Working with – outer and inner – relat...

Working with – outer and inner – relationship diversity

This week I’m heading away with my co-author, Alex Iantaffi, for a writing retreat when we hope to make a start on our new book How to Understand Your Relationships (follow-up to How to Understand Your Gender, and How to Understand Your Sexuality).

I thought it’d be a good time to share the write-up of an interview I gave earlier this year to the Association for Cognitive Analytic Therapy conference about working with outer and inner relationship diversity.

The interview was aimed at therapists, but is hopefully relevant to anyone interested in working with their own outer and inner relationships. Alex and I will be covering many of these themes in more depth in the new book.

Who are you and where are you at in your journey?

I’m a full time writer now, but my background is in academia, activism and therapy. I write therapeutically. By that I mean that I write about therapeutic topics for a general audience (to make them more accessible than they are in a lot of books aimed at therapists) and also that I focus on writing of various kinds as a therapeutic practice.

I felt some sense of dislocation being asked to talk at a therapy conference, having spent the last four years on the other side of that room – as a client. But I have a feeling that perhaps I’ve learnt more from this recent period than from the previous twenty years, especially about inner and outer relationships.

Why are we having this conversation with you?

Probably because it was Dominic Davies – of Pink Therapy – and myself who came up with the acronym GSRD (for gender, sex and relational diversity) which I consequently wrote the free BACP resource about (hopefully useful starting point for anyone who is unfamiliar with these areas).

One of the many reasons we decided on that acronym was because we wanted to highlight that relationship diversity was just as important for therapists to consider as gender and sexual diversity – and also interrelated with them.

Relationship diversity means the diverse ways in which people understand and conduct their relationships – usually focusing on romantic relationships. For example, it includes whether people are single or coupled, monogamous or non monogamous, and whether they experience romantic attraction or not, or prioritise romantic or other kinds of relationships.

What is your approach?

I was initially a fairly mainstream psychologist and my main therapeutic learning (in my psychology degree) was cognitive behavioural therapy, with a person-centred counselling counselling certificate on the side. Then I shifted academically into a more critical form of psychology informed by feminism and social constructionism – eventually into intersectional understandings.

I trained therapeutically in existential therapy, and more recently have been mainly informed by trauma and somatic approaches. These days I see my approach as plural – I try to consider everything on (at least) four different levels, and let those understandings ripple through and influence each other. These levels are: 

  • The existential level of addressing the challenges of being human and making meaning. 
  • The sociocultural level of living in a world of certain norms and the systems and structures that enforce these. 
  • The relational level that we are brought up in relationship in ways that impact our relationships with others and ourselves now.  
  • The internal level that we are embodied beings who manifest all forms of bodymind diversity (sometimes called neurodiversity) based on the differences we are born with and the ones we develop due to our experiences.

What are we going to cover in the rest of our conversation?

I thought we might explore:

  • A bit more about why we need the R in GSRD
  • What relationship diversity looks like
  • How it impacts mental health
  • What an affirmative approach to relationship diversity might look like
  • How we might engage people in ‘how’ they relate rather than ‘what’ relationships or relationship styles they have
  • Relationship trauma as a form of cultural and developmental trauma
  • Working with our inner relationships – as a key way of addressing our outer relationships

Why do we need the R in GSRD?

Most therapy books and trainings tend to cover LGBT issues, or gender and sexuality (often as shorthand for LGBT – focused on how therapists can work with people with minority genders and sexualities).

We added relationships because gender, sexuality and relationships are inextricably linked. Dominant culture has a binary/hierarchical model of all three: gender wise we can either be a man or a woman, sexually we can be attracted to the opposite/same sex (making us straight or gay), and we act out that attraction in the form of a romantic and sexual relationship. The normative monogamous coupled relationship is the key place in which we’re expected to play out our gendered role and manifest our sexuality.

This can also lead us to question the idea of gender, sexual and relationship minorities – as there are actually many many people who do not entirely fit this binary/hierarchical model of gender, sexuality and relationships. This includes those who don’t take on traditional gender roles, those who don’t have kids, those who divorce, those who stop being sexual in their relationship, and those who live alone, for example. It can be more useful to talk of marginalised gender, sexualities and relationships; to consider the degree to which each person is marginalised by the gender/sex/relationship norms and ideals, and whether they embrace or resist that marginalisation. Like the term neurodivergence, we could also use GSR divergence to name those genders, sexualities and relationship forms that diverge from normativity.

