Posted on June 2, 2023

I’m a Couples Therapist. Something New Is Happening in Relationships.

Orna Guralnik, New York Times, May 16, 2023

One afternoon in 2020, early in 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 she felt Matthew, a measured medical student, was trying to control her, in this case by trying to dissuade her from buying a slushy. He thought they should keep to a tight budget until after he became a doctor and achieved financial stability. Then she could have “all the slushies you want later.” Syl’violet found his reasoning maddening, especially since he seemed to imply she was reckless.

On the face of it, the fight seemed insignificant, but then an exchange took place that changed the tenor of the argument, connecting us to the underlying roots of the issue. “I have trouble envisioning that finish line,” Syl’violet exclaimed, tearing up, “because the plan that he’s talking about? My life has always been: The plan never works. You can do all the right things, you can obey all the right rules and get [expletive].” For a moment, Matthew continued to try to reason with her and convince her of his sound financial strategy. “I know that sounds very conceited, cocky,” he said, to which Syl’violet whipped back: “No! It sounds privileged!” She described her family’s relationship to money; they’d had nothing but trauma for generations. Syl’violet resented Matthew’s pride in his plan. “A privileged setting gave you access to all these things,” she said. “You’re taking ownership over it like, ‘I did it according to plan,’ as if, like, if other people did it according to plan, it would work out.”

With the mention of the word “privilege,” Matthew came around to realizing they were talking about forces larger than themselves. Each of them was African American, but he came from a financially stable family; his parents, a firefighter and a bank manager, followed a middle-class trajectory and did well. “Let me rephrase,” Matthew said carefully, signaling to Syl’violet that he could see how his certainty about his future reflected his class background: “I recognize that if it wasn’t for my parents’ credit score, my loans to get — OK — so, I get that.” As the relevance of class and race came into focus, Syl’violet’s rage transformed into deep sorrow, generations of poverty weighing heavily on her. “I cannot stop thinking that we’re going to go bankrupt.” She worried that they might even be evicted. “I wish I could believe what you believe,” she told Matthew. He replied, his voice growing tender: “We have the same life now.” He looked at her, exuding care. “We have to live with the idea, the thinking, the viewpoint, that we’re going to die old together.”

One of the most difficult challenges for couples is getting them to see beyond their own entrenched perspectives, to acknowledge a partner’s radical otherness and appreciate difference and sovereignty. People talk a good game about their efforts, but it’s quite a difficult psychological task. To be truly open to your partner’s experience, you must relinquish your conviction in the righteousness of your own position; this requires humility and the courage to tolerate uncertainty. Coming to see the working of implicit biases on us, grasping that our views are contingent on, let’s say, our gender, class background or skin color, is a humbling lesson. It pushes us beyond assuming sameness, opening up the possibility of seeing our partner’s point of view.

I’ve been working as a psychologist seeing individuals and couples since the mid-1990s, and in the past eight years, I’ve witnessed a tremendous change in the kinds of conversations couples can have. Not long ago, if I would ask a couple about the ways class or race played out between them, I’d typically be met with an awkward shrug and a change of topic. But recent events have reshaped the national conversation on power, privilege, gender norms, whiteness and systemic racism. Together these ideas have pushed us to think, talk, argue and become aware of the many implicit biases we all carry about our identities, unconscious assumptions that privilege some and inflict harm on others. These insights have also made it easier for people to realize there may be plenty of other unconscious assumptions undergirding their positions. I’ve been surprised and excited by the impact of this new understanding, and it has all made my work as a couples therapist easier.

There has, of course, been ferocious pushback against many of these ideas, claims that they are divisive or exclusionary. #MeToo, B.L.M. and trans rights have been weaponized in service of the culture wars dominating the media. But in my practice, I’ve found that engaging with these progressive movements has led to deep changes in our psyches. My patients, regardless of political affiliation, are incorporating the messages of social movements into the very structure of their being. New words make new thoughts and feelings possible. As a collective we appear to be coming around to the idea that bigger social forces run through us, animating us and pitting us against one another, whatever our conscious intentions. To invert a truism, the political is personal.

