Questions of guilt hovered over another couple I worked with. He had recently cheated on his wife. They were generally deeply supportive of each other, but after she found out about his transgression, she was terribly upset and also confused. Their attempts to talk about what happened were halting. #MeToo rhetoric was woven into their discussions, functioning as a superego, shaping and inhibiting what they could even think. She said that she felt that the lessons of the movement were telling her not to forgive but to leave him — “Especially now, if a woman is being wronged, you get out.” It was hard for her to know how she actually felt about it all. Early on, he couldn’t separate remorse from fear. He was terrified of getting into trouble, and guiltiness prevailed. His voice was hushed while he scrutinized me intently, worried about how he 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 were apologetic about it. She often undid her own complaints — “I levitate out” — by having the thought, “Oh, poor cis white woman.” He was uncomfortable, too. He talked about reading the news “about another Black or brown person being killed. And it’s just like I feel a little — well, I feel guilty, to be honest, to be sitting here.” The lessons of the Black Lives Matter movement initially can provoke such paralyzing guilt and shame that people become defensive and stop fully thinking. Yet over time, I’ve found, the ideas can inspire deep psychological work, pushing people to reckon with the harm that has been done, the question of whom should be implicated, and the difference between virtue signaling and deeper concerns. These are tough and important lessons that can carry over into intimate relationships. In this case, the husband described a new understanding about the ways he exercised power at work: “Hold on. Have I been an ally? Has it just been optics?” These insights extended even to his way of speaking about his transgression. He had been rationalizing his behavior by saying that his wife was not giving him the attention he needed. But moving beyond what the couple called “optics,” now he was asking himself for a more thorough accounting of what his cheating was really about, and how it affected his wife. He explained how lonely he was if she traveled; he felt left behind and discarded, a feeling deeply familiar to him from early childhood. Acknowledging his vulnerability was hard for him, but it opened up a series of honest conversations between them. “I convinced myself she does not desire me,” he said. “I’m not the popular guy. I’m not the strong guy.” He linked those feelings to insecurities he felt as a teenager, when he suffered chronic teasing from kids at school for being perceived as effeminate.
This new, nondefensive way of talking made it possible for 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 “check” themselves for their impact on the other person, and quickly “notice or apologize.” In one session she said, smiling: “You were a jerk to me yesterday, and then you apologized a couple hours later. You recognized that you took out your frustration there on me because I was an easy target.” He realized that he stopped skimming over ways he caused others pain: “I actually was just thinking therapy and the Black Lives Matter movement have made me keenly aware of the words that just came out of my mouth, and the understanding that she reacted adversely to that, instead of me just going, ‘We move on, because that’s awkward.’ There’s a need now to address it.” He continued: “ ‘Did I just upset you? What did I do to just upset you?’”
Couples work always goes back to the challenge of otherness. Differences can show up around philosophical questions like what is important to devote a life to, or whether it is ethical to have babies with a climate crisis looming; or it can be closer to home, like whether having a sexual fantasy about a person who is not your partner is acceptable; or even as seemingly trivial as the correct way to load a dishwasher. Whatever the issue, differences can become a point of crisis in the relationship. Immediately the question of who is right, who gets their way or who has a better handle on reality pops up. Narcissistic vulnerabilities about self-worth appear, which then trigger an impulse to devalue the other. Partners try to resolve such impasses by digging in and working hard to convince the other of their own position, becoming further polarized.
The challenge of otherness may be easiest to see when we think of racial differences. This was certainly true for James and Michelle. Michelle was a calm, gentle, somewhat reserved African American social worker, and James, at the time a police officer, was a slight, wiry white man whose face did not reveal much feeling. They came in with classic conflicts around division of labor and differing parenting styles, and then the pandemic hit. Quarantined, working remotely and home-schooling their 3-year-old son, they started fighting about Covid protocols. Michelle was aware of the way that Covid was devastating Black communities and wanted to be careful. James, along with his fellow police officers and his conservative parents, thought the concern was overblown. Discussion about how race shaped James and Michelle’s experiences and ideas routinely dead-ended. If Michelle tried to bring up the topic, James would insist, “I don’t see color,” and say he didn’t know what she was talking about. In our sessions, Michelle sounded hopeless: She wanted him to understand how traumatizing Covid had been for Black people. But she was frustrated by his inability to acknowledge real difference, as if everyone was the same race. “He’s of the mind-set that ‘I don’t see color.’” She continued setting out his thinking: “ ‘I don’t want to hear what you have to say because that’s not how I think.’” That point of view “obviously angers me,” she said. James would shrug, expressionless. Michelle was describing the infuriating experience of trying to break through a barrier: Her husband wasn’t consciously aware that whiteness was a perspective that was constricting what he could imagine or comprehend.