issues of guilt loomed over another couple I worked with. He had recently cheated on his wife. In general, they were deeply supportive of each other, but after she found out about her transgression, she felt terribly upset and also confused. Her attempts to talk about what had happened were stalling. #MeToo rhetoric woven into their discussions, working like a superego, shaping and inhibiting what they could even think. She said that she felt the lessons of the movement told her not to forgive but to leave him: “Especially now, if a woman is being wronged, you 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 guilt prevailed. Her voice was low as she studied me closely, concerned about how I would be perceived: “There are a lot of men in this business right now who have taken positions of power and use them to have sex with people.”
They were both white and understood their privilege and apologized for it. She would often undo her own grievances, “Levito”, thinking, “Oh, poor cis white woman.” He was also uncomfortable. He talked about reading the news “about another black or brown person being killed. And it’s like I feel a little bit, well, I feel guilty, to be honest, 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 altogether. However, over time, I found that the insights can inspire deep psychological work, prodding people to consider the harm that has been done, the question of who should be involved, and the difference between virtue signaling and worry. deeper. These are difficult and important lessons that can carry over into intimate relationships. In this case, the husband described a new understanding of the ways in which she wielded power at work: “Wait. Have I been an ally? Was it just the optics? These insights even extended to her way of talking about his transgression. He had been rationalizing his behavior by saying that his wife wasn’t giving him the attention he needed. But going beyond what the couple called “optics,” he now asked himself for a fuller explanation of what his infidelity really was and how it affected his wife. He explained to her how lonely he felt if she traveled; he felt left behind and discarded, a feeling 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 convinced myself that she doesn’t want me,” he said. “I’m not the popular type. I’m not the strong type.” He linked those feelings to the insecurities he felt as a teenager, when he was chronically teased by boys at school for being perceived as effeminate.
This new, non-defensive way of speaking allowed her to understand how his transgression 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 “control” themselves for their impact on the other person and quickly “warn it or apologize.” In one session, she said, smiling: “You were a jerk to me yesterday, and then you apologized a couple of hours later. You recognized that you took your frustration out on me because I was an easy target.” She found that she stopped overlooking the ways she was causing others pain: “I was really just thinking about therapy and the Black Lives Matter movement has made me very aware of the words that just came out of my head. mouth, and the realization that she reacted adversely to that, instead of me just saying, ‘We’re moving on, because that’s awkward. Now it is necessary to address it.” She continued: “’Did I just upset you? What did I do to upset you?’”
work in pairs he always returns to the challenge of otherness. Differences can arise around philosophical questions such as what is important to dedicate a life to, or whether it is ethical to have babies when a climate crisis looms; or it may be more familiar, such as whether it is acceptable to have a sexual fantasy with a person who is not 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 of who is right, who gets away with it, or who handles reality better. Narcissistic vulnerabilities about self-esteem appear, which then trigger an impulse to devalue the other. The partners try to resolve such impasses by entrenching themselves and working hard to convince the other of their own position, further polarizing themselves.
The challenge of otherness may be easier to see when we think about racial differences. This was certainly true for James and Michelle. Michelle was a quiet, gentle, and somewhat reserved African-American social worker, and James, at the time a police officer, was a thin, wiry white man whose face did not reveal much emotion. They came with classic conflicts around 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 began fighting over Covid protocols. Michelle was aware of the way that Covid was devastating black communities and she wanted to be careful. James, along with his fellow police officers and his conservative parents, thought the concern was overblown. Discussion about how race influenced James and Michelle’s experiences and ideas usually ended at a dead end. If Michelle tried to bring it up, James would insist, “I don’t see the color,” saying that he didn’t know what she was talking about. In our sessions, Michelle seemed hopeless: she wanted him to understand how traumatic covid had been for black people. But she was frustrated by his inability to recognize the real difference, as if they were all the same race. “He has the ‘I don’t see the color’ mentality.” She went on to expose his way of thinking: “‘I don’t want to hear what you have to say because I don’t think that way.'” That point of view “obviously makes me angry,” she said. James shrugged, expressionless. Michelle was describing the exasperating experience of trying to break through a barrier: her husband was unaware that whiteness was a perspective that restricted what she could imagine or understand.