Personal Preference, or Perpetuation of Oppression?

I just returned from the AASECT annual conference in Philadelphia, and it was, in my opinion, a particularly excellent conference this year. In the next couple months, I’ll share some of the thoughts that are stirring around for me in the aftermath of the presentations and workshops I attended.

First up, I want to tell you about a fascinating talk entitled “The Politics of Desirability.”

Consider what we think of as “personal preference.” Tall, dark, and handsome? Slim, blonde, and athletic? Able-bodied? White? Christine Shio Lim, who presented her research findings, suggests that what we have thought of as “personal preference” is not only socially constructed to the point that the word “personal” hardly applies, but also that these preferences arise from politically and socially oppressive systems that result in biases around weight, race, differing ability, and so forth.

This is not shocking for those of us who believe in social constructionism. But consider the implications for our lives and for therapy. “It’s my right to prefer what I prefer” is a common stance. But what if our preferences perpetuate oppression? Or, if we bring the discussion down to earth in real relationship examples, what if someone experiences diminished attraction to their partner after, for instance, they gain weight, but they want to stay together?

Have you ever felt uncomfortable when this situation has comes up in therapy, or is it just me?

As a body positive activist with a life-long history of experiencing our culture’s rampant bias against fatness, I have done lots of research on the topic of fatness and health, and have worked hard on my own personal feelings about my body and, more generally, cultural norms of beauty. I definitely am not interested in perpetuating myths about body size and beauty, or health.

However, I also appreciate the differentiation it takes to say something as hard as “I’m not feeling attracted to you because you have gained weight”. At least, once it has been said, a discussion can happen, if (and this is a big if!) the therapist can hold the tension sufficiently and guide the conversation in productive ways.

Here are some things to consider, from my experience working with body image issues in therapy, and guided by Shio Lim’s findings:

  • The story you’re seeing play out is not just about the relationship between partners—it’s about the relationship between the partners and the culture they exist in.
  • Attraction is malleable. If you want to change it, you can change it. Help the partner whose attraction has waned to look at beauty from a values-led perspective. Do some psychoeducation about size acceptance. Get creative about stretching perception.
  • No matter what a person says about their preference, or how they say it, it is more about them and how they see the world than about their partner. Help both partners understand the emotional boundaries here. There is no “too fat to be desirable” in a global sense. Also, fatness is not a character flaw. The person who states “you are too fat” is expressing something important about their own perception, belief system, and how they see the world as a result of their experiences. They are not right or wrong, nor are they unchangeable. They are just expressing something about their perceptions in this moment.
  • There is an inherent boundary problem with expecting your partner to lose weight. First, it might not be possible for multiple personal or medical reasons. Secondly, it is essentially none of your business.
  • Nobody ever made any difficult change by beating themselves up. Supporting beauty and self-love at any size is a powerful way to help your client stay empowered to make and act on their own decisions about their life.
  • Have you ever experienced being attracted to a person’s attitude, vibe, or presence rather than their body per se? Help the client who has gained weight to find an internal sense of sexiness, body love, joy in life, embodiment of pleasure. That’s the sexiest thing they could do, and almost certainly more powerful than losing weight.
  • It is very possible for a couple’s dynamic to remove or block all motivation to change. In other words, coercion, pressure, auditing or remarking on food choices, or any other subtle or not-so-subtle judgment is more likely to block change than create it. Challenge the pressuring partner to mind their own business while they work to expand their erotic template.
  • I love to have couples watch the film Embrace together. It is about body image for women, but it generalizes well for anyone who needs a new perspective on oppressive systems around size, health, beauty, and ability.

As a therapist, and a human being, you would be doing a radical thing by challenging your clients (and yourself) to consider that all bodies are beautiful, all are worthy, all are equal. Our sense that thinner bodies are more valuable and more desirable is shaped by our culture and our media. At many points in history, and in many cultures, fatter bodies have been valued over thinner ones. Our culture’s current preference does not reflect an eternal truth. The same goes for preferences and beliefs around skin color, ability/disability, gender presentation, and so forth.

