Mindful Days of Summer

By Amy Berrafato, LMFT, CST

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As Amy F and Amy S have pointed out in earlier blogs (why yes, we do do everything together, the 3 Amy’s), there are oh so many ways to enjoy Chicago summers. From festivals to picnics to bike rides to beach days to movies in the park, the fun is endless! And as we’re nearing the dare-I-say end of summer back to school days, we scramble to do all the things we haven’t gotten to yet. I bet you have your list, too. 

It’s amazing that even when it comes to fun and enjoyment, we do it quickly. We race from one activity to the next, often on our phones taking pictures of said activities, rather than enjoying them for what they are. We plan and prep and run, knowing that our days of sunshine are limited. Better maximize while we can!

Something to consider: let’s slow down a bit. Really slow down. In mindfulness practice, we are encouraged to notice what’s happening around us, and let it be what it is. This goes for emotions as well as physical surroundings. So enjoy that fro yo, savor every last scoop. Notice the color of the neighborhood flowers while you’re walking your dog. Pay attention to how the water feels when you’re swimming in Lake Michigan. Inhale that sweet smell of BBQ down the street. Watch how your partner looks at you when they are full of joy. Appreciate that beautiful skyline sunset. Isn’t it amazing?

Although we are creatures of habit, we do get bored with routine. This is a chance for you to shake it up a bit! All that spark needs is a little change of scenery to light up again. Sit outside on that nice deck for an after-dinner beverage. Ask a question you haven’t asked in a while. Feel the wind on your face during that road trip (yep, just like dogs do!). Take the kids in the wagon to watch the fireworks. The novelty of something slightly different can offer fresh energy for you and your loved ones.

Enjoy every moment of our Sweet Home Chicago! You may or may not find me (mindfully) eating hot dogs at Wrigley. Don’t judge.


Gaslighting: Know the Signs

By Rachel Zar, LMFT

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I’m all for guilty pleasures as a form of self care. But, recently, one of my go to treats, The Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise, has become harder to watch. Why? Because of what appears to be an epidemic of gaslighting. For fellow members of Bachelor Nation, look no further than Luke P. for a demonstration of what this abusive tactic looks like. For those who have other things to do on Monday nights, read on to understand what the term “gaslighting” actually means, so you can be aware if it’s happening to you—or if you’re doing it to someone else.

What is gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which the abuser questions the victim’s judgments and reality to the point that the victim begins to doubt their own feelings or even their sanity. The term come from a 1940 play-turned-movie in which a husband continuously dimmed the lights and then denied any change in an attempt to drive his wife crazy.

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What does gaslighting look like?

Gaslighting can show up in many ways—but it ultimately looks like the abuser continuously questioning or denying that what you are saying is real or valid. Those who gaslight generally stick to their story even when you point out evidence to the contrary. (“Your memory is bad,” or “That’s all in your head.”) Instead of addressing an issue that’s important to you, they’ll often deflect, brush your feelings aside, or change the topic. (“Not this again…”) They’ll very rarely validate your side of things. Instead they’ll minimize your thoughts and feelings (“Calm down.”) and shift the blame to you. (“You’re overreacting,” or “You’re too sensitive.”) They may also claim that they only behaved badly because of the way you treated them first, twisting the truth to favor their side. They may even discredit you to others, implying that you are unstable or roll their eyes when you speak. And they may let you know what others are really thinking of you. (“Your family thinks so, too…”)

Like other forms of emotional abuse, gaslighting is often done in a way that’s difficult to detect, and it is often coupled with charm and framed as compassion. (“I’m telling you this because I love you.”) When you believe that your partner would never hurt you intentionally, you may begin to doubt that your version of things is valid at all.

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What does gaslighting feel like?

After communicating with someone who’s gaslighting you, you’ll probably feel confused and left wondering if something is really wrong with you. You may find yourself apologizing for your feelings or rewriting a story in your head that you were certain of just a few minutes ago. Over time, you’ll begin to second-guess yourself constantly, and you may have trouble trusting your own judgment or making even simple decisions. You’ll begin to feel that you can’t do anything right or that you’re not a good partner. And you may wonder why you’re not happier in a life that’s supposed to feel good.

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If this describes you, please reach out to trusted family and friends or tell your therapist. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is also a great resource: https://www.thehotline.org/what-is-gaslighting/

While gaslighting might make for entertaining television (although, that’s debatable), it absolutely cannot be part of a healthy relationship.

Once upon a time...

By Amy Stewart, LMFT

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Once upon a time in a faraway land when science was real and news was not fake, objective truth could be found the world over. In any disagreement, one person was right and one person was wrong. Alas, this is no longer the case because… none of those things have ever been true in the first place.

Unless the truth at issue is dependent upon the logical and consistent laws of nature (think 2+2=4, gravity causes apples to fall from trees, the device you are reading this on exists whether you are holding it or not) there is no capital T Truth.  

As my clients are intimately familiar with me saying: you might think my sofa is gray-blue, you might say charcoal. Neither are wrong, nor are they right, because we all live in our own versions of reality. We filter everything, from colors to words to experiences, through the lens of our own unique perspectives, which then become our own truths, which we use to frame stories about the whys and hows of our worlds.  This means in any conversation, there is each individual’s story and the shared narrative between them. 

And this is where we run into trouble. 

Because we buy into our own stories and are humans wanting to be right, we find evidence to support our narratives and are quick to dismiss information to the contrary. In some areas this is functional and even necessary (the earth is not flat.) In relationships, however, buying into our own stories without checking in with our partner can lead to arguments and frustration with little room for understanding, empathy or change. We make meaning about behaviors, statements and experiences that may not align with our partner’s experience and spiral from there.

One simple way to check in about our narratives is by using the prompt: 

The Story I’m Telling Myself Is….

