The Politics of Love in These Times

            Many couples I see in therapy and know as friends are struggling in the face of current sweeping political changes. If there isn’t a near perfect alignment in politics, shared categories of privileged or oppressed status and level of activism, lovers are starting to feel like enemies. Lines are being drawn all over this country and this world. Nothing feels quite as painful as when those lines get drawn between you and someone you love. Painful divides are springing up between many people and their parents or other relatives. There have been many wonderful things written about how to hold difficult conversations with family. If you want more on talking about hard things in general, I recommend Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Stone, Patton & Heen. If you are looking for a quick guide on how to talk to family, this Mic. article from Thanksgiving is very easy to read and has some good guidelines. This blog post is going to address some of the entanglements I have observed in romantic relationships recently, and offer some suggestions as to how you might approach these.

            No. 1 - My love isn’t doing/feeling/caring enough about what is happening!!! I will admit to having felt this desperation myself right after the election results came in. I felt betrayed and angry at my wife and some of my closest friends because of the shock and paralysis they were frozen in. The truth is the large scale social changes taking place are registering in many people’s systems as trauma. My wife was in one perfectly normal trauma response – freeze. I was in another – fight. We have probably all heard of the usual trauma responses programmed into our oldest animal nervous system- flight, fight or freeze. I believe many of our reactions can be understood as different versions of these root-level impulses. None of them are better; none of them are healthy or sustainable long-term life strategies. In my adrenaline-fueled fight response, I was up at 5 am, barely eating and working out at every opportunity. The adrenaline wore me out quickly. I was sick for almost the entire month of December. Though I do believe activism is life-affirming and necessary. It was also important for me to acknowledge how much of it was about my own trauma response and regulating my own fears.

            Conversely to my story, I have worked with a couple in which the opposite was true. One partner (cis-male) in a heterosexual couple was convinced that his girlfriend was unstable psychologically for training in self-defense and plunging into a new life of activism. This seemed to him a wild, paranoid over-reaction. I was happy to be able to hold space for them. I could see his points and hear his deep concern. It helped me to understand how I may have appeared to my wife. Funny how these parallels often arise in therapy, but that is a blog for another timeJ In any case, our political reality is shifting so quickly. It makes sense that it is difficult, if not impossible to gauge what is an over or under reaction. The rule of thumb I want to suggest is to withhold judgement of others, and be content with doing what you feel you need to do. The beauty of a world which honors difference is that we are all going to serve in unique ways. As much as you may feel called to lead the charge, we also need folks to build new economies, foster understanding between communities of struggle, some who feel pulled to build bridges to the “other” side, and others who feel inspired to create art and pull their community closer with parties and dinners. All of these pieces are necessary. We all belong.

            I do not mean to glaze over the real case to be made for deep internal struggle and mental illness being triggered in this time. PTSD was certainly up for me in those first two months post-election, and depression and anxiety have been running rampant through most of the communities I intersect with personally and professionally. It is very important to seek support from your friends and potentially a therapist, especially if you are feeling disconnected from your lover(s). Give yourself a lot of space to feel all the feelings, and ask people close to you for help if all the feelings are too much to hold alone. Call a crisis line (SF 415 781-0500, National 1-800-273-8255) if you don’t happen to have the right person in your life right now. If you are in overwhelm from too much contact with social media, give yourself one or two days a week off. The news will still be there the next day, or after the weekend. Part of the reason your marriage or relationship may be suffering is because you have not only needed your partner to be on the same page, but perhaps because you have simply not had enough additional support, and they have not been able to be there enough. Try to diversify your source of support. There will also, naturally be different levels and kinds of reactions or triggers available to be activated if you and your partner have different levels of privilege. Let’s talk about that more…

            No. 2 - Different levels of privilege or social oppression will likely inform your reactions to what is happening in the world and to your partner and their reactions. This has been the most obvious in my work with cis-gender heterosexual couples, though there are almost infinite ways this disparity may impact people in relationships. For many women, particularly women of color, trans women and women who have experienced sexual assault, this election was a major defeat. The men in their lives may be struggling to understand how and why this is affecting them so personally. This was the case with the couple I mentioned above.

