Are you curious about exploring kink, open, or poly relationships?
I recently spoke with Jeremy Sanders, MFT, a psychotherapist at Gay Therapy Center who specializes in working with clients who are interested in alternative sexual relationships. Here are some highlights from our wide-ranging conversation.
Jeremy, you’ve noticed that couples who are interested in kink are also frequently exploring open or poly relationships. What’s the connection?
Jeremy: Many experiences in the kink communities involve groups. So kink events and parties are often non-monogamous. And in BDSM communities someone in a dominant role may have multiple submissive partners. That is another layer of texture.
Also, it’s rare when long-term partners share all the exact same kink interests. Some couples open the relationship to let each partner indulge in the fantasies that may not interest their partner.
What are some of the issues you commonly explore in your sessions with clients curious about BDSM experiences?
Jeremy:For people who are new to kink it is important to talk about consent. It really is the cornerstone of how kink works in a healthy way.
We also talk about shame. Feeling shame around sex is fairly universal in our culture—especially for LGBTQ people—and has been so destructive. A BDSM or kink sexual experience can be a reframing, or a reclaiming of shame. It is an inversion of shame by taking something that is destructive—i.e. shame—and turning it into pleasure and fun.
BDSM or kink relationships can be safe spaces to turn shame on its head by embracing shame. That can be empowering and healing.
A BDSM experience can also bring up uncomfortable feelings or triggers from the past. I like to talk to clients about aftercare. Sometimes people need to be soothed or cared for after an intense role play. Some will want to focus on care from their partners. Others may want to focus on self-care.
When do you think open, poly, or kinky relationships can be unhealthy?
Jeremy:We need to feel safe and secure in relationships. If we do not feel safe then it is hard to imagine that an open, or any relationship, will feel good.
For some clients, it is a revelation to hear that they should feel safe and secure in their relationships. I provide education about how vulnerability and security work in relationships.
Partners can fall into a negative cycle of insecurity. For example, if I shut down when I feel insecure, my partner may feel abandoned. In other words, the way I get safe in relationships makes them feel worse.
Other people hope for connection by attacking or yelling. If I feel insecure when I am being yelled at, then my partner’s attempt to reach me through raising their voice will make me shut down more. When I point out the dynamic I try to show each partner that their loved one is just trying to feel safe.
Within that frame couples usually have more empathy for their partners. When they see that their partner feels insecure and is just trying to get safe, that can create more empathy. Instead of just thinking their partner is trying to start a fight, they realize their loved one is scared or lonely and is attempting connection.
As a survival strategy, most mammals have a “fight or flight” response. What I like to offer couples is the concept that you can replace “fight or flight” with “tend and befriend.”
In open relationships is jealousy is a big issue?
Jeremy:It’s likely you will feel jealous. Like any emotion, some feel it more than others. Asking how to eliminate jealousy is asking the wrong question. The better question is “How do I cope with feeling jealous?”
There’s something powerful in naming jealousy. It’s okay to say, “I feel jealous.” Couples can learn to say something like “I’m having a jelly moment.”Their partner can take care of them in that moment and say, “I still love you and I will be back in a few hours.”
What do you like about doing this work?
Jeremy:People have a lot of fear about talking about sex or kink with a therapist. They feel so vulnerable. Because I put this specialty in my bio, clients expect that they won’t be judged or shamed by me. I love being the person who helps them feel safe to talk about it.
Witnessing clients confront things they are not comfortable with makes me feel like I am doing the work I was meant to do.
Read more of our blogs on gay open relationships here.