The story I’m telling myself is… you were late because you don’t care about how important this event was to me. 

The story I’m telling myself is… you’re not interested in sex because you are not attracted to me. 

The store I’m telling myself is… you keep sending me flat earth videos to annoy me and not because you actually believe this is a thing, right?

The prompt takes pressure off of the speaker by highlighting it’s simply their version of events and doesn’t immediately put the listener on the defensive, as it feels less like an attack.  It puts one partner’s version of a situation between both people in order to take a gander together, with the listener able to comment on their experience of the same event. It can make room for complaints without spurring an argument or be a way out once one has already begun. 

Sometimes your stories will be accurate and sometimes less so, either way voicing them allows you the opportunity to collaborate with a shared narrative moving you closer to happily ever after. 

6 TED Talks Guaranteed to Change Your Relationship...with Yourself AND with a Partner

By Amy Freier, LCPC, CST

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One of my favorite ways to supplement the work we do in counseling is having individuals and couples utilize exercises, books, articles, podcasts, and, above all, TED Talks, to further explore whatever might be important as a part of the therapeutic work in relationship and sex therapy. There are a few TED Talks, in particular, that I can’t not suggest, because they are just.that.good. Here are the absolute MUST-WATCH Top 6 TED Talks that are guaranteed to change your relationship, whether that be the relationship with yourself or with a partner!

  1. The Truth About Unwanted Arousal, by Emily Nagoski

    “Sex educator Emily Nagoski breaks down one of the most dangerous myths about sex and introduces us to the science behind arousal nonconcordance: when there's a disconnect between physical response and the experience of pleasure and desire. Talking about such intimate, private moments can feel awkward or difficult, yet in this straightforward talk Nagoski urges all of us to share this crucial information with someone -- judges, lawyers, partners, kids. "With every brave conversation we have, we make the world that little bit better," says Nagoski.”—TED Talks

  2. The Keys to a Happier, Healthier Sex Life, by Emily Nagoski

    “How can we unlock the door to our own authentic sexual well-being? Sex educator Emily Nagoski suggests that the key is realizing that we are all normal, whatever our proclivities. In this playful but informative take on sex positivity, she delves into the science of sexuality to demonstrate how we can shed our insecurities and define pleasure on our own terms.”—TED Talks

  3. The Power of Vulnerability, by Brene Brown

    “Brené Brown studies human connection -- our ability to empathize, belong, love. In a poignant, funny talk, she shares a deep insight from her research, one that sent her on a personal quest to know herself as well as to understand humanity. A talk to share.”—TED Talks

  4. Listening to Shame, by Brene Brown

    “Shame is an unspoken epidemic, the secret behind many forms of broken behavior. Brené Brown, whose earlier talk on vulnerability became a viral hit, explores what can happen when people confront their shame head-on. Her own humor, humanity and vulnerability shine through every word.”—TED Talks

  5. The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationship, by Esther Perel

    “In long-term relationships, we often expect our beloved to be both best friend and erotic partner. But as Esther Perel argues, good and committed sex draws on two conflicting needs: our need for security and our need for surprise. So how do you sustain desire? With wit and eloquence, Perel lets us in on the mystery of erotic intelligence.”—TED Talks

  6. Rethinking Infidelity…a Talk for Anyone Who Has Ever Loved, by Esther Perel

    “Infidelity is the ultimate betrayal. But does it have to be? Relationship therapist Esther Perel examines why people cheat, and unpacks why affairs are so traumatic: because they threaten our emotional security. In infidelity, she sees something unexpected — an expression of longing and loss. A must-watch for anyone who has ever cheated or been cheated on, or who simply wants a new framework for understanding relationships.”—TED Talks

There are SO many incredible TED Talks out there, so we encourage you to seek out the ones that interest you. What are the ones we missed? Tell us your favorites in the comments, and we’ll be sure to add them to our must-watch list!

What’s Stress Got to Do With It?

By Amy Berrafato, LMFT, CST

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You would think that the key to a happy, successful, strong long-term relationship would be: Love? Trust? Honesty? Respect? Not exactly. (I mean, yes, and…) There is research that shows the essence of a healthy relationship boils down to a foundation of healthy stress management skills. Perhaps not quite what you’d expect, nor as glamorous, but I happen to agree.

Life is a series of stressors, no matter what season you’re in. You’re juggling family, work, parenting, self-care, and relationship demands on a daily basis. If you don’t have healthy coping strategies and outlets, your stress will likely impact many different areas of your life, especially within sex and relationships. How you interact with others, how well you sleep, how you take care of yourself, and how your attitude shapes the world around you can certainly play a major role in your overall well being. Why not pay special attention?!

A few thoughts to consider as you take stock in your stress management skills:

Looks: How do you know if you’re stressed? Take a look at how your stress presents itself. Are you more irritable than usual? Have trouble sleeping? Do you become quiet or withdrawn? Does your stomach act up? Get to know your signs well so you can spot them quickly. 

Outlets: How do you relieve stress? What are your best outlets? Exercise, meditation, walks, reading, writing, music, talking to a friend, playing a sport, to name a few. Stress loops in a cyclical manner internally, so if you don’t expend that stressful energy and put it somewhere, it will continue to cycle in your body until the next stressor comes along. Get it out!

Goals: What would you like to improve? Define a step in the right direction. Many people don’t like to talk about their stress because it “brings it to the surface,” but I find that naming it can actually diffuse some of the tension. Acknowledge that it’s there, or tell your partner a bit about what’s going on. You might feel more supported in doing so. You do not have to carry your stress alone!

I realize this information may seem like common sense, but stress and mental health are incredibly intertwined, and this shows up every day in session. Do yourself and your loved ones a favor and check in about your stress. You and your relationships depend on it! 


