Relationship Microaggression

By Ken Wells - 09/09/2020


Series One: Blog Forty-One

“The true tale of the lion hunt will never be told as long as the hunter tells the story” (African Proverb)

Charlie is African American. He was in a hurry in that he had to be at an interview at 3pm and it was 2:15pm. On his way to the appointment he realized he did not bring a tie. He swung into a strip mall and entered a men’s attire shop hoping to quickly find a tie and not be late. Yet, as he quickly gazed through the tie rack he noticed that there were two employees who kept their eyes on his every move without offering assistance. Quickly, he got the notion that they were afraid he might try to steal a tie. Yet, when he walked to the checkout table and drew out his wallet they seemed relieved. Even so, he noticed he was asked for extra identification at the point of purchase.

It had been six months since Katie discovered her husband’s secret of hiring escorts. Her heart was broken and the trauma sent her into a deep place of anxiety and depression. Anger, suspicion and flashbacks of fear dominated her from time to time. She was a member of a stigmatized group identified as betrayed partners.  When her husband came home from work, she explained to him her anger, fear and anxiety that was triggered when she noticed an unknown woman’s phone number on his phone history. He blew up hollering “are you ever going to give up the role of being the FBI investigator”? Katie had become conditioned to the reality that if she shared her feelings about past betrayal, her husband would rail and make her feel like she was a violator of trust.

Joe had been in recovery from alcohol for three solid years. His program of 12 steps with a sponsor and seeing his therapist was rock solid. Yet his partner would make statements like “where are you hiding your stash”; and “you don’t think I believe you don’t have a secret stash, do you?” He was always the guilty black sheep in the relationship. Once his partner accused him of lying about not drinking when they were returning home from a vacation. Joe had crossed over the double yellow line while driving under the influence of exhaustion after driving 13 hours nonstop. His reality was that his wife always believed that he was drinking and not trustworthy.

The previous examples are all presentations of micro aggressions.  Micro aggressions are brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership. The persons making the comments may be otherwise well-intentioned and unaware of the potential impact of their words. The level of consciousness in our current social climate is becoming more keen in awareness of micro aggressions extended toward people of color and rightfully so. Every time a person of color walks out of their home, a steady diet of intended and unintended put downs has been a staple experience of every person of color. Epically African Americans and other people of color have declared ‘enough is enough’. We live in an exciting transformative time where white folks are confronted to have significant healing conversations regarding the systemic set ups that fuel both macro and micro aggressions that have been absorbed by people of color for ages on end. Perhaps, in the midst of such great divide within our country healing steps toward true equality can be made in my life time. These are the days that I have been privileged to be living and with enthusiasm join all people of color to work toward this historic healing.

Of course the need to dominate and hold privilege does not only exist between white folks and people of color. Women, people of disability, gay and lesbian, and transgender folk are a few examples of people who suffer micro aggressions and experience domination from others.

Betrayed partners suffer intended and unintended denigrating messages from their partners who have betrayed them. Sounds, smells, voice tones, behaviors similar to what took place when betrayed and dishonesty about anything are micro aggressions that partners of betrayal experience every day. Yes, micro aggressions are examples of trauma response. The experience of gaslighting is a form of micro aggression that tells the betrayed partner that they are not only crazy but are the cause for feeling the way they do. It’s as insidious as it is for a person of color to feel responsible for the denigrating message that they don’t belong or measure up during every day conversation exchanges.

Addicts also experience micro aggressions. Being the butt end of a family joke particularly around alcohol after years of recovery is one example. Being labeled as irresponsible because an addict was years ago when acting out with drinking. Being perceived as weak because an addict had to surrender to rehab or forever labeled as lazy because an addict got fired from a job. All of these are examples of micro aggressions.

Whenever anyone completes an act of domination toward another person, an atmosphere that promotes micro aggression is created. Whose reality is the accurate reality? Author Derald Wing Sue cites that social psychologists have uncovered that in terms of oppression and discrimination, people who have been oppressed have the clearest perception of reality. Those who have dominated must listen to the hearts of those they oppressed. So when there is an act of betrayal in addiction, the addict will be wise to listen to the slights and indignities felt by the betrayed who can experience death by a thousand cuts. Trust and healing can be only experienced when the one who has committed the micro aggression validates the experience of the one betrayed.

There are many reasons people who dominate in a situation continue with hurtful behavior. Some people are and choose to remain oblivious to the people they have hurt. Others are fearful of losing control and choose to ignore issues that might threaten relational dominance. Telling a partner that their concern is not relevant and should be forgotten when your words, behavior and action has cut to the quick and was experienced as very hurtful can be like telling a Jewish person to forget the holocaust. Minimizing and dismissing the struggle of another that is caused by your domination is a micro aggression that will undermine healing.

Working through micro aggressions in relationship will require many steps toward validation. Micro aggressions are committed by the betrayer and the betrayed.  As perpetrator, you will need to humble your spirit and focus on listening to your partner in pain, because of your words, behavior and action past and present. You will need to shift the shame from your sense of self to the hurtful behavior you committed. You will need to give the denigrating message you tell yourself about you to the historic voice that gave it to you those many years ago. To do this you will need the social support of a group that validates and accepts who you are without minimizing the need for correction regarding hurtful behavior. The power to listen, validate and make amends to someone you hurt is the key to working through relationship micro aggressions.

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