For those of you who practice relationship therapy, you are well aware of the indignities partners can foist on one another, even in the context of a session. All of us have been around couples in social situations where the animosity is palpable. On such occasions we feel like we are in a “tension convention.” It seems that the committed relationship is fertile ground for bringing out both the best and the worst in us. Truly, it appears that hate is the progeny of love.
When couples engage in PDAs (Public Displays of Aggression) it’s as if the accumulation of perceived slights and injustices just spill out into the light of day. So, we know, because we have all witnessed it, partners can be mean toward each other. And if you harbor any illusion that you are exempt from this, well, kindly exit the harbor. Anger and resentment are part and parcel to relationships of any reasonable duration. Those who can admit to anger and resentment are the higher functioning ones. Those who engage in emotional bypass surgery – circumventing the nasty feelings, are doomed to a worse fate.
Wikipedia defines microaggressions as such: “A microaggression is a term used for brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward any marginalized group.” Coined by psychologist Chester Pierce, it was intended to bring to consciousness the ways privileged groups exert dominion over those who are marginalized. But does the concept translate to what can occur in committed relationships? I think it does. Here’s why I believe so.
Folks who choose to share a life with another particular individual are making a profound commitment. When we do this we are saying, “I am willing to expose all of who I am to you and trust that you will hold it dearly.” It is without question the most emotionally risky and fragile commitment we will ever make. In this regard each one of us in a committed relationship brings our most vulnerable and tender parts to one another. Our insecurities, wounding, limits, and idiosyncrasies are closer to the surface than in any other context.
So, in our outer world we may (or may not) be part of a privileged social group, yet in the world of our relationship we are susceptible to deep and lasting hurt. Our lover can be our tormentor. When we think about aggression in relationship we naturally think of domestic violence, and verbal and sexual spousal abuse. But, there is another what we might call “sub-clinical” dose of aggression that shows up in less overt ways.
The term microaggression is routinely scorned as a product of an overly sensitive and politically correct society. Like any criticism about any topic, there’s surely some truth to this reaction. Yet, I believe it also to be true that familiarity breeds contempt and contempt often slips through the smallest crack in our psyche.
In recent years the term “gaslighting” has re-emerged as a way to describe the intentional effort on the part of one person to create confusion and self doubt in another. What one thinks and feels is undermined and called into question by another. Based on the 1940s movie of the same name, to gaslight is to intentionally mess with another’s mind. It is perhaps the quintessential example of microaggression. But there are lots of ways we as partners in committed relationships exert our hostilities and accumulated resentments. For instance:
Poking fun at some behavior of our partner that we know causes shame
Ignoring her/his efforts
Withholding any verbal expression of affection, touch, a smile, or laughter
Not remembering act to on things s/he asks of us
Stereotyping our partner based on gender
Condescension (eg. mansplaining)
Violating a partner’s confidentiality
None of us are so evolved that we don’t engage in some form of microaggression from time to time. Our main task is to be willing to look for how it exists within us and to own it when we are called out on it. Behind many of these “sub-clinical” aggressions I believe we either harbor a silent “fuck you,” or we are trying to maintain a sense of power and superiority. These subtle behaviors can be the source of an escalating “War of the Roses” relationship, or conversely lead us into a desolate and arid coexistence. What Marcia and I call Exceptional Relationships are not free of these behaviors, but instead exhibit an openness to full self ownership of the ways we each aggress upon the one we love. Safety comes from admission of our “dark side” not from striving for some kind of elusive perfection.