Wedding Season Hack: Make Others’ ‘I Dos’ a Date Night for You

By Rachel Zar, LMFT

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It’s wedding season! For busy couples who struggle to make space for romance, attending someone else’s nuptials can be the perfect chance to have the date night you’ve been craving. But when we get wrapped up in the celebration, it’s all too easy to focus more on the cake than on your significant other. Whether you’ve been with your plus one or a few months or twenty years, it’s worth taking advantage of someone else’s love to add an extra spark to yours. Here are five tips to get you started:

1. Have your own “first look.”

How often do you get to see your partner all dressed up? Make sure to take a minute to soak each other in before heading out. Try getting ready in separate rooms and having a grand reveal a la “She’s All That.” Bonus points for asking the babysitter to take a few prom-style photos.

2. Give those vows some thought.

You’ve heard “to have and to hold” and “til death do us part” so many times that you’ve started to tune the ceremony out altogether. Instead, as you’re witnessing the happy couple make promises to each other, really listen. Is there anything they’re saying that you’d like to apply to your own relationship? You don’t have to be getting married to vow to improve your partnership or to recommit yourself to promises made long ago.

3. Just dance.

Whether it’s a slow, romantic song that allows you to press up against each other or a classic sing-along that reminds you how much fun you can have together, it’s always worth it to spend some time on the dance floor instead of lurking at your assigned table. Letting go and being playful with your partner will set you up for a connected evening.

4. Take a break, together.

Escape the madness of the festivities by taking a romantic walk outside or exploring the other rooms of the venue. Some just-the-two-of-you time will remind you that this is, after all, a date night.

5. Don’t pass out… yet.

There’s nothing like the high you get from a beautiful celebration. Head home or back to your hotel room before you’re absolutely can’t-hold-your-head-up exhausted. Leave time to reflect on the highlights of the night—and maybe even have a post-wedding party all your own. ;)

Do What You Can...When You Can!

By Amy Stewart, LMFT

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So summer has finally arrived and we are at last momentarily blessed with weather that allows Chicagoans to dig in to all that the city has to offer. However, for folks whose bodies aren’t so keen on participating, whether from chronic illness or emotional distress, the season may not always lead to sunny dispositions. What’s on the agenda when you’re out of spoons to dig into all those urban activities?

  1. Do What You Can When You Can: Have a go-to list of the activities you’d like to add to your summer bucket list and when you find you’re having a good day, pick one.  You won’t have to spend extra energy searching for things to do and can get going while your energy is highest. 

  2. Find Clarity Around Your Body’s Needs:  Be clear with yourself, partners and friends around what you need to be comfortable. Whether that’s staying out of the sun, not walking long distances or working around a certain diet, name from the start the things that will allow you to better enjoy an experience. 

  3. Be Flexible: Remember that you are allowed to change your mind.  Prioritize spending time with folks those that understand and validate your experience. You’re much more likely to say yes to something you know you can adjust plans at the last minute due to flare or leave an event if you’re feeling uncomfortable. 

  4. Make Staying Home An Event: For many with chronic illness, flares can be characterized by days on end of mindless binge-watching whilst icing/heating body parts and/or drifting in and out of fitful sleep. Find ways to break the pattern, if only slightly. Excellent example: A friend came up with the idea of “Hotel Bed” as an option for when his partner is flaring, but they want to be intentional about spending time together. They move the TV from the living room into the bedroom, rent a movie they’ve been wanting to watch and treat the evening like an overnight getaway, ice packs and all. He even made a sign to mark the occasion. 

  5. Have Compassion for Yourself : Recognize the difference between “I can’t go for a stroll along the lakefront” and “My body can’t go for a stroll along the lakefront.”  Maybe you can walk around the block instead or maybe you need a beeline to the nearest bed. Regardless, remember that your lack of action isn’t related to anything lacking in you, you are not lazy and rest is non-negotiable. 

That Toddlin' Town!

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By Amy Freier, LCPC, CST

Esther Perel, one of our absolute favorite thought leaders in field of relational and sexual health, is a champion of relational intentionality. She purports that one of the most serious dangers to relationships is boredom, as it keeps us from seeing and experiencing our partners with fresh eyes. However, couples who regularly engage in novel activities together tend experience higher levels of intimacy and desire. Think about it: a ribeye steak paired with a juicy red wine is heavenly…but if you eat that every single day for a month, you’ll begin to find that gorgeous meal quite boring. The steak will start to taste bland, and that bottle of red will no longer excite you. Tragedy strikes, and we must overcome and persist!

If you’ve found yourself in a relational rut, fear not! It happens to be summer in Chicago—the real reason we all continue to live in this fickle city. There’s no shortage of new and exciting activities to enjoy, making it easy to keep that novel spark alive. We made it even easier for you with a list of our 10 favorite summer dates that are sure to Marie Kondo the crap out of your relationship!

  1. If you haven’t packed a picnic and watched movies in the park , have you ever even been to Chicago in the summer?

  2. Check out the best patios for outdoor dining and drinks, because it’s patio season!

  3. The Dock at Montrose Beach offers a full-service restaurant and live music every single night. Perfect date for a nice night out!

  4. The riverwalk was recently renovated, and it does not disappoint. Go for a jog, enjoy a cocktail, or grab some ice cream and people-watch!

  5. My absolute favorite “touristy” thing to do every summer is the architectural boat tour. Every time I do it, I fall in love with this city all over again.

  6. Did you know there are over 150 festivals in Chicago over the summer? You’re guaranteed to find one that tickles your fancy!

  7. You don’t have to be a kid to enjoy the magic and uniqueness of having a fantastic zoo, right in the heart of our city. Head to the Lincoln Park Zoo and get in touch with your wild side!

  8. Free outdoor concerts! Enough said.

  9. Don’t have a bike? No worries: Chicago boasts several options for getting around the city. We love using Divvy bikes, and the new e-scooters that just arrived. Don’t forget your helmets!

