One of 2018’s defining events, both nationally and in our NYC therapy practice, was the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Particularly inspired by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s brave testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, women patients shared experiences of sexual trauma, harassment and experiences of close calls. Not only did the Kavanaugh confirmation influence individual therapy sessions, but it also came up in various ways in couples therapy as well. Speaking about sexual trauma, unequal gender dynamics and consent in the context of a couple’s relationship can be especially challenging so to reflect on this significant moment in 2018, we shared a collective conversation on practicing couples therapy in the Brett Kavanaugh era:
Matt: As a practice, we’ve had a number of conversations between us about the (head spin-inducing) experience of practicing couples therapy with the Kavanaugh hearings and ultimate confirmation playing in the background. In our individual therapy, the political moment has produced new (and new types of) conversations with women about rape, rape culture, male power and privileged sexual harassment.
While these issues come up in couples therapy as well, in our work with straight couples in particular, we see evident power dynamics, sexual politics and aggression. Some of the couples we work with seem quite cognizant of the parallels between what’s happening in their relationships and the broader political conversation, while others seem not to see the connection. I think it’s safe to say that for all of us, it’s on our mind consistently as we sit with couples.
So what have you seen in your practices? How is this affecting your work with couples?
Rachael: All this talk about Kavanaugh brought up so much with my individual patients that I feel the need to bring it closer to my couples work. I’m becoming more curious in thinking and asking about how gender and privilege come in.
One piece of the Kavanaugh moment that has echoed for sure is sexual consent, as well as times when there has been physical or sexual assault that has gone under-heard or under-spoken about, whether by the partners in the couple themselves or by someone else, such as their parents, a classmate in college, a past marriage or romantic partner.
There are some questions that I’ve been asking both out loud and to myself when doing couples therapy: What are the gender roles here? Are they “traditional”? Are they talked about openly? Is there co-leadership? What does that look like? What if we flipped that on its head? Are couples open to talking about this in a more transparent way? Do they talk about when sex hasn’t felt consensual, whether in their relationship or in past relationships? Does each partner speak their needs or do they negate them in order to salvage the relationship? Can we talk about privilege in a way that transforms the “thing that we are fighting about” into a deeper conversation about what needs to change?
Heather: Echoing what Rachael mentioned, these events have brought gender roles into the forefront of my mind even more so than before. I see gender roles and the burden that women carry as even more far-reaching. It has brought a ton of sexual trauma to the surface as so many women, both in and out of my therapy practice, reevaluate their relationships with men in their lives and are seeing past sexual experiences under a new lens. These revelations have been both upsetting and important, and the impact of these new insights has reverberated into their romantic relationships.
In couples therapy, I see women trying to process and deal with this trauma, and their partners grappling with how to best support them. With the majority of cisgender heterosexual couples that I see, the men are well intentioned so to hear that their female partners have not had equal space for themselves has been jarring.
These revelations are impacting how women view the very relationship that they are currently in. For some, they realize that they’ve been participating in uneven and unhelpful dynamics as far as the delegation of labor. Many couples are also confronting their sex lives with women realizing the ways in which they have allowed themselves to play a role as a sexual object and focused on pleasing their partner rather than mutual pleasure.
What I have found so moving is the leadership of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. In a way, she has been in the room with the couples I work with. Her psycho-education about trauma and the brain, and why traumatic memories are so vivid has echoed in my work with couples. It is a way for folks to deepen their empathy in understanding their partner’s reactions, the relational and sexual trauma that so many women have experienced, and the work and support their partners need to do around this. Folks sometimes feel that relationships should be fair, and I think this is a great opportunity to acknowledge that things are not fair out there in the world. These inequities and power differentials must be acknowledged and attended to.
It feels especially important to help couples deconstruct the power dynamics that exist in their relationships. This moment gives particular insight into being able to really push couples to acknowledge the work that women do and the work that is needed from men. Even in that, Dr. Blasey Ford provided great leadership since explaining trauma is an example of the work that women must do if they hope to be heard.
Kelly: From my perspective, I see very few women who have voluntarily brought up the idea of a power differential in a session with their partner. I’ve brought it up myself to mixed reception. My guess is this is because it’s not something that is even hinted at, much less discussed, in their own relationship. To acknowledge the ways in which a relationship has developed unequally is to assign blame or responsibility to both parties. I think some women really struggle with their own feelings of self-blame and responsibility. They might ask: What does it say about them to have allowed this to happen in their own marriage? What does it say about them to be staying with a partner who they dislike, don’t respect or resent?
I also think some women have bought into the idea that their work in the home is not valuable or commensurate with their male partner’s work outside the home. While they rage against their partners for disrespecting or devaluing their work in child-rearing or maintaining a home, they also devalue their own work. It’s so hard to find balance and equity because both partners need to fully buy into that formula.
Matt: This brings up so many thoughts. I’m realizing that this is sort of a two-fold problematic: 1. We talk about consent in very legalistic terms rather than in terms of decency, friendliness and what’s fun and 2. There is strikingly little conversation around sex in marriage. The negotiations around sex are one of the biggest clichés around partnership and marriage: When do couples have sex? What kind of sex? Who has what rights when his or her needs aren’t being met or are being perceived as unmet? How does this impact fidelity, both explicit and de facto? And, of course, all of these conversations are quite gendered.
There’s not enough attention, as I see it, given to how couples talk about their needs. As couples therapists, we see a good deal of problems on both ends–both experiences of being pressured or put down around sex or a lack of interest of sex (or certain kinds of sex), as well as needs being ignored, buried or given up on.
The other thought I had (and Karen–I love your calling out of Dr. Blasey Ford’s leadership) is the place of sexual trauma in ongoing sexual relationships, usually monogamous, within romantic couples. It feels important to say that, as I understand it (and I’m aware I’m the sole male in this conversation), all women have sexual trauma. If the experiences of this Kavanaugh moment have shown us anything, it’s that. I’m trying to recollect a woman I saw for therapy who didn’t mention, at least in passing (and some in great detail), an experience of assault, harassment, coercion, etc. And so, whether we like it or not, those historical experiences, as well as, of course, contemporaneous ones, are a part of these romantic relationships.
So in some ways, I go back to how Rachael set this up about raising questions and, Kelly, your mixed reception in attempting to raise them. I also appreciate, Kelly, how you pointed out that women can be as much or more resistant to “going there,” as it means looking at having “allowed” this to happen. My question is: what is our leadership in raising these conversations in couples therapy–in “going there,” as we often say?
Rachael: What is our leadership in raising these conversations? I think it’s important, as Kelly noted, to be aware of the fact that often gender dynamics or sexual trauma are not hinted at, much less discussed, by most women or men in their relationships. As a couples therapist, I need to do more than hint. I need to directly discuss and be braver than my patients can be on their own so that each partner in a couple can hear that yes, sexual trauma exists for all women and that this comes into the relationship they are in right now.
It’s also important to observe how anger or the way couples are angry might be directed at something wider than just a partner’s action. It might be anger at their origins, current family system or at a gender role in play. Listening for and to the stuff behind fights and exchanges can present an opportunity to wonder and firmly raise: “Hey, we’ve got to talk about how sexual trauma is in this room and in the bedroom,” or “Can we all agree we are going to have a frank conversation about gender dynamics, how they came to be, what you like, what you don’t need and what needs feel impossible and/or important to meet?”
Leadership means taking the mic and opening up the floor to personal and political discussions. Therapists are some of the few leaders who can raise gender, sex, trauma and politics with a couple. We can bring up what we see in the therapy room and directly call it out, providing the opportunity to challenge couples to think about how, why and what we talk about in regards to these issues.