One afternoon in 2020, at the start of the pandemic, I met Syl’violet and Matthew for a virtual session. Young, idealistic, deeply in love, they were also prone to dramatic fights. In this session, Syl’violet, a vivacious essayist and spoken word poet, was trying to describe the ways in which she felt that Matthew, a measured medical student, was trying to control her, in this case trying to stop her from buying a slimy soda. She believed that they would have to stick to a tight budget until she became a doctor and gained financial stability. She then she could have “as many slushies as you want later”. Syl’violet found her reasoning crazy of hers, especially since she seemed to be implying that she was reckless.
This is how Orna Guralnik begins and continues her article in the New York Times.
At first glance, the discussion seemed trivial, but then an exchange occurred that changed the tone of the discussion, connecting us to the deeper roots of the problem. “I have a hard time imagining that finish line,” Syl’violet exclaimed, crying, “what plan are you talking about? My life has always been like this: The plan never works. You can do all the right things, you can obey all the right rules and get them. [βρισιά]».
For a moment, Matthew continued to try to reason with her and convince her of his sound financial strategy. “I know it sounds very presumptuous,” she said, hitting Syl’violet, “No! It sounds privileged!” She described her family’s relationship with money: nothing but trauma for generations. It bothered Matthew’s pride in his plan. ‘A privileged environment gave you access to all this stuff,’ he said. ‘You own it, like, ‘I did it according to plan,’ like other people did it according to plan. With the plan, everything would be fine.”
above and beyond them
Hearing the word “privilege”, Matthew realized that they were talking about powers greater than themselves. Both were African-American, but came from a financially stable family: His parents, a firefighter and a bank manager, followed a middle-class path and did well.
As the relevance of class and race came to the fore, Syl’violet’s anger turned to deep sadness as generations of poverty weighed down on her. “I can’t help but think we’re going to go bankrupt.” She worried that they might even be evicted. “I wish I could believe what you believe,” she said. He answered her, her voice growing more tender to her: “We have the same life now.” He looked at her, exuding care. “We must live with the idea, the thought, the vision, that we will die old together.”
what separates us
One of the most difficult challenges for couples is getting them to see beyond their own entrenched perspectives, recognize the radical otherness of the couple, and value diversity and sovereignty. People speak highly of your efforts, but this is quite a difficult psychological task. To be truly open to your partner’s experience, you must stop believing in the justice of your own position; this requires humility and the courage to tolerate uncertainty. Being able to see how implicit prejudices work in us, understanding that our points of view depend, for example, on our gender, our social class or the color of our skin, is a lesson in humility. It pushes us beyond the assumption of equality, opening up the possibility of seeing our partner’s point of view.
I’ve been working as a psychologist and seeing individuals and couples since the mid-1990s, and in the last eight years I’ve seen a huge shift in the kinds of conversations couples can have. Not long ago, if I asked a couple about how they differed by class or race from one another, I was usually met with an awkward shrug and a change of subject. But recent events have reshaped the national conversation about power, privilege, gender norms, whiteness, and systemic racism. Together, these insights have pushed us to think, talk, discuss, and become aware of the many implicit biases we all carry about our identities, unconscious assumptions that “privilege” some and disadvantage others. These insights also made it easier for people to realize that there may be many other unconscious assumptions that support their positions. I have been surprised and excited by the impact of this new understanding, and it has all made my job as a couples therapist much easier.
#MeToo, BLM and trans rights
Of course, there has been a strong backlash against many of these ideas, claims that they are divisive or exclusive. #MeToo, BLM and trans rights have been used as weapons in the service of the culture wars that dominate the media. But in my practice, I have found that engaging with these progressive movements has led to profound changes in our psyche. My patients, regardless of their political affiliation, embed the messages of social movements into the very fabric of their existence. New words make new thoughts and feelings possible. As a collective, we seem to accept the idea that larger social forces run through us, animate us, and pit us against each other, regardless of our conscious intentions.
To reverse a cliché, the political is personal.
About five years ago I began work on a documentary series called “Couples Therapy,” created by filmmakers Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg and Eli Despres and broadcast on Showtime, chronicling 18 to 20 weeks of therapy with couples bravely offering as volunteers to have their sessions filmed. (The couples in this essay were filmed for the series, which allows me to write about them; only part of what is filmed ends up on air.) Now we are in several seasons. I was drawn to the project knowing that the filmmakers were committed to an honest and truthful portrayal of therapy and to examining the social factors involved in people’s lives and relationships.
I have also trained as a psychoanalyst. Psychoanalysis is about investigating the unconscious motivations behind thoughts or actions. It allows people to access how early experiences, alternating attachments and trauma have shaped them and expands their ability to think and feel. For couples, I incorporate systems thinking, a practice that focuses on the system (a couple, for example, or a family) and interprets how each person unconsciously behaves in ways that serve the system as a whole.
But what we mean by “unconscious” is an ongoing debate.
Freud was known in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for his singular focus on the private inner world. Specifically, he wrote about the epic battle between unconscious impulses and the forces of civilization. Traditional psychoanalysis has mainly focused on the early scenes of psychic formation among young people and their caregivers, leaving the sociopolitical context to other disciplines. I belong to a later theoretical school that, instead of seeing culture in conflict with itself, sees the social contract, our relationship with the collectives to which we belong, nesting in the deepest corners of our unconscious. For me, psychoanalytic inquiry has as much to do with our deep moral dilemmas about how to live with each other and our environment as it does with early family dramas: my patients’ repressed experiences with the ghosts of their country’s history. your mothers.
Over the years, I have found that one of the most pernicious issues couples struggle with is the prosecution of offenses and accusations. Claiming “you hurt me” often sends couples into a downward spiral. People want to feel like they are good and lovable: their intentions make a lot of sense to them, and they hate being interpreted as selfish. In psychoanalytic jargon we often say: “No one likes to be the ‘bad object’.”
Something is changing (for the better)
Our ongoing national conversations about systemic biases have made it easier for couples to own up to wrongdoing, leading people to the idea of unconscious complicity. Accepting that you are part of a complex social system and that you are implicated in its biases, no matter what you tell yourself, can also help you accept that in other aspects of your life, you are partly governed by unconscious forces that you don’t necessarily recognize. . . In Freudian terms, the ego does not own its own house. In other words, to know if you have caused harm, it is not enough to ask yourself: “Did I mean to harm the other person?”, you may need to listen to the comments of others. These insights can have implications beyond awareness of specific biases, as they become relevant to many aspects of our lives: our relationships with our partners or children, reviewing our life history. As my friend Nick said: “I grew up thinking I’m neither racist nor privileged, but in recent years I’ve realized how easy certain things have always been for me just because I’m white. I’m humble. And that has changed the way Rebecca and I talk to each other.”
The change in our vocabulary also played a role. Language tends to evolve to better fit the experiences of the dominant social group, leaving other experiences hidden from collective understanding and thus quietly perpetuating prejudice and harm. When these gaps are filled with new concepts, social change can follow.
The growing vocabulary around prejudice and privilege includes terms like “white frailty” or “white tears,” which refer to whites’ defensive refusal to take full responsibility.
These terms have implications beyond race, and I’ve seen them walk into the therapy room. They have helped couples see the difference between wanting forgiveness and the assurance of your goodness and genuine concern for the person they have offended. Analysts call this distinction the difference between guilt and remorse. Guilt involves feeling bad for having hurt another person; remorse is a concern for yourself, whether or not you are guilty. This concern has to do with preventing shame, which blocks interest in others.
*An excerpt from the original nytimes.com article