  10. If 2.7 miles of art installations, parks, trails, and fun stops along the way excite you…it should. Get yourself to The 606!

What other Chicago summer dates did we miss on our list? We want to hear from you!

On Forgiveness...

By Amy Berrafato, LMFT, CST

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Forgiveness is an essential component to building a healthy long-term relationship. There’s plenty of research out there on this. In the course of a lifetime together, you’re going to get mad, hurt each other, and feel disappointed sometimes. How do you let go of difficult feelings like anger, hurt, disappointment, and betrayal? How do you keep living and sleeping with your partner after they’ve hurt you? And what does it mean to really forgive someone?

Last week, Rachel Zar, LMFT took you through some examples of healthy apologies, and how to take responsibility for yourself in your relationships. An absolute must! This is a key step toward repairing trust. There is nowhere to go if you or your partner aren’t willing to own how your actions impact one another. “I didn’t realize that meant so much to you. I’m so sorry I hurt you.” Your intentions don’t actually matter here. All that matters is that you saw how it made someone else feel. If you bump into someone on the street by accident, you apologize, don’t you? (Well, at least I hope you do!) You didn’t mean to bump into them, but you did and you saw it. It’s the same with your partner! Give them the kindness you’d give a stranger.

Some food for thought as you reflect on forgiveness in your relationships:

  1. What does forgiveness mean to you? What does/could it look like? Have you ever forgiven someone you love? And continued to be in a relationship with him or her? This is no easy task. It requires selflessness, grace, patience, and trust in the process. We all have different definitions here, so get to know yours well.

  2. How is your anger serving you? What do you need in order to let go? Perhaps acknowledgement, time, space, a conversation? Make that known. It might help you assert your needs in moments of tension. Most of us move at a different pace emotionally, so allow your partner some space to process their feelings authentically.

  3. Is this a forgivable thing for you? You may have to ask yourself some difficult questions about your limits. Did your partner go too far? Is this something that you can overcome? Be honest, and wherever you land is OK. Trusting your limits can help you make authentic decisions, one way or another.

In her book Rising Strong, Brene Brown discusses “rumbling with forgiveness” as she quotes a pastor from her church: “In order for forgiveness to happen, something has to die. If you make a choice to forgive, you have to face into the pain. You simply have to hurt.” Whether you’re spiritual or not, again, trust this process. It’s deep, painful, and a potentially beautiful release.


It's Hard to Say I'm Sorry...So We've Broken It Down For You

By Rachel Zar, LMFT

This is Gretchen. Don’t be like Gretchen. c/o Giphy

This is Gretchen. Don’t be like Gretchen. c/o Giphy

Learning to offer an effective apology is a key relationship skill that I encourage all my clients to practice, practice, practice. When done well, apologies are one of the most important parts of repairing after a fight, and they can leave your partner feeling heard, understood, and cared for. But not every apology is created equal. And there’s a very, very good chance you’ve been doing it wrong.

It’s time for a pop quiz:

Which of these apologies is most effective?

  1. “Fine. I’m sorry, OK?”

  2. “Whatever I did, I’m sorry for it.”

  3. “I’m sorry I did that, but I never would have if you hadn’t done the other thing first.”

  4. “I’m sorry I did that, but that’s just who I am.”

  5. “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

Answer: Gotcha! This was a trick question. None of these apologies are ideal. If you’re

surprised, read on for a break down of these common apology faux pas:

“Fine. I’m sorry, OK?”

This one is in the same category as, “Come on, I already said I’m sorry. Why aren’t you over this yet?” Even without hearing the tone of the deliverer, this apology just reeks of sarcasm and complete disingenuousness. It’s clear that this person is only offering an apology to get their partner off their back. If you don’t actually mean it, your partner will know, and the apology will leave them wanting more.

“Whatever I did, I’m sorry for it.”

If you don’t know what you did, how can you apologize for it? And how can your partner feel confident that you won’t do it again? If you find yourself offering up this apology, pause first, and try to understand why your partner is hurt. Your apology may not be able to come as quickly, but it will mean much more when it does.

“I’m sorry I did that, but I never would have if you hadn’t done the other thing first.”

“I’m sorry I yelled, but I only did it because you were being rude.” “I’m sorry I forgot to do the dishes, but you weren’t clear that you wanted them done today.” Have you ever heard the saying, “Everything before ‘but’ is bullsh*t?” Adding a disclaimer after an apology completely cancels out the positive affect of the apology itself. Making excuses for your actions means you’re not truly taking responsibility for your part in things—regardless of what came before or after. Resisting defending your actions is tough, but the better you get at doing so, the more of a lasting impact your apology will have.

“I’m sorry I did that, but that’s’ just who I am.”

Once again, “everything before but….” This apology gives absolutely no confidence that you will attempt to do things differently in the future. It does not indicate that you are taking any responsibility for your actions—or even that you feel you have control over them.

“I’m sorry you feel that way.”

Ah, the most common of the apology mishaps. Saying sorry for someone else’s feelings is actually just a tricky way of putting the blame back on then. A simple fix to this one — “I’m sorry my actions caused you to feel that way.”—makes all the difference.

So now that you know what not to do, here’s a handy cheat sheet for creating good apologies. The best apologies include all three of these parts.

“I’m sorry for doing this specific thing.”

Start by acknowledging what you are apologizing for—and being as detailed as possible. I promise, even in an argument that leaves you sure that your partner is in the wrong, there is something you did that warrants an apology. Find that thing. Own that thing. State that thing out loud without disclaimers. If you’re not sure what that thing is, listen to your partner. They’ve probably been trying to tell you.

“It was wrong for these reasons, and it hurt you in this way.”