Rather than use this blog to go on a feminist tirade about what the election of a man recorded bragging about sexual assault over a more qualified female candidate meant to women, I would like to strongly recommend the following to men noticing conflict arising with their female partner over the election – 1. Check out this list of male privileges that any woman could essentially rattle off in a few minutes 2. Then think some more about the impact of the above truth again – that we elected a man recorded bragging about sexual assault over a more qualified female candidate. Imagine what that might mean to you if you were a woman who had to walk in this world every day and keep working to believe you could still accomplish your goals and dreams. Imagine if you were a woman who had experienced sexual assault (1 in 6 have). You may be rightly and rationally frightened that the election of such a man to the presidency might make the world even less safe for you. Imagine you are a woman with daughters, wondering if your child will be in the first generation in memory to grow up with less safety, equality and opportunity than you have had. This is just a breakdown of one category of privilege and how it might show up in relationship. Race (omg, this video!), gender identity, disability, religion, citizenship and class statuses all affect us in different ways and shape us every day. These contrasts in our lived experiences will likely show up in complex intersectional ways in any relationship. You both may be asked to listen more than talk at different times about some aspect of your loved one’s experience.

My case of PTSD was set off because of an assault I experienced associated with both my gender and sexuality. My partner is more straight and cis in her appearance and has never experienced such violence. Despite her incredible empathy skills and desire to understand my fears, she simply cannot share the visceral sense of terror that shook me post-election. I am grateful for this. The point is, understanding intellectually is not enough to really allow someone to access another’s lived oppression. Even empathy is not the same as knowing (more on empathy in the next blog). The best thing you can do for your partner is to simply honor all of their needs, emotions, and actions. Do not tell them they are over-reacting. Do not be surprised if they are angry at you. Do your best to meet their anger with compassion. Ask questions; be genuinely curious about how you can support them. Work with all of your might to not be defensive. Understand that privilege is complicated and it is not enough in itself. Do all the work you can to understand, and then hold with that the knowledge that you still really don’t. This is a lot of work in humility, but it is worth doing. While privilege and systems of oppression are not necessarily your fault, if you hold privilege it is on you to do everything you can to change those systems. The first step is just listening and being open to understanding the other’s experience. Coincidentally, listening non-defensively is a great strategy for virtually every conflict in relationships. So this is a great place to practice.

No. 3 -  It turns out my love and I are on opposites sides of this/these important issue(s). Maybe you did not know before that your partner was against trans rights, or was for mass deportation, or pro-life and now because of this election you do.  I will first refer you back to the article up top for talking to families at Thanksgiving, because I suggest you try those techniques to talk to your partner. See if you can understand where they are coming from and try to patiently and slowly explain why you feel the way that you do. If you have been together for some time, odds are you have at least suspected your views differed. Look at how you have navigated that in the past and ask yourself if that can still work. If politics have not mattered before, maybe there is enough goodness in your relationship for you to love your partner and agree to disagree. If your contrasts are hitting too close to home and you are not able to rest easy next to this person any longer, ask yourself what the underlying reasons are and try to address those instead of getting drawn into partisan debates. Is this really about the President (not mine), or have you just been tired of doing all the dishes and laundry for a while? If you are finding social inequalities highlighted sharply in your relationship, I sincerely recommend you get therapeutic support. You may need a moderator to get into what could be very delicate and emotional discussions. If you love this person and feel committed to the relationship, but are struggling with the gravitas of a political divide, which once seemed unimportant, please seek help. You may not think that politics and therapy mix, but in fact,  helping folks understand themselves in the context of social oppression and current political climates is something we are trained to do as therapists.

Reading this blog may have stirred things for you. You may feel activated just thinking about privilege and oppression, politics and relationship, or many of the things mentioned above. You may need emotional support. Please take a moment to reflect on how you are feeling. Then take a few deep breaths, and see if you can think of someone to reach out to for support if needed. Maybe more talk is not what you need right now. Check in with your body to see if there is something you can do to care for yourself – a walk, a bath, a snack. Self-care is so important to allow you to stay in the difficult conversations and to build sustainability into any path forward that you choose.


Alice Phipps is Completing a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Alice has learned to combine modern insights in attachment, mindfulness, trauma, gender and sexuality with an auto-didactically accumulated knowledge of Jungian psychology, and a wide variety of mystical and spiritual traditions. They currently practice as an MFT Trainee at the Integral Counseling Center.  Attachments area

Alice Phipps is Completing a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Alice has learned to combine modern insights in attachment, mindfulness, trauma, gender and sexuality with an auto-didactically accumulated knowledge of Jungian psychology, and a wide variety of mystical and spiritual traditions. They currently practice as an MFT Trainee at the Integral Counseling Center.

Attachments area