Racism: A Couples Counseling Story
I have always been curious about human behavior. Even as a child, I sought to understand the why behind the what. It is maybe this curiosity which feeds my passion for deep human interaction, which also led me to become a therapist. “People want to tell their story”, this is a truth which has undergirded my approach to counseling—I want to know not only the highlights, but all of the details, and as long as you will speak, I am willing to listen without judgment.
I have found myself drawn to persons who have suffered some form of childhood trauma. It is estimated that some 60% of adults have suffered some Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) in their formative years. ACEs are traumatic events that occur in a child before the age of 18. ACEs can adversely impact physical, emotional, and mental health. They increase risks of dysfunctional behaviors, and predispose survivors to mental health disorders, chronic diseases, and antisocial coping habits. People who suffer ACEs are often labelled as outcasts, criminals, and undesirables. Their attitudes and behaviors belie the truth of their story.
One way in which ACEs manifest in adult female survivors of childhood trauma is in their relational style. Women who have experienced rejection and abuse in their early relationships, even those who may appear to be well adjusted adults, have difficulty forming trusting bonds with adult partners. They may suffer with poor self-esteem, physical and emotional intimacy issues, and be guarded. In my practice I regularly work with adult females with high ACEs scores, some of whom come to therapy together with their partners to work on the overall health of their relationship. The partners are at times frustrated that experiences from such a distant past are negatively affecting the health of their relationship in the present.
This is where my curiosity for the why comes into play. Through a process of exposure, immersion, courage, and clarity, we work to have the woman reclaim her story, find her voice, and walk in her power, such that the relationship can function optimally. The partner’s role is to provide encouragement, understanding, honor the space for mourning, and celebrate the victory. They are a cheerleader throughout this process, and as a benefit, he is able to enjoy the relationship which he may have all but given up on.
Similarly, racism is America’s Adverse Experience, and African Americans are the people who have suffered through the trauma. White America is the partner, some of whom are patient, understanding, and empathetic enough to allow the space needed for healing. But some others quit on their partners, they cannot look past their own needs, are selfish, and choose to end the relationship. Racial reconciliation and equality would be the fruit of an effective therapeutic process whereby African Americans tell their story, reclaim their voice, and begin to walk in the power of equality and self-determination.
Couples don't usually go to therapy because their relationship is thriving. To the contrary, many are making a last-ditch attempt to try and salvage their relationship. America, similarly, is in a state of emergency, and her partners are near divorce. Remember, everyone wants to tell their story, and though we aren’t all therapists, we can all listen; non-judgmentally, without self-interest, putting our own needs to the side, and most importantly, curious about the why.