Next, show your partner that you understand the consequences of your actions—especially the impact they had on their emotions. If you’re not sure, get curious. Remember that you can hurt your partner even without meaning to hurt them. Saying “I know that I hurt you,” is important, and it’s very different than, “I was trying to hurt you.” Intention doesn’t always match impact.

“In the future I will do things differently.”

Finally, assure your partner that you plan to take their pain to heart and do things differently next time. Don’t make empty promises here. Really think about what you could do differently.

Remember: an apology does not guarantee immediate forgiveness. Your partner may still need some time to process the hurt, and you may still need a few more conversations to iron out what went wrong. But the better you get at following the recipe above, the more likely your apology is to actually make the impact you desire.

Rape's Not Funny (Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault)

By Amy Stewart, LMFT

On Thursday, R. Kelly plead not guilty to 11 new counts of sexual assault. In February of this year he plead not guilty to 10 counts of aggravated sexual abuse. In 2002, the year he performed in the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, a video was released of him raping and urinating on a 14-year-old girl. He was indicted on 21 counts of child pornography. In 2008, six years later, he was acquitted on all counts.

In an excellent and heart-breaking Fresh Air interview, journalist Jim DeRogatis shares his experience of the saga and the 19-year investigation recounted in his new book, “Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly.”  

I could write a book of my own about my frustration and fury in response… but this isn’t about that.

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If you aren’t familiar with his crimes, you are likely conversant with the punchlines. Late night hosts, sketch comedy shows, the twitterverse and water cooler chat were all quick to serve up a slew of hot takes on golden showers and other euphemisms for urine play. Whether in reference to Kelly or Trump, introduce a kink and shaming is sure to follow.

If “kink-shaming” isn’t part of your vernacular, it boils down to degrading someone for their sexual practices. The opposite looks like not concerning oneself with what others’ selves are consensually up to and into.  Some shorthands that apply:   Don’t yuck my yum. You do you. And in the purported words of Mrs. Beatrice Patrick Campbell circa 1910: “I really don’t mind what people do, so long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses!” (Enlightened and shocking statement at the time.)  It’s a recognition that folks’ kinks are not some moral failing and instead some thing that they find erotic, pleasurable, interesting... the list goes on.

There are plenty of opinions as to whether or not kink-shaming is ethical in response to Kelly and Trump… but this isn’t about that.

Instead it’s a reminder, that rather than address or acknowledge the harrowing sexual reports swirling around R. Kelly,  society spent 19 years deflecting from that horror to pee pee jokes.  

The voices of many victims (48 in R. Kelly’s case) and the behaviors of many predators are easily and absolutely overshadowed by society’s quick step into kink-shaming, while actively avoiding the egregious behavior that goes along with it.

It’s a common pattern. When some people are uncomfortable, they deflect with humor. Humor soothes us, it lightens the mood, it normalizes. Making jokes about Kelly and Trump’s sexual fetishes detract from the fact that they spent years using power to take advantage of young girls and women. Jokes acted as little birdies that shifted the focus away from these men’s illegal, horrifying and predatory behavior and instead to shaming them for behaviors that society finds funny.  In a story of a 34-year old man raping and urinating on a 14- year old girl, how on earth was the focus on the urine??


The intention of shaming is to make someone look silly, small and powerless.  R. Kelly was absolutely not powerless. He was the powerful, scary monster to many girls whose voices were not heard over the roar of collective laughter.

The Beauty of Grey

By Amy Berrafato, LMFT, CST

c/o Both And Podcast, Twitter, @WeAreBothAnd

c/o Both And Podcast, Twitter, @WeAreBothAnd

You either want to have sex with me or you don’t. You must not love me.

I have to be the best partner at the firm, but can’t do anything right at home.

I never make healthy decisions; I will be alone forever.

If this doesn’t work out, I’ll be a complete failure.


I hear comments like this all the time in session, from perfectionists, worriers, internalizers alike. We get stuck in limiting thought patterns when we’re feeling anxious. And it sets up a linear way of processing emotions in relationships, which are anything but linear! They’re so much more than that. They’re grey, messy, complicated, and dynamic.

Anxiety feeds off of black and white thinking. It likes to make sense of the world in an over-simplified manner to help us tolerate difficult emotions. It has to be either this way or that way. So when your partner doesn’t initiate sex, it must mean something about their feelings toward you. Otherwise you might be sitting with a more vulnerable emotion (i.e. rejection, disconnect, sadness), which is not the easiest thing to do.

Anxiety is also driven by fear, which quickly leaps into the dark despair of what might happen in the future, leaving us to lose sight of what is happening here and now. Worst case scenarios, anyone? Well, he is probably hiding something from me, been cheating for years, never loved me, got into a horrible accident, and died. The train has left and gone to crazytown.

Here’s the interesting thing: fear can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, if unchecked. It often perpetuates the very thing we were afraid of to begin with. With trust issues, for example, if you’re so worried she’ll leave that you suffocate her with questions and demands on her time, you might push her to keep taking space from you, creating more distance. The exact opposite of what you want!

Don’t let fear be the driver anymore. Try to adopt a “both/and” dimension of emotions when you’re processing a feeling. I’m both excited and terrified about this upcoming change. I feel both scared of rejection and so close to you when we talk about our family backgrounds. This expansion allows us to sit in the grey of our feelings, building tolerance for all the different parts of your emotions. It gets you beyond linear processing, deepening your understanding of yourself. The vulnerability and connection that follow are totally worth it. Trust me.


Peeing Immediately After Sex? Unlearning This Sexual Health Myth Will Change. Your. Life.

