Feminist Therapy: How can we maintain relationships with people who we love, but who don’t share our politics?

feminist therapy

I am a therapist, but I am not your therapist. Therapy, in my opinion, is not just about the information I give, but also about the highly individualized relationship I build with each client, getting to know their unique needs, strengths, and challenges. This column is not meant to substitute individual therapy. And when in doubt, speak to a therapist about these issues — preferably someone who knows you, who you feel safe with, and who is equipped to support you exactly as you are.

** All of the questions I received were complex, and profoundly honest. Thank you for your submissions. The questions answered in this month’s column were edited for length and privacy, while attempting to preserve the original question.

Dear Feminist Therapist,

My younger sister identifies as non-binary, and is vocally anti-radical feminism, calling themselves a feminist but dismissing radical criticisms of gender and “sex work” as hateful and exclusionary. When I attempted to gently explain my views, I was met with a tirade against radical feminists, in particular, “violent lesbians” (never mind that I’m not a lesbian), and a dismissal of my views as elitist and colonialist because I took gender studies classes in college (much of which I’ve since come to disagree with). We’ve been very close in the past, and our relationship is obviously very important to me. I’ve extended an olive branch by offering to refer to them by their preferred pronouns (though they didn’t respond to my efforts to reach out in this way) and to back down from initiating these kinds of conversations with them, but I can still feel them pulling back from our relationship. We live in different cities, and they’re busy with school, so some of the distance between us is inevitable, but do you have any advice to keep this from permanently damaging our relationship?

-R

Dear R,

Thanks for writing in about this. I imagine your struggle will apply to lots of Feminist Current readers who are trying to navigate relationships that get messy and painful due to fundamental disagreements about values and politics. While this wasn’t directly what you asked, your question gets to the heart of concerns faced by of a lot of people I see in therapy: how can I be fully me and do what I believe is right, and be in relationships with those I love? Most of the time we don’t have to choose between the two, but every so often we find ourselves wondering if we have to give up one for the other, because doing both “me” and “us” is just too hard, or because it just doesn’t work.

When you are the one who reached out in an effort to repair the broken relationship, it can feel extra painful to feel the other person pull away. I admire you for working to build relational bridges between the two of you. Relationships take an investment from both people involved, and it can be scary, confusing, or frustrating, even a hit to your pride, when your efforts are not reciprocated. So, continuing to be open to conversation, and communicating your care with patience, graciousness, and compassion might be the best way to preserve the connection you have at this time, even if she’s not ready to reciprocate.

A few years ago, a professor of mine said, “Hurt people hurt people.” When someone else hurts you, it likely comes from their own hurt. This doesn’t make hurting others ok, and does not mean they’re not accountable for their actions, but it can help us transcend our distress and respond with compassion. When I’m hurt by someone, remembering this always helps me move out of feeling defensive and reactive, and helps me start to think about them. Although I don’t know the situation, I imagine that your sibling is hurting in some way, regardless of their degree of awareness of that. So, being a kind, consistent, and loving person to them might help undo some of the hurt they are carrying. It’s likely that she’s not pushing you (as a person) away, but is resisting all of the things you represent, because she feels hurt by them. It’s worth remembering, too, that though it feels personal, what she is communicating to you is actually a political divide. Their attacks on you represent a belief-system that your sister is likely just learning about — we see similar attacks happening often, these days, as part of the backlash against feminism. It seems unlikely you will be able to resolve these differences on your own, if your sisters is unwilling, right now, to make an effort to learn more about where you are coming from.

If possible, I’d recommend taking an interest in her life outside of the issues that create conflict between the two of you — perhaps asking about their classes, friends, or upcoming plans. If you feel like trying something a bit more risky, you could try telling her what you wrote to me about — that you can feel the tension between the two of you, and want to maintain a relationship even if you see things differently. You could even ask her if she has some ideas about how to do that.

As the two of you grow and change, as people, it is normal to feel the tension of growing apart. It can feel strange and sad, but is a normal part of sibling relationships. As we mature, our relationships mature, and we’re better able to handle the differences between us and the people we love. So, it’s possible that over time she will soften towards you. There is no guarantee that anything you do will make her want to be close to you again, but you can behave in a way that shows her that if she is interested in relationship with you, that it’s safe for her to do that — that you can both see the world differently, and be in connection.

 

Dear Feminist Therapist,

Do you think that bestselling books contribute to the patriarchal status quo and trivialize sexual violence, especially those describing/showing women’s sexual degradation in a very frightening, explicit way? For example, Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight, the works of Marquis de Sade, Clockwork Orange, Game of Thrones, Kama Sutra, etc? Internet is full of so-called “fandoms” featuring extremely unhealthy relationships and glorifying so-called “bad boys,” which is more than unfortunate. How can we change that? Is there a better way to define romantic love?

-M

 

Dear M

You raise an important issue. The depictions of love, relationships, and sex proliferated in the media influence our ideas about these things, and create standards against which we measure ourselves, often without realizing it. Patricia Hill Collins calls these ideas “controlling images” — meaning that the media we interact with shapes our expectations of and ideas about ourselves and others. We often don’t stop to think about if those expectations and ideas are healthy or even accurate. This influences most areas of our life without us even knowing it, including in terms of our behaviour in sexual relationships and what we believe we desire in our intimate relationships.

