Finding a kink-friendly, poly-friendly therapist, counselor, or relationship counselor
By Lia Maria Salciccia, LMFT
Thankfully, you’ve got the Poly Friendly Professionals resource right here at polychromatic. This listing includes a few MDs and Psychiatrists (who are able to prescribe medications), Psychologists, Licensed Clinical Social Workers, and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists. The scope of practice and educational background for each of these designations is a little different. However, all of the professionals under those titles can practice psychotherapy. Not all of these professionals will do the same types of therapy, for example, psychiatrists may not do psychotherapy and only medication management, or a psychologist, MFT, or LCSW might not do family or couple’s work. Professionals usually list their specialties, and you can always ask.
Hopefully, you can find a listing in your area on polychromatic. For a more general listing of kink aware professionals, consult the Kink Aware Professionals listings on the website of the National Coalition of Sexual Freedom (http://www.ncsfreedom.org/index.php) and search for Kink Aware professionals under the resources tab on the home page. Then you will be prompted to search by professional and by area.
When you locate a professional in your area, you will want to screen or “audition” them for fit and competence. The most important thing in finding a therapist is finding someone you “click” with, just as it is for friends, partners, lovers, and business partners. I encourage you to ask all of the questions you need to in order to discern whether you feel that they are qualified to help you, such as their experience, specialties, and theoretical orientation. These can help you understand what type of psychotherapist they might be and how they might work with you. But I think the most important thing is finding someone that you find easy to talk to and like being around. This might not necessarily be the person who has the most experience, or the person who dresses the same as you do. This is the person who is best suited for the job of sitting in a room week after week listening to your problems and helping you to work through them.
In fact, your pursuit of fit may determine that this person might not identify as a “poly friendly professional.” They might not know a thing about your lifestyle. If they are open minded and non-judgmental (all qualities we were trained to have) they will look forward to learning about your lifestyle the same way they would look forward to learning about someone who has a hobby or interest or national heritage that the therapist knows little about. When it becomes a problem is when the therapist has a bias against polyamory, swinging, non-monogamy, kink, gender ambiguity, homosexuality, bisexuality, or any other sexual minority.
How do you detect bias? I think the open and brisk approach is always the best. Tell them about your sexual affiliations/relationship styles when you are interviewing them on the phone. Give a brief description or definition of what that means to you. And then just ask the question, “Does that conflict with your personal beliefs?” If yes, “Do you think that would interfere with your work with me?” Or, “In order for me to trust you, I need to feel that my therapist accepts and will try to understand my lifestyle and work within it rather than to see it as evidence of a problem, or as the problem itself. I understand if you aren’t able to wrap your head around my lifestyle, but I just ask you to refer me to someone else if you think you might experience discomfort over this issue.”
If the reason you are coming to therapy centers around open relationship issues, or if you know you will need to discuss BDSM scenes and kink activity as part of the therapy, you can explain your particular circumstances to them and ask how they’d work with you if you were their client.
What you will be listening or looking for is any discomfort on their part (stammering, sounding defensive) or outright statement of bias, “well it sounds like this other lover is your problem”. If someone tells you “I have never heard of this before, and I’m not sure what to think, but I have an open mind,” I don’t think that’s a dealbreaker at all. In fact, it might be an advantage in some cases NOT to have a therapist who thinks they are an expert in polyamory issues, because those therapists might unwittingly have a bias towards what they think polyamory should look like. Not to knock myself and any of the therapists on this list! I am just pointing out that there are pros and cons to every relationship. The patient-therapist relationship is indeed a relationship. We all get something out of a relationship with someone different than us, as well as with people who are more like us. We are drawn to different people at different times, and often, our intuition knows just the right teacher, friend, therapist, or lover to attract to ourselves at just the right time.
If the therapist responds to your questioning by telling you they don’t believe in polyamory or gay marriage or that they think kink might be a sign of pathology, then they have done you a favor by being so honest. If you are ever in a situation where you feel that your therapist is discriminating or judging you or your lifestyle, I implore you bring it up immediately. Many people are afraid to confront their therapist. Any good therapist will tell you that incredibly powerful moments of great therapeutic value (for both parties) come out of being confronted by the patient. We are not perfect and are quite capable of blind spots and misunderstanding. In therapy, there is often no greater power than two human beings working through misunderstanding even when painful or awkward. You might be surprised how powerful you are in explaining why your way of life works for you, and that you just might change (and open) someone’s mind! We are trained to allow for two way interactions, including ourselves being wrong. I know I have sure had to educate my own therapists in the past about certain aspects of my own choices. In one case, I’ve had to confront a therapist, telling the person I felt uncomfortable after something they’d said. Doing so brought us closer, taught something valuable to that professional, and now at this writing I can’t imagine not having worked with this beloved and trusted healer.
It is my personal belief that sexual minorities ought to be a little cautious to choose a therapist who will support every part of them. A search on a site that tracks political contributions based on profession turned up at least one therapist in my state that contributed money to Prop 8. While most therapists tend to be open minded and willing to work through any of their own issues of discrimination, there are always the ones that don’t. “Trust in God, but tie up your camels,” as one of my favorite teachers used to say.
When referring to the poly friendly professionals list, fellow MFT and treasure of the poly community, Dossie Easton once told me, “That list is not vetted. Nor should it be.” It is outside of the scope of anyone on the lists or compiling them to be in the business of rating by quality or ethical standards. All helping professionals are held to high ethical and boundary guidelines set forth by their professional associations, however, it is possible to have a bad experience. Serious boundary violations should always be reported to the appropriate board. For instance, professional therapy never includes sex. It’s also problematic and not a good idea to mix friendship/social circles with the therapeutic relationship. If you are concerned about boundaries, ask your potential therapist how they maintain boundaries with their patients.
Finding the right helping professional for you can be challenging. You must consider a balance of lifestyle, financial, professional, and geographical issues. Hopefully, this quick guide can start you on the search by minimizing some of the pitfalls others have encountered. I wish you the best of luck, and would love to hear from you with your questions, concerns, positive and negative anecdotes, and requests for more resources.
Lia Salciccia is a polyamory friendly psychotherapist specializing in sexual minorities and alternative lifestyles. She has a private practice in San Jose, CA.