By Rachel Zar, LMFT

c/o  Maritsa Patrinos / BuzzFeed

c/o Maritsa Patrinos / BuzzFeed

What did you do immediately after the last time you had sex? Did you lie together, connecting, cuddling and basking in the afterglow? Or did you immediately pop out of bed to take turns in the bathroom and then move on to the next task at hand? Chances are, if it ended with a feeling of intimacy and connection to your partner, you’re remembering the experience as pleasurable. If it ended abruptly, you may remember the whole thing as rushed and disconnecting. When it comes to whether you code a sexual encounter as positive or negative, the way it ends matters just as much—if not more—than how it started or what was happening mid-way through. Indeed, research shows that couples who show each other affection after sex tend to feel more satisfied with not just their sex lives, but with their relationships in general. After all, sex is a vulnerable experience, and not giving it the aftercare it deserves can often leave people feeling raw and disconnected. Plus, the hormones that are released during sex are specially designed to increase bonding, so it’s worthwhile to bask in them.

I know what you’re thinking: “But Rachel, everyone knows that I have to go to the bathroom immediately after sex or else I’ll get that dreaded, painful, awful, no good, very bad UTI!”

Well, that would make sense... if it were true. But what if it’s not? What if that rush-to-the-bathroom-or-else warning you’ve been hearing your whole adult life is just a myth? Strap in, because there’s actually no concrete medical research that shows that peeing immediately after sex reduces your likelihood of a urinary tract infection (UTI). Yes, UTIs can be avoided by flushing out bacteria before it travels to the bladder, which staying hydrated and urinating regularly helps with. And sex can introduce bacteria through the urethra that needs flushing. But, especially for those who aren’t prone to UTIs (which some people, unfortunately, just are), whether that urination happens thirty seconds or an hour or even two hours after you have sex doesn’t really make a difference. Your body will tell you when it’s time to pee—so there’s no need to force it. And pushing out a few drops when you don’t really have to go isn’t generally enough to clean out that urinary tract, anyways. If you’re having sex at night, just make sure you go before you fall asleep for eight hours.

Of course, if you really gotta go (and many do feel the urge to urinate immediately after sex), don’t hold it for the sake of a cuddle. But after you’ve emptied your bladder, come back to bed, give your partner a squeeze and have a conversation about something other than the kids or your taxes. If this becomes the norm instead of the exception, you’ll notice your feelings about sex and your partner begin to trend much more positive.

Ethically Erotic

By Amy Stewart, LMFT

One of my favorite things a client has ever said was:

“We care so much about buying fair-trade everything else, why wouldn’t we feel the same way about porn?”

In my dream world, that would be a totally normal part of the conversation and not notable in any way whatsoever.  In reality however, my mind was blown. because NO ONE had ever voiced that in my therapy room.

In honor of National Masturbation Month it seems relevant to touch base on what many folks use as stimulus for stimulation.  (Important to note here: not everyone, not all the time, not all the things.) But for those who do partake, there can be a bit of a value gap between where they are finding arousal, how it’s made and how its used. This discrepancy can sometimes be hard to sit with.

“So I’m supposed to watch ‘Game of Thrones’ on my own, like a pervert?”

“So I’m supposed to watch ‘Game of Thrones’ on my own, like a pervert?”

The general consumption of intentionally erotic content is such a discordant swirl of free and on-demand punctuated by shame and secrecy, that for most folks, the idea of paying invokes an entirely different sentiment altogether. How avoidable can your porn use be if every month a veiled charge pops up on your credit card, reminding you of your basest desires? For many, paying feels like a slippery slope to sex addiction, easily averted with a casual pop-in to your usual free site.  

Dismantling the multi-systemic shaming of sexuality would be a fantastic way to avert most of these issues, but given that’s likely not happening anytime soon…. what would it mean to be a bit more ethical about the whole shebang? Taking into consideration production and use are a good start.

IMG_0134.GIF

With the potential exception of payment, ethical production simply mimics ethical sexual relationships in real life.  Performers are paid fairly, treated respectfully and with dignity. They are not pressured or expected to consent to certain acts with which they are uncomfortable. You can see that they are enjoying themselves and engaging out of choice. Sexuality is treated and presented as diverse, with variation in desire, bodies and gender representation.


Folks engaging with erotic content can also be ethical or mindful in their use of pornography. This includes exploring its role and meaning in their lives and relationships and identifying whether that’s in line with their own value system. If they find it’s not, they can look for ways to be more thoughtful around whatever part of the process feels out of alignment. For many, this equates to recognizing they’re toting their fair-trade philosophy with one hand, while pulling up their tried and true tube sites and clicking until content with the other.


A quick google search for ethical porn will pull up multiple options to peruse and questions to consider. If you’re looking for something pre-curated,  The Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health offers a database of options that are sex-positive, feminist-friendly and ethically produced.

Contact us at info@sparkchicagotherapy.com to learn more about how we can get curious with you about your own values and ethics around sexuality and exploration!

Premarital Bliss: Our Top Tips for Marriage Prep

c/o Gify

c/o Gify

By Amy Freier, LCPC, CST

Wedding season is upon us! Last week, clinician Amy Berrafato shared some truth bombs about the importance of talking about an engagement before actually getting engaged. Premarital Prep is one of our specialties at Spark Chicago Therapy (read more here!), and this week, I’m sharing a few more tips for those of you knee-deep in wedding planning mode. Follow along for my Top 3 Tips for Marriage Prep:

  • Remember that you are planning a marriage, not just a wedding! It’s easy to get caught up in the details of wedding planning, so much so that you forget that the wedding is just ONE DAY out of the rest of your lives. Don’t get lost in the details (albeit, beautiful Pinterest-worthy details, I’m sure), and remember the “Why” behind the “I do.”

  • Don’t be afraid to talk about the SCARY stuff (kids, finances, etc.), the earlier, the better! Be a smart fiancé and strategize your way to a thoughtful and well-developed marriage. Sit down with your partner in a neutral, comfortable atmosphere, and make a list of topics you’d like to discuss. Don’t exclude anything, even if you’re worried it will cause discomfort. It’s never too early to begin exploring and identifying your own relationship values and work toward creating healthy communication with your partner.