We can trace the roots of current dominant culture normativities – and their impact – through gender, sex and relationships and how these intersects with race, class and disability. The focus on being normal is actually pretty recent historically and has its roots in scientific projects of categorisation in the 19th and early 20th century. 

At the same time that scientists and doctors were conducting research and writing books trying to determine which races were inferior (to justify colonisation and/or enslavement), the eugenics movement was taking hold in many countries to try to stop people deemed inferior – generally by race, class and/or disability – from reproducing. Essentialist arguments were also being made for gender differences to justify women remaining in the home and looking after and reproducing the workforce unpaid – something that capitalism relied upon. 

It was in this environment that we saw the origins of detailed classifications of sexual and gender ‘deviance’, as well as the first classifications of mental disorders of course. We can’t tease these intersecting forms of oppression apart; they’re all rooted in the scientific assumption that normal is important and that anyone deemed less normal is also less valuable, less human, and less deserving of compassion – or that they need to be fixed or cured and brought in line with normal.

The legacy of such approaches continues today and has a massive impact on where we’re at now.

How does relationship diversity impact mental health?

From a trauma informed and shame sensitive approach to mental health, we need to be mindful about the relationship styles and statuses of everyone.

Shame is all about normativities. We’re taught what it is and is not ok to be and we internalise that – from the cultural messages we receive, and from the people who were around us (growing up and in the present).

Relationships are a key area where this plays out (like gender, sexuality, race, class, disability, and more) because they’re  seen as so fundamental to successful selfhood. As with gender and sexuality, this impacts everyone: those who fit normativity, those who’re marginalised, and those who are invisible

Impact on those who stay within relationship normativity (whether because it feels like a good fit or because they fear doing otherwise)

As with the pressures on straight and cisgender people around sexuality and gender there is huge pressure on people in normative relationship styles to do relationships right, and often a lot of fear and shame around getting it wrong. Given the precariousness of relationships these days – and everything that gets bound up with romantic love and sex – many people are constantly in fear and shame of becoming suddenly single, of getting caught up in secret non-monogamy, or of finding themselves in a ‘sexless’ or ‘loveless’ relationship (i.e. the ‘others’ of the ideal of coupled monogamous love). Trying to fit rigid cultural or personal rules – rather than being authentic and flexible – also takes a massive toll on mental and physical health.

Impact on those with marginalised ways of doing relationships 

As with lesbian, gay and trans people, single/solo, openly non-monogamous, and asexual/aromantic people face all kinds of subtle and overt discriminations, from constantly being expected to explain themselves, through to questions raised by social services over their capacity to parent, lack of media representation in any positive way, attempts to convert them, and lack of legal recognition of their relationships (everything being set up to favour romantic couples and nuclear families). All this takes a toll on mental health, from daily micro aggressions, to having to constantly come out and educate others – or stay closeted and hide, with the sense of precariousness this involves.

Impact on those who are invisible in their relationships

Those who are non-binary or a- in their gender or sexuality are often invisible within cultural binaries, with questions posed about whether they are even ‘real’ or exist. Think about the common assumptions that bi people are really gay or straight, non-binary people are going through a phase, or asexual people are confused and just need a good sexual partner. Invisibly marginalised people generally have worse mental health than visibly marginalised people, likely due to the struggle to find supportive community (double discrimination from both normative and visibly marginalised communities), and having to constantly justify their lived experience to self and others. We’re brought up against the fact we’re not seen as valid by others constantly. For example, you might experience this every time a form or professional asks ‘do you have a partner’ and you have to say ‘no’, rather than the honest answer of ‘yes I have three’, or ‘yes, I’m self partnered’, or ‘no but I have several people who occupy the role that partners take in partnered-people’s lives’.

What does relationship diversity look like?

When I was writing the BACP resource I included a paragraph or two for each major gender, sexuality and relationship style I was aware of. In a previous book I’d only thought of monogamy and non-monogamy for ‘relationship style’, but writing this document helped me realise there are at least as many relationship styles as there are sexualities and genders. 

Like sexuality and gender it’s helpful to conceive of relationships on multiple dimensions. Some we’ve already considered are where people are at on a dimensions of: monogamy to non-monogamy, single to partnered, aromantic to highly romantic, asexual to highly sexual. We could also add dimensions  around whether people are engaging in sex and/or relationships for emotional and/or transactional reasons, and more.

Dimensions are important because none of these things are binary, for example many people occupy a position somewhere between lifelong monogamy and open non-monogamy, including monogamish relationships, affairs, dating, hook-ups, friends-with-benefits, etc.