This conversation can be incredibly difficult and painful. It’s also an amazing opportunity for both partners to put differentiation of self into practice. It takes real emotional muscle to hear something like “I’m not as attracted to you anymore because of your weight” and recognize it as something that comes from your partner’s experiences and history rather than as an indication that something is wrong with you.

I know a lot of therapists might shy away from having an open conversation about weight and attraction. It just feels too personal, too painful, and too potentially explosive. But once we recognize that our ideas about desirability are both personal (meaning they reflect our values and experiences, not objective reality), and shaped by our society (meaning that factors like systemic bias and oppression play a meaningful role), it becomes possible to have a non-judgemental, non-pathologizing, diversity-embracing conversation about where our desires come from and what roles they play in our lives and relationships.

How to Understand the Stories That Shape Our Lives

We make sense of reality by means of story. It’s human nature. And the stories we tell ourselves deeply shape our lives. They determine how we see ourselves in relation to others and how we connect our disparate experiences into an overarching narrative.

There’s a term that therapists like to use: “making meaning.” It refers to the process by which we take our experiences and transform them into a narrative. Maybe you’ve noticed how two people can see the same situation in completely different ways. Have you ever had the experience of saying something you think is innocuous, only to have a friend interpret it as a veiled accusation or an attempted guilt-trip? Or the reverse—taken an innocent comment by a friend as a slight?

This is a result of “making meaning.” We are engaged in an ongoing, never-ending process of making educated guesses about what is going on in our lives—based on intuition, which is based on past experiences, which leads to making assumptions—about other people’s intentions and perceptions. And sometimes we may not even be aware of the assumptions we’re making—which can lead into some pretty messy territory!

Sometimes the narratives we tell ourselves can get in the way of our happiness. Have you ever had a running narrative in your head to the tune of “Nothing I do is quite good enough” or “Everybody is trying to hide something from me,” or “I’m always running behind, and if I stop working for second, everything will fall apart” or “Nobody will ever love me, because I’m too (insert negative self-judgement here)”? I think everyone has a few of these broken records playing in the back of their heads from time to time. Can you identify what yours sound like? Can you think of moments they’ve shaped how you interpret a situation?

It’s all too common for these kinds of harmful narratives to get in the way of our relationships. If you’re primed by your running narrative to think that people find you disappointing, for instance, consider how much damage could come from living through that narrative in your closest relationship—and consider the relief that could come from recognizing the narrative, checking your assumptions, and discovering that the reality of the situation is much less all-or-nothing.

Checking our assumptions is an essential relationship skill, and getting to a point where this can be a stress-free aspect of conversations with our partners will prevent or remedy a lot of suffering. If we want to avoid being controlled by narratives that may not be accurate, we need to ask nuanced questions and really listen to the answers. We also might benefit from honing our ability to bravely share the fears and vulnerabilities that underlie the assumptions we make. Here are some steps:

  1. Pause. The best thing to do in a charged moment is the exact opposite of what you instinctively want to do. Instead of charging forward with your anger, defensiveness, or anxiety, pause. You have plenty of time to address what’s going on. There’s no hurry. Breathe. Notice what you’re feeling, in body and mind.
  2. Identify our narrative themes. What fears return to you again and again? When you feel anxious, lonely, angry, or sad, what stories run through your mind? Can you think of times you have interpreted a perhaps innocuous situation negatively, and can you identify what you were thinking at the time? Once you identify your narratives, they become less automatic. You can start to set them apart from your immediate experience, notice them, and question them.
  3. Reframe the situation. Describe what you’re noticing, as neutrally as possible. Don’t catastrophize or draw connections to the past. Notice the assumptions you’re making, and make an effort to think of at least one or two alternative explanations. “My partner pointed out the dishes in the sink. This set off a narrative in my head that they’re mad at me, and I’m a big disappointment to them, but another possibility is that they are reminding me that the dishes are not yet done and people are coming over for dinner later, and is true that I agreed to do the dishes; it might not be coming from a critical place, it might be coming from a helpful place. Or maybe they are looking for a way to re-open the discussion of who should do the dishes. Or maybe they are not really thinking, and it was an expression of their own mood, not really anything about me at all.”
  4. Check your assumptions with your partner. Once you’ve paused, identified your narrative, and reframed the situation, you may already feel better. But if you’re feeling unsettled, it’s a good idea to check in with your partner. You might say something like, “Darling, what you said just now brought up some feelings for me; what did you actually mean when you said it?” Or perhaps, “What’s going on for you right now about (fill in the blank with the current topic)?” You’re likely to find that the situation is much more nuanced and less negative than you may have assumed, and your partner may be able to provide you with a fresh understanding of the experience. Even if it turns out your partner was criticizing you, at least you can have a reality-based conversation about it rather than relying on assumptions and mind-reading.

It’s important to remember that the goal of this process is to check your negative assumptions, not to avoid meaning-making altogether. At the end of the day, meaning-making is pretty unavoidable—and it’s not a bad thing. Meaning-making is also how we find joy, fulfillment, and compassion in our lives. It also helps us avoid potentially dangerous or difficult situations. However, if we can reframe our negative narratives, we can open up doors to better ones—ones that allow us to view ourselves and our partners with more compassion, appreciate the the joys of everyday existence, and see ourselves as participants in the scheme of life. Our narratives quite literally give our lives meaning. Shape them with care.

Overseeing the End of a Relationship as a Couples’ Therapist

As a relationship therapist, I know I have a few beliefs that are a bit controversial for my field. One of those beliefs is this: the end of the relationship can be a perfectly good resolution to a couples’ therapy.

Let’s say that, after a long and complicated therapy, the partners look at each other and decide that the relationship is over. This is a painful result for both partners and often also for the therapist, but that doesn’t mean it’s a failure.

Consider the goal of increased differentiation of self. Here are the 3 parts:

  • Become able to look inside yourself and identify what you think, feel, prefer, and desire.
  • Develop the skill of holding steady while communicating those thoughts, feelings, etc. to your partner.
  • Develop the skill of holding steady when your partner communicates to you about their feelings and desires…even when you are uncomfortable with what they are saying.

I truly believe that, in order to be happy, live fulfilling lives, and build strong, stable relationships, we all need to continue to develop this skillset. This is the road to congruence, or the experience of having your internal reality (that of feelings and desires) match your external reality (that of actions and words). Without congruence, you can’t have a strong, stable relationship. And without differentiation of self, congruence is just an idea.

Imagine this: a couple in therapy is working toward the three aspects of differentiation of self. They are getting to know themselves and one another more deeply and authentically than ever before. They are discussing the hard truths—the secrets, the unacknowledged differences, the difficult emotions. It’s a beautiful thing to be a part of this process, and most often the experience of seeing one another through new eyes offers fresh energy or even a complete rebirth for the  relationship.

However, sometimes this process results in a realization of incompatibility. What then?

In my experience, people then decide to stay together despite the incompatibility, for any number of reasons, or they decide to end the relationship and go their separate ways.

In either case, I strongly believe that the deeper goal of knowing oneself and showing up authentically in relationship is more important than exactly what happens with the relationship outcome.

I love to help my clients get to the point where they have the clear eyes, the self-knowledge, and the understanding of one another to make the right decision for themselves–even if that decision is to end the relationship.

When partners decide to split up, that doesn’t necessarily mean the relationship therapy is over. The process of disentangling a life together—including shared finances, property, friends, community, and children—is complicated, and can be fraught and painful. A relationship therapist can be a wonderful resource to help facilitate stronger communication and better agreements throughout the transition.