7 Tips for Couples Navigating Conversations about Identity, Privilege, Power, and Oppression
Here’s the thing.
The last thing you want to worry about in your relationship is racism, or sexism, or homophobia, or classism. But conflict, or even “just” deep feelings around identity, will inevitably make an appearance.
And that's ok! These can actually be relationship-building moments.
Here’s some of my thoughts on how you can navigate these moments in a way that builds your relationship up.
1) Be honest.
Help your partner get to know the parts of you that are insecure, nervous, angry, hopeful, or craving more so that they can respond with their own honesty.
Practice speaking for, rather than from, these parts. This is a Parts Work technique that helps us stay with our experience rather than becoming flooded by it. It's a step up from the "I Statement" exercises you might be familiar with.
The You-Turn is a great introduction into how to use Parts Work during intense conversations with your partner.
2) Be curious.
Really take your time to make sure you understand your partner.
Reflect back what you're hearing, and ask "Did I get that right?"
Ask follow up questions.
3) Address power dynamics.
Listen closely to and trust your partners experience of marginalization.
There could be differences in your gender identities, financial upbringing, education, and even sexual orientation. Consider how these other dynamics impact the situation.
We don’t set our other identities aside during conversations about race. As such they might have a huge impact on what’s happening between the two of you.
4) Draw boundaries around how education is provided
When it comes to educating one another about your culture, or how you and your community have experienced racism, aim to set clear boundaries and expectations. Keep in mind that the identity dynamic in your relationship will likely mean one person has the opportunity to do more educating than the other.
It’s up to that partner to decide how much educating they want to do, and if so about which topics. This can be muddy, and truthfully is often an evolving process; you are allowed to restructure the arrangement at any time.
Regardless, each partner can consider learning about the others ancestry and personal experience a part of being in a committed, nurturing relationship.
5) Practice firm compassion.
We all have parts who have internalized the beliefs and habits of oppressors. Hold that truth for your partner and yourself.
These parts can definitely be connected to our identities where we hold privilege. They have often been protected from the lived experiences of others, whether intentionally, or by structure and proximity. It’s easy for these parts to fall into guilt and shame and avoidance, but instead consider that these parts have an opportunity to expand their consciousness. We can extend the same compassion and mentorship to these parts of us as we would a child learning about racism for the first time.
For those worrying - but, is that a pass? No. This compassion is firm. You would never just let a child off the hook for physically harming another child. But you would definitely want them to understand why it was wrong and what the consequences of that action are.
These oppressor parts of us can also be parts connected to our identities that have been historically or systemically oppressed. Internalized racism is real, y’all, and nothing to be ashamed of; I think those of us with marginalized identities will throughout our entire lifetimes be unlearning aspects of internalized oppression as they become more clear to us. In many ways, I think of these parts as external parts that have set up camp in us without our consent.
From here, you and your partner will have a better chance of speaking about your parts experiences without becoming too overwhelmed, owning what you're each responsible (or not responsible) for, and keeping the compassion alive in such an emotional moment.
In the end, you will be helping these parts unlearn rather than shaming them into exile.
6) Take breaks.
Support each other in doing what's necessary to feel present and safe enough in the conversation. Notice when you need to to self-regulate or co-regulate.
If you need some tips on how to do so, subscribe to my e-mail list and get my FREE Self- and Co-Regulation Cheat Sheet.
7) Embrace liminality.
Don't fall into the trap of feeling like things need to be resolved immediately. Your relationship is a container for holding things that are unfinished.