Sexual Configurations Theory – by Sari Van Anders – is a useful theory that distinguishes between ‘erotic’ and ‘nurturing’ connections, and how these can be separate or connected, and more or less important or unimportant in people’s lives, in addition to being conducted in diverse ways with the same, or different, others.

When considering relationship style with clients we also need to be aware of the way they intersect with race, class, disability, and other intersecting axes of oppression – for instance in terms of what relationship styles are available within a particular community or culture, and how people are seen if they take up various styles. For example, Nathan Rambukkana has written about the ways in which white polyamorous people are afforded legal rights which are still denied to polygamous immigrants (polygamy actually being a majority set of relationship styles across much of the world) – with white western polyamorous people being represented as authentically choosing their lifestyle, while polygamous people are often assumed to be coerced or inferior. Forms of non-monogamy associated with people from working class backgrounds – like swinging or dogging – are also often regarded as inferior to middle class associated ones. And the ways in which disabled people navigate their sexual and intimate relationships are often denigrated – related to the view that disabled people aren’t attractive and shouldn’t be sexual.

What might an affirmative approach to relationship diversity look like?

It would recognise that different relationship styles work for different people (and at different points in their lives). 

It would treat all relationship styles as equally valid. 

It would bring these themes into the therapy room with those in normative relationships just as much as those in non-normative ones. 

As with gender and sexuality, relationship normativity can have just as detrimental an impact on people within normativity as outside of it, and they are also the least likely to have reflected on their relationships styles or to have considered other options which might be a better fit for them. So there is an argument for bringing the diverse ways of doing relationships into the room with people in normative relationships. For instance, we might ask ourselves if we would ask a polyamorous person whether they had ever considered being monogamous, might we also ask a monogamous person whether they had ever considered being polyamorous?

As with gender and sexuality, if a therapist wants to work in more relationship affirmative ways, the most vital thing is to do their own personal reflective work around their relationships. And, as with all intersecting axes of oppression, it is particularly vital that those within the norm do this work because we can be unintentionally retraumatising/oppressive when we’re in the assumed norm and haven’t examined that position and its impact on ourselves and others. 

Staying clued up about relationship diversity by reading or watching relevant material can also be useful so clients aren’t required to educate you – although, as always, it’s important to check out what a particular client’s meanings and experiences are rather than assuming.

Generally relationship diversity is taken to mean how people conduct their intimate relationships, for example whether they are monogamous or non-monogamous, but we could usefully expand the concept out to include all of the diverse ways in which people relate with themselves, with other humans, and with the non-human world. We might gently challenge the culturally dominant norms that prioritise some forms of relationships way over others (e.g. romance over friendship, exclusive over casual, with-others over with-self, with-humans over with-animals, objects, projects or passions). We could relate this to how we value some lives so much more highly than others – and the implications of this for global injustice and climate crisis.

How might we engage people in ‘how’ they relate rather than ‘what’ relationships or relationship styles they have?

Too much focus on the ‘what’ of relationships (e.g. single/partnered, monogamous/non-monogamous, romantic/friendship), can take us away from possibilities between or beyond these binaries, as well as from the more important question of ‘how’ we relate. 

There’s a free zine on my website – relationship struggles – that covers this in more depth. My sense is, that across all people of all relationship styles there is a real lack of knowledge of the ways in which people develop – and enact – relationship patterns. This means that people are often searching for the ‘right’ relationship (the one), or the ‘right’ relationship style (the poly grail) – as I did myself for many years – in order to solve the problem of painful relationships, rather than exploring what their relationship patterns are or how they might develop relationships in ways that are a better fit for them.

We’re often looking for safety, belonging and dignity from a particular relationship, or community. These come to represent – to us – things we lacked or lost previously, putting them under greater pressure and making them more precarious.

How is relationship trauma usefully seen as a form of cultural and developmental trauma?

There is significant cultural and developmental trauma around relating which plays out in relationship struggles and abusive dynamics.

We might think of cultural trauma as the normative social messages we receive about what ways of being are acceptable, good and right, and what are unacceptable, bad and wrong. Developmental trauma includes the messages we receive growing up about what aspects of ourselves are acceptable, good and right, and what are unacceptable, bad and wrong. These forms of trauma are highly interconnected, of course, as families and education systems often pass on culturally normative messages – about what emotions are acceptable to experience/express for different genders, for example, or what desires it is acceptable to feel or not feel and how it’s acceptable to act upon them – or not.