  • Prepare for the post-newlywed bliss stage! When the initial stages of newlywed delight dissipate (and they inevitably will), your goal turns toward creating a secure, safe, domestic life with your partner. All of those things are important and great, but there can be a tendency to get stuck in routine (translation: rut). While it’s important to recognize that monotonous down times are a normal and very much expected part of marriage, also know that it doesn’t need to last forever, or even a long time, for that matter. Go meta-communication here: talk about how you will talk about it when it happens!

All of the clinicians here at Spark Chicago Therapy LOVE working with premarital couples to help set up a solid marriage. And bonus: both Amy Freier, LCPC, CST, and Amy Stewart, LMFT, are Prepare/Enrich Certified, which means we have access to some pretty wonderful structured tools to help facilitate focused sessions with couples looking to prepare themselves for marriage. Interested? Contact us at info@sparkchicagotherapy.com for more information!

Put a Ring on It: Let’s Talk About the Future

By Amy Berrafato, LMFT, CST

c/o Giphy

c/o Giphy

It’s OK. You can admit it. You’ve seen romantic comedies, you secretly love them, and you can likely quote a few of your favorites. Personally, I have been waiting for Ryan Gosling to realize we’re meant to be and come find me. Despite our best efforts, rom coms have probably influenced our expectations of romance, proposals, and decision-making in long term relationships. While perfect and everything we could have hoped for in our wildest dreams, they can also set us up for disappointment if unchecked.

c/o Fanpop.com

c/o Fanpop.com

For as much as we have moved toward more progressive views of marriage and relationships, there are still a few traditional values we might hold on to for different reasons. Perhaps you want to be in a particular financial state when you get engaged. Maybe you have an idea of your timeline for planning a wedding. You might be waiting for your partner to step up and take action to propose already. It’s difficult to feel so out of control about something so important!

Who’s to say that you can’t talk about your future openly as a couple? You each may have a vision for what you want (moving in together, getting married, having children, going back to school, retirement), and often partners move at a different pace in order to make those things happen. You don’t have to wait for the completely out-of-nowhere surprise of a proposal to begin having these conversations. Be a part of the decision. Set some parameters, talk about your desires, and make them known. This isn’t just about proposals, either; this can be part of any relationship stage, including early dating. Ready for something serious? Say so. Don’t want to have kids? Bring it up. If you don’t assert your needs, your partner can’t meet them, or even try to. Remember, your needs are your needs. Unapologetically own them.

If you’re having trouble knowing how to navigate healthy discussions about your future, feel free to reach out to me at a.berrafato@sparkchicagotherapy.com. We can do it together.

I’m right here, Ryan. Ready and waiting!


Monogamous or Monogamish? A Beginner’s Guide to Consensual Non-Monogamy

By Rachel Zar, LMFT

c/o Time Out

c/o Time Out

Consensually non-monogamous (CNM) relationships--those who don’t adhere to traditional all-or-nothing monogamy boundaries--come in all shapes and sizes. While certainly not right for everyone,opening up your relationship may offer the opportunity for added joy and excitement. But it’s also a complicated world, and many don’t know enough about it to make an educated decision. For those just entering the world of CNM, learning the language is often the first hurdle. What’s the difference between monogamous and monogamish? And how do you differentiate between allowing for sexual trysts with others and forming multiple long-term commitments? To get you started, here’s a handy breakdown of some (but not all) types of CNM:

OPEN RELATIONSHIP: A relationship that’s not sexually monogamous. Similar to CNM, this term can mean very different things to different people --- from allowing for the occasional out-of-town date to attending swinging parties together to having multiple relationships at once.

MONOGAMISH: This is a fairly recent addition to the CNM vocab. It’s used colloquially to refer to relationships that are romantically monogamous but also allow for agreed-upon outside sexual relationships.

SWINGING: Having sexual partners outside of a primary relationship. The focus tends to be physical, not emotional or intimate. Swingers may attend clubs or parties, and they may swing with or without their partners, depending on what’s agreed upon between them.

POLYAMORY: “Poly” means “many” and “amor” means “love,” so polyamory means having multiple sexual and/or romantic relationships at once. Unlike swinging, polyamorous relationships tend to allow for the possibility of forming intimate bonds with others and even falling in love. (NOTE: This is different than polygamy, which is the practice of being married to multiple people at once.)

And some important words:

COMPERSION: Often called the opposite of jealousy, compersion is a positive emotion one feels when their partner experiences joy or pleasure from another relationship.

CHEATING: Yes, cheating exists in CNM relationships, too. It refers to any activity that violates the boundaries of the agreed-upon relationship.

The most important term to know about CNM is right there in the title:

CONSENSUAL: Meaning all parties involved have actively opted in to the CNM relationship and agreed on the terms. (Infidelity or affairs in a monogamous relationship are non-consensual, so they don’t fit within the CNM category.)

First and foremost, building a CNM relationship takes open and honest communication -- setting boundaries, exploring vulnerabilities, and understanding your specific wants and needs. If you’re having difficulty choosing a CNM style that works for you, if you and your partner have different ideas about what monogamy or CNM should look like, or if you’d like some guidance on navigating your relationship/s, you know how to reach us: info@sparkchicagotherapy.com

Mindful Sex, Part 2

c/o New York Times & Luci Gutiérrez

c/o New York Times & Luci Gutiérrez

By Amy Stewart, LMFT

That we fancy ourselves as well-practiced at living in a sexual moment, longing to return with our partner/s to the “natural feeling of time stopping and everything else falling away,” is one of the most blatant contradictions of human experience. In reality, sex is one of the areas where we are inveitably least mindful.  We're often focused primarily on the goal of climax, for ourselves or partner, leaving us living constantly in our heads, thus a few steps ahead of our bodily sensations.