In terms of our response, we have some options: engaging in therapy or consciousness-raising processes of any kind, educating ourselves and others about misogyny and the oppression of women, refusing to purchase products and media that reinforce patriarchy, asking ourselves if the things we’re doing in our relationships reflect health, equality, and connection or if we’re just following a gendered and oppressive script (but one we are comfortable acting out, and afraid to do away with, because we’ve been groomed for it our whole lives).

There is a theory about how people develop ideas about their bodies called the Tripartite Influence model — although it addresses body image, specifically, I think it could relate to your question as well. The idea is that media communicates sociopolitical ideas about (women’s) bodies, and parents and peers participate in perpetuating those ideas, reinforcing the idea that certain kinds of bodies are valuable. I like this model because it allows us to identify the sources of influence and demands we take responsibility for our own participation in perpetuating misogynistic and oppressive narratives.

I believe this can be applied to our ideas of romance and sexual behavior as well. Media is an easy source to point to in terms of understanding how messages get disseminated, but we all need to be accountable for what we praise and reinforce in our intimate relationships and with our peer groups. I think a lot of people get stuck taking this last step because being responsible, aware, and critical of our own actions can be exhausting, terrifying, and painful at times. A famous existential therapist named Irvin Yalom wrote, in When Nietzsche Wept, “Every person must choose how much truth he can stand.” My assumption, with regard to this quote, is that some people are unable to examine the truth around how they participate in oppression — even their own oppression — and it may be easier for them to follow the script they’ve been given. It takes energy to think critically, to have a voice, and behave differently in the culture we exist in. But in my opinion this is energy well spent in our pursuit to live meaningful lives.

 

Dear Feminist Therapist,

What do you think is the best way to deal with online drama and in-fighting? Lately, the hostility within the radical feminist community has been wearing me out and I’m considering stepping back for a while. The personal is political, so we’re all dealing with topics (race, class, sexuality) we feel deeply about. When we disagree, things get vicious quickly. It hurts, and yet it keeps happening, possibly because we’re used to holding each other at impossibly high standards. Or maybe some of us should simply learn to take criticism more gracefully? I’m a heterosexual woman who’s celibate and I feel strongly about political celibacy. I find that I resent heterosexually partnered radical feminists very easily. How can I keep supporting women I find toxic and that I disagree with without feeling like a quitter? I’ve alienated several fellow radical feminists because of my habits, especially women who are or used to be in the sex trade and felt unsafe around me (can’t say I blame them). What should I do?

-D

Dear D,

Thanks for your question. I’m sorry this has been your experience. The radical feminist community in general thinks critically about the world and, as such, like you said, we hold ourselves and others to high standards.

When I think about it, I imagine that we all have, at times, been hurt by others doing this and have also participated in hurting others by doing this ourselves. I don’t think I could definitively say what the right way to deal with it is — it probably comes down to your relationship with the person who you’re in conflict with (how well you know them, if you have an actual friendship or just online interaction) and what you’re getting out of being part of that specific online community. Do you feel like being a part of that community is good for your mental health? Do you feel like you’re able to listen to the opinions and ideas of others and consider them without feeling personally attacked? Is engaging with people online creating a productive dialogue, stimulating enriching and critical thought, and helping you grow in some way? If not, then perhaps it’s ok to step away from the online part of the community for a while, or to engage with it in limited ways that still feel healthy.

As radical feminists, we have important things to say, but online interaction isn’t always the most productive way to dialogue. Online communities can be a great place to connect with people who share our points of view and experiences, but research in social and behavioral sciences has indicated that when we write online, we do so in a way that feels anonymous — we become daring in a way that can be dehumanizing to others. Most of the time this isn’t intentional, we’re interacting with other people’s ideas in a way that is removed from the person themselves. We’re not getting immediate non-verbal feedback from the people we are interacting with, in response to what we say, so we forget there is a human attached to the comments that we read, and we say whatever we want.

I get the irony here — I’m trying to interact with you in an online forum… But there is so much content on the internet that we have to be our own gatekeepers in terms what we access. If you don’t think it’s healthy for you to engage with a certain kind of online community right now and stepping back won’t impair your ability to function in your life (and if you’re not withdrawing socially, in general), then taking a break sounds like it could be a good idea.

To be clear, taking a break doesn’t mean you’re a quitter — it’s just that: taking a break. You can engage with the feminist community in a way that works for you and you can decide what that looks like.

You can send your questions for Hillary, our Feminist Therapist, to [email protected] or [email protected] with the subject: “Feminist Therapy,” or tweet her @hillarylmcbride using the hashtag, #feministtherapy. (We will anonymize your questions, unless you specifically ask us to include your name.)

Hillary McBride
Hillary McBride

Hillary McBride is a registered clinical counsellor working in the Vancouver area. She specializes in women's experiences and feminist therapy. Hillary is a PhD student at the University of British Columbia, where she researches women's experiences using feminist methodologies. She is the author of "Mothers, Daughters, and Body Image: Learning to Love Ourselves as We Are" and recently won the International Young Investigator Award in Human Sexuality from Taylor & Francis for her research and clinical work on sexuality in mothers.

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