In his book, therapist Dwight Turner writes about how this operates in terms of intersecting oppressions – how we project out what we don’t want to acknowledge in ourselves onto individuals/groups and Other them (projective identification), and how we – when we are marginalised ourselves – kill parts of us in order to survive every day in normativity (internalised oppression).

In relation to relationship diversity, then, we could attend to the projections we – and others – make to those who are relationally different from ourselves. How do we/they talk about older spinsters/bachelors, for example, or the imagined relationships of young people these days, or cultural others? What aspects of our own intimate lives do we feel we have to kill off – our hide – in order to be accepted around the water cooler or at the family gathering?

To support everyone to  move towards more mutually nourishing relationships I think it’s useful to help people tune into their relationship patterns – in order that they can be more conscious of these and how they play out and gradually try to shift them (for example, we might think of patterns around fight/fawn/flight/freeze trauma responses, or blame out/blame in/avoid/withdraw shame responses).

It’s also useful to help people tune in – honestly and kindly – to the ways their bodyminds work (due to inherent neurodiversity and/or trauma and/or chosen values), and to learn what kinds of relationships – and ways of doing relationships – work for them. They could practise how to communicate this with others and focus on close relationships where there is a good fit. For example, they might consider speed of relationship development, preferences for types of social contact, boundaries around behaviours, etc. This applies regardless of type of relationship, of course, not just to conventional partnerships.

In all of this though it is vital to keep hold of the understanding of relationship diversity and the sense that all consensual relationship styles as equally valid, rather than being tempted to pathologise (e.g. thinking that people are polyamorous, aromantic, or sex workers because of their trauma, attachment style, or neurodivergence).

Why are you so keen on working with our inner relationships – as a key therapeutic process and to address our outer relationships?

One – increasingly popular – way of helping people with their trauma patterns or relationship patterns  is to work with their inner relationship diversity, exploring their plural systems, internal families, inner teams, or constellations. 

You might be familiar with Dick Schwartz’s Internal family systems model, for example, or the work of Mick Cooper and John Rowan, or Janina Fisher in relation to trauma, or Philip Bromberg in a psychoanalytic context, or Miller Mair in personal construct theory. 

This is the approach that I’ve taken to myself – or rather ourselves! – over the last decade, and particularly in grappling with the traumatic last few years – there are two free books and two free zines on the topic of plurality on our website.

When it comes to relationships we can usefully see our foregrounded – and disowned – trauma patterns or relationship survival strategies as selves or parts. For example the fight, fawn, flight and freeze ones mentioned before. It may be that we have a tendency to foreground one of those in relationships, or different ones in different kinds of relationships. We may be drawn to continually reproducing a fight/fawn, controlling/hypervigilant, or a needy/avoidant dynamic, with others – for example. Or we may find ourselves on opposite sides of familiar dynamics in different relationships

Plural work is about becoming more conscious of all parts of the self – or selves: welcoming them all in, balancing them out, and improving communication between them so we are not eclipsed by them when triggered, for example.

It can involve gradually understanding the masking mechanisms which kept the parts of us we weren’t allowed to be hidden, loosening these, bringing split off selves home, hearing and holding the feelings they protected us from, and learning who and how they can be now that they’re home.

We may well find selves that map on to all the things we’ve disliked most in others. Certainly we’re likely to find inner oppressors and abusers, as well as survivors and victims. We can also find things that we’ve delegated to others in the past (e.g. parts of us who can be strong or vulnerable when we’ve tended to try to make others into ‘the strong one’ or ‘the vulnerable one’ in relationships).

In addition to therapy, we think it can be helpful for people to do their own work/play to get to know their selves and to communicate between them. We write a lot – and try to model – journalling between selves, talking to each other, drawing our selves, exploring them in dreams, fantasies and creative writing, and inviting them explicitly into different aspects of life (e.g. cooking, inner rituals).

Plurality is absolutely not just a queer thing – straight and cis people have just as complex self systems as queer and trans people – and often also have selves who are differently gendered and/or have different erotic and/or relational desires. However people from various queer communities – in addition to cultural or spiritual communities – may have more available understandings and practices for exploring plurality. For example, some trans and non-binary people embrace multiple gender positions, some polyamorous people seek out different relationships for different selves to be foregrounded, some kinksters explicitly play with dominant/submissive parts or engage in play in order to experience child selves, or animalistic selves.

Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity – Pema Chödrön

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).