Some five years ago I started working on a documentary series called “Couples Therapy,” created by the filmmakers Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg and Eli Despres and airing on Showtime, that chronicles 18 to 20 weeks of therapy with couples who courageously volunteer to have their sessions filmed. (The couples in this essay were filmed for the show, which makes it possible for me to write about them; only some of those who are filmed end up on air.) We are now several seasons in. I was drawn to the project knowing that the directors were committed to an honest, vérité portrayal of therapy, and to looking at the social factors that thread through people’s lives and relationships.

I am also trained as a psychoanalyst. Psychoanalysis is about exploring unconscious motivations behind thoughts or actions. It allows people to gain access to how early experiences — vicissitudes of attachment and trauma — have shaped them, and to expand their capacity for thought and feeling. For couples, I incorporate systems thinking, a practice that focuses on the system — a couple, say or a family — and interprets how each individual unconsciously behaves in ways that serve the system as a whole.

But what we mean by “unconsciously” is an ongoing debate. Freud was known in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for his singular focus on the private, interior world. In particular, he wrote about the epic battle between unconscious drives and forces of civilization. Traditional psychoanalysis has mostly focused on early scenes between the young and their caregivers as shaping the psyche, leaving the sociopolitical context to other disciplines. I am of a later theoretical school that, rather than seeing civilization in conflict with the self, sees the social contract, our relationship to the collectives we belong to, as nested in the deepest corners of our unconscious. For me, psychoanalytic exploration is just as much about our deep ethical dilemmas regarding how to live with one another, and our environment, as it is about early family dramas; my patients’ repressed experiences with the ghosts of their country’s history are as interesting as with their mothers.

Over the years, I’ve come to see that one of the most pernicious issues couples struggle with is working through wrongdoing and blame. The claim “You hurt me” often sends couples spiraling. People want to feel like good and lovable beings; their intentions make perfect sense to themselves, and they hate being interpreted as selfish. In psychoanalytic jargon we often say, “No one likes being the ‘bad object.’” In fact, there are few things people resist more than being held responsible for causing harm. It immediately threatens to overwhelm the “offender” with shame (Am I a bad person?) and guilt (Have I caused irreparable damage? Should I be punished?). Yet serious hurt that goes unacknowledged leads to the accumulation of resentment and a deadening of the relationship.

Our ongoing national conversations about systemic biases have made it easier for couples to acknowledge wrongdoings by easing people into the idea of unconscious complicity. Accepting that you are part of a complex social system and 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 you do not necessarily recognize. In Freudian terms, the ego is not a master in its own house. In other words, to know if you’ve caused harm, it is not enough to ask yourself, “Did I intend to hurt the other?”; you may need to listen to the feedback of others. These insights can have ripple effects beyond an awareness of specific biases, becoming relevant in many aspects of our lives — in our relationships with partners or children, in reviewing our life history. As my friend Nick described it: “Everything about me was raised to believe I am not racist or privileged, but in recent years I realize how easy certain things have always been for me simply because I’m white. I am humbled. And that has changed the way Rebecca and I talk with each other.”

A shift in our vocabularies has also played a role. Language tends to evolve to better accommodate experiences of the dominant social group, leaving other experiences obscured from collective understanding, and thus silently perpetuating bias and harm. When these gaps are filled by new concepts, social change can follow. The expanding lexicon around bias and privilege includes terms like “white fragility” or “white tears,” referring to white people’s defensive refusal to fully engage with accountability; other phrases like “virtue signaling,” being “a Karen” or “performative allyship” underline the difference between honest and fake engagement with questions of ethics, morality and responsibility. These terms have implications beyond race, and I’ve seen them work their way into the therapy room. They’ve helped couples see the difference between the wish to receive forgiveness and assurance of your goodness and actual concern for the one you offended. {snip}