I am a couples therapist. Something new is happening in relationships.

Blame issues flew over another couple I worked with. He had recently cheated on his wife. They were generally deeply sympathetic to each other, but upon discovering her transgression, she was terribly upset and also confused. Their attempts to talk about what had happened were stalling. #MeToo rhetoric was woven into their discussions, functioning as a superego, shaping and inhibiting what they could even think. She said she felt the lessons of her movement were telling her not to forgive but to leave him. Especially now, if a woman is being wronged, walk away. It was hard for her to know how she really felt about it. At first, she couldn’t separate the remorse from the fear. She was terrified of getting into trouble and the guilt took over. Her voice was soft as she scrutinized me closely, concerned about how it would be perceived: there are a lot of men in this industry right now who have taken positions of power and are using them to have sex with people.

They were both white and understood their privilege and apologized for it. She often overruled her own complaints which I levitated into thinking, Oh, poor cis white woman. He too was uncomfortable. He spoke of reading reports of another black or brown person being killed. And it’s just like I feel kind of good, I feel guilty, actually, sitting here. The lessons of the Black Lives Matter movement can initially lead to such crippling guilt and shame that people become defensive and stop thinking completely. However, over time, I’ve found, the ideas can inspire deep psychological work, prompting people to come to grips with the damage that has been done, the question of who should be implicated, and the difference between virtue signals and deeper concerns. . These are hard and important lessons that can be carried over into intimate relationships. In this case, her husband described a new understanding of the ways she wielded power at work: Hang in there. Have I been an ally? Was it just optics? These insights also extended to his speaking of her wrongdoing. He had rationalized his behavior by saying that his wife was not giving him the attention he needed. But going beyond what the couple called optics, he was now wondering about a more in-depth account of what her cheating really was and how it affected his wife. He explained how lonely it was if she travelled; he felt abandoned and discarded, a feeling that was deeply familiar to him from early childhood. Acknowledging her vulnerability was hard for him, but it opened up a series of honest conversations between them. I’m convinced he doesn’t want me, he said. I’m not the popular guy. I’m not the strong guy. He linked those feelings to the insecurities he felt as a teenager, when he suffered from chronic teasing from children at school for being perceived as effeminate.

This new non-defensive way of talking allowed her to see how his wrongdoing had hit her where she felt most insecure, and he could see it, generating remorse and forgiveness between them. She described how it had become easier for both of them to check themselves for their impact on the other person and quickly notice or apologize for it. In one session she said, smiling: you were a jerk to me yesterday, and then apologized a couple of hours later. You acknowledged that you took your frustration out on me because I was an easy target. He realized he stopped touching on the ways he caused pain to others – I was actually just thinking about therapy and the Black Lives Matter movement made me keenly aware of the words that just came out of my mouth and the understanding that he reacted negatively to that , instead of moving on, let’s move on, because it’s embarrassing. We need to face it now. She continued: Did I just piss you off? What did I do to make you angry?

Couples work it always returns to the challenge of otherness. Differences can emerge around philosophical questions such as what is important to devote a life to or whether it is ethical to have children with a looming climate crisis; or it can be closer to home, like it’s acceptable to have a sexual fantasy about someone who isn’t your partner; or even as seemingly trivial as the correct way to load a dishwasher. Whatever the problem, differences can become a crisis point in the relationship. The question immediately arises as to who is right, who gets their way, or who has a better grip on reality. Narcissistic self-esteem vulnerabilities appear, which then trigger an impulse to devalue the other. Partners try to resolve such impasses by digging and working hard to convince the other of their position, becoming further polarized.

The challenge of otherness may be easier to see when we think about racial differences. This was certainly true of James and Michelle. Michelle was a quiet, kind, somewhat reserved African-American social worker, and James, a police officer at the time, was a slim, thin white man whose face didn’t reveal much feeling. They came with the classic conflicts about the division of labor and different parenting styles, and then the pandemic hit. Quarantined, working remotely and home-schooling their 3-year-old son, they started arguing over Covid protocols. Michelle was aware of the way Covid was ravaging Black communities and wanted to be careful. James, along with his fellow police officers and his conservative parents, thought the concern was exaggerated. Discussions about how race shaped James and Michelle’s experiences and ideas regularly concluded. If Michelle tried to bring it up, James insisted, I see no color, and said he didn’t know what she was talking about. In our sessions, Michelle seemed hopeless: She wanted her to understand how traumatizing Covid had been for Black people. But she was frustrated by her own inability to recognize the real difference, as if everyone were of the same race. It is of the mentality that I do not see color. She went on to share her thoughts about her: I don’t want to hear what you have to say because that’s not how I feel. That point of view obviously angers me, she said. James shrugged, expressionless. Michelle was describing the exasperating experience of trying to break through a barrier: her husband was not consciously aware that white was a perspective that she was restricting what she could imagine or understand.

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