Often it sounds something like this: Is this taking us toward or away from orgasm? Do they like this? Do I like this?  Is it too much? Should I tell them they’re on my hair? How much longer do I have to do this? What exactly was one supposed to think about England whilst lying back?

Helping clients to step out of the chatter and into their bodies is one of the foundational aspects of sex therapy. Being more mindful and in the moment can both improve sexual response and sidestep anxiety about performance.  As Amy Freier highlighted last week, sexual mindfulness might just blow your mind and it’s a big part of sex therapy, both in and out of session.

Some quick tips:

Start Outside of The Bedroom: Incorporating mindfulness outside of the bedroom translates into being more present in any situation, including sex. Plenty of apps are available to practice mindfulness meditation regularly, alone or with a partner.

Incorporate All The Senses: Sex can be a sensual experience. No one has to create a tantric sex den and stare into their partners eyes for hours Sting-style, but setting matters. Choosing lighting that sets a tone and doesn't distract, incorporating sexy smells and choosing music or other sounds can help you to stay present.

Come Back to The Sensation: Officially coined Sensate Focus by sex therapists Masters and Johnson, this technique calls you to focus on the sensation. Just as with any other mindfulness practice, where you might come back to your breath, mantra or sound as your mind wanders, practice coming back to the experience of touch. When you notice your mind wandering, return your focus to the physical sensation and the point of contact of giving or receiving touch. Over and over and over again.


Sex Advice That Will Blow Your Mind(fulness)

By Amy Freier, LCPC, CST

c/o Simple Habit

c/o Simple Habit

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last several years, you already know that practicing mindfulness does wonders to your emotional, physical, and mental wellbeing. But did you also know the benefits to your sexual wellbeing?

To begin, let’s quickly refresh your memory as to what exactly mindfulness entails, because there are a lot of shame-inducing, performance anxiety-laden, judgmental descriptions out there that I’d like to get rid of. Here’s the truth: A mindfulness practice is whatever the heck you want and need it to be. It does not have to be deep breathing in silence for thirty minutes. In fact, it does not need to include silence, at all! It does, however, need to be intentional, with the purpose of creating heightened awareness of whatever the heck your mind and body is feeling and experiencing at any given moment.

I regularly use mindfulness with clients in sex therapy as well as general therapy, in individual therapy and couples therapy, because it creates a different type of dialogue about thoughts, feelings, and physicality that simply talking through issues and concerns offers. As the high functioning professionals that many of us are, we have a tendency to intellectualize these thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. We experience them in our thoughts, but fail to connect them to the experience in our body, which can significantly reduce our experience of pleasure and enjoyment.

Enter: sexual mindfulness. If you ever found you mind wandering during sex to your grocery list, wondering if your facial expressions look “weird” or if your partner thinks you’re doing it right (whatever that means…), you would benefit from practicing mindfulness. The idea is to practice a non-judgmental way of staying present, in the moment, and allowing your mind and body to be immersed in the sexual experience.

How do you practice sexual mindfulness? There’s an app for that. Seriously. Simple Habit is an app that offers guided meditations that you can surely squeeze into your busy day—most of the modules are about 5 minutes! And even better, there are specific modules that focus on sexual mindfulness, including:

  • Mindful Sex

  • Sexual Intimacy

  • Overcome Orgasm Anxiety for Women

  • Mindfulness During Sex

  • Sex Drive Boost

This is the best thing to happen to busy people wanting to improve their sex lives since the dawn of time. Or at least since apps became a thing. I highly recommend you check them out. Simple Habit offers a free trial period before it becomes a paid subscription, so you have some time to decide if you love it.

Want to learn more about sexual mindfulness? Stay tuned for more tips from Amy Stewart, LMFT, next week! She will be sharing more guidance around ways to stay connected to your body during sex.

Each of our clinicians here at Spark Chicago Therapy incorporate mindfulness in one way or another in our work with clients. Inquire more, here or email us at info@sparkchicagotherapy.com!

A Little Gottman Love

By Amy Berrafato, LMFT, CST

c/o Goodreads

c/o Goodreads

Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love

By: John Gottman, PhD, Julie Gottman, PhD, Doug Abrams, & Rachel Carlton Abrams, MD


One of the most helpful resources when working on improving your relationships is having research to back up your goals. It gives you a leg to stand on, and more purpose behind the changes you’re implementing with your partner. Lucky for us, Drs. John and Julie Gottman have been researching couples for decades, and share their insights in a new book, Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.

You’ve heard us talk about them before, as the Gottmans are pioneers in the field of marital research. They continue to offer tools for healthy communication and conflict resolution skills in order to have a satisfying, long-lasting relationship. They are so good at knowing what not to do, and can predict divorce with an average of over 90% accuracy. It’s time to listen!

Eight Dates is a comprehensive list of important conversations to have with your partner, no matter what stage of your relationship you’re in. The 4 authors share their personal and professional relationship experience, and they challenge you to a different kind of date night, one that can deepen your connection and open you up to new dialogue. Allow me to give you a teaser of the 8:


1: Trust & Commitment

2: Addressing Conflict

3: Sex & Intimacy

4: Work & Money

5: Family

6: Fun & Adventure

7: Growth & Spirituality

8: Dreams


Intrigued? I certainly am. Take a look, take a risk on your next date, and let me know what you learn. This is all about prioritizing your relationship, and making intentional efforts to set aside time together, no matter how busy you are.

Oh! I had the pleasure of seeing the Gottmans speak in Evanston as they were interviewed about their book, and they were such a delight. Brilliant, funny, and honest. If you’re more of a listener than a reader, John Gottman was also recently interviewed on the podcast Armchair Expert with Dax Shephard, and they had a really interesting conversation. Have a listen here!

Right when you thought I couldn’t get any nerdier :)