefited from the knowledge shared by the wider polyamorous community, and I’m also concerned about some of the narratives that have become the norm within polyamorous “common sense”. I am interested in this project because I want to expand the base of community-generated knowledge that other folks can access and benefit from.
But I’m also interested in it because of the number of folks I’ve worked with who have had poor experiences with relationship therapy because their therapist was either uninformed about polyamory, or had internalized ideas about polyamory that may be inaccurate or harmful.
Some of these ideas might include:
Monogamous narratives about polyamorous folks’ “lack of commitment” or “attachment issues”
Hostile beliefs about queer or bisexual/pansexual identities, such as the idea that non-monosexuality means folks are sexually deviant, the idea that all bisexual/pansexual/polysexual/two spirit folks are non-monogamous, or the idea that queerness and polyamory mean folks are interested in anyone or predatory in their sexual interests
Hostile beliefs about asexual identities, such as the idea that asexuality means folks can’t be polyamorous
Deeply individualizing narratives of polyamory that suggest folks have to “own your own feelings” in ways that erase or make invisible the relational context within which those feelings happen
A lack of awareness of intersectionality and how it can show up in polyamory; racism, transantagonism, ableism are all issues that can show up in polyamorous relationships
Perhaps most commonly within poly-friendly therapists, uncritical acceptance of relationship hierarchies even when these hierarchies are contributing to the poor treatment of ‘secondary’ partners
My goal is to generate a small resource that can help narrative therapists work with polyamorous folks. This is part of my Master of Narrative Therapy and Community Work program, and after this smaller project, I am hoping to develop this work into a book. There is very little writing directed at narrative therapists to help us learn how to work most ethically and effectively with polyamorous folks, and I would like to change that.
I would also like to create a companion resource for polyamorous folks who are looking for relationship therapy – something that can help folks feel more confident about what to ask, what to watch for, and how to engage with their therapist. Too often, the therapist is considered the “expert”, but for marginalized communities, there is often a huge amount of educating that happens. I’d like to create something that can help ease that burden.
So, I’m looking for folks who want to join me in this process!
As always, working with me is available on a no-questions-asked sliding scale.