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,
I’m a lesbian in a long-distance relationship with a wonderful woman. Lately, I’ve been experiencing nightmares with unpleasant (hetero)sexual connotations. Sometimes these dreams begin with me finding out that I’m pregnant and not knowing how I was impregnated or who the father is. Other times they involve a male friend of mine pressuring me for physical intimacy such as cuddling and kissing, and me giving in because he’s lonely and I feel sorry for him. The dreams make me really uncomfortable and creeped out, even long after I’ve woken up from them. I don’t know if it’s possible to make the nightmares go away, but how can I learn to let go of them and not let them affect me during the daytime?
I’m so sorry to hear that those nightmares have been occurring; I can imagine that would feel so confusing and scary. Even though we know nightmares are not real, when we can’t escape the disturbing themes, and the lasting mental torture feels very real indeed.
We can have dreams and nightmares for a variety of reasons. One theory of dreaming is that our brains are mixing factual information with experiential and affective information from our life, and we process it during our dream sleep. Sometimes our dreams are jumble of nonsense information, and other times it’s our brains “working through” something we’ve experienced, that may be unresolved in some capacity. I believe this is particularly the case when recurring themes appear in our dreams. Think of these kinds of dreams as a reminder notice for a parking ticket: when we have an unpaid parking ticket the city sends us a reminder to deal with this “unfinished business,” that, despite the fact we forgot, hasn’t been resolved. This is often the case for people who have been through trauma or have PTSD.
Although there are some popular themes when assessing symbols of dreams, I prefer to take a more person-centered approach. In therapy, I would probably want you to reflect on the predominant feelings connected to the dream, particularly feelings and themes that you experience during the dream, and ask if they resonate with some part of your life, past or present.
I certainly don’t want to tell you that I know what the dreams mean, but I would be curious about the feelings you’ve conveyed around giving in to accommodate others, at your own cost, and the confusion or shock at the reality of your circumstances. Just as importantly, we live in a heteronormative patriarchal society in which we are inundated with normalized narratives of male sexuality; as such, pressuring and coercing women into sex is normalized as well. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if one cause for dreams of this nature is simply about the culture we live in.
Because of how our brains recycle and process information during dreams, you could have watched a movie that day in which the main female character found out she was pregnant but didn’t know who the father is. So, as your mind is sorting through the feelings you’re currently experiencing in life, it may be superimposing this normative heterosexual narrative which is pervasive in our culture, on top of other feelings you may need to process and work through.
While this is a nicely packaged answer, I can understand that this would be frustrating and upsetting. If you’re really concerned, I would recommend keeping a dream journal (recording dreams you think are significant for some reason, even if unpleasant) and possibly speaking to a therapist about this. While this experience is distressing, I think there is an opportunity for these dreams to help you understand something more about yourself, and the world you live in.
Make space in your life to think about the things that might need your attention, and remember to read something pleasant or calming before you go to sleep.
Thanks for sharing!
Dear Feminist Therapist,
I’m struggling with guilt connected to my relationship with my parents. I grew up in a really traditional home, and my parents were really upset when I told them I was a lesbian and planned to move in with my partner. I know my parents are really good people and they love me a lot, but there are several things they’ve done to hurt me that make it so hard to have them in my life. To start, they basically outright reject that my relationship and love for my girlfriend is real, and don’t accept her as my partner. We don’t speak much anymore, but on special occasions when we’re together, or when we do talk over the phone, I feel really guilty for keeping the distance that I have with my family. What do I do about that guilt?
What you’re going through sounds so hard. I’m glad that you found a person you love that much. I can tell from your letter that there is an inner conflict for you. I think at various stages in our lives, we struggle with being stuck between who we believe ourselves to be and who we think we “should” be. Sometimes these “shoulds” are communicated to us directly by the people around us, and other times the “shoulds” are inferred by a lack of alternative messages/images/identities in our culture.
I have a few thoughts about this. First, do you actually want to have relationship with your parents or are you just grieving? I always think that real authentic and meaningful relationships take effort from both parties. It’s going to be hard for your parents to know how to repair their relationship with you if they don’t know what you need and how you’re hurting. So, if you feel safe talking with them about this (it’s always ok to try with the help of a family therapist) it could be really healing to show them how much their actions have hurt you and ask them to support you in certain ways, even if they don’t agree with your choices.
Second, sometimes we feel guilty because we’ve actually done something wrong (for example, if you felt guilty after stealing something). Other times we feel guilty because are worried someone we love feels hurt (which doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve done something wrong, ourselves). Lastly, we can often feel guilty when we’re learning to be ourselves in a relationship and/or culture that tells us that we’re only lovable if we do what other people want us to. I’m not saying that when you’re in a relationship you can do whatever you want and there are no consequences to that. But sometimes when we’ve had relationships with people that are predicated on us being the version of ourselves that makes them happiest, stepping out to be yourself can trigger some old beliefs that act as a warning that you’re stepping outside of old boundaries.
It’s unfortunate that this rift has occurred, and I’m sorry that you’re carrying the guilt that you do. I would encourage you to think about what you really want in your relationships with your parents, however that may look. Then, assess what role guilt might be playing in keeping you from moving in that direction. Although it doesn’t sound fun, I think there is an opportunity for you to grow into healthier relationship with yourself, and possibly with your parents.
Dear Feminist Therapist,
I’ve been married for a few years. I fell in love really quickly and dated my partner for a few years before getting married. Until I met her, I had only dated men, and when we were together it felt like something I’d been wanting all those years finally happened. The problem is that right now I’m struggling in my marriage. I feel really isolated and alone. I don’t know who to talk to, and it seems like we’ve just drifted apart over the past few years. I tried reading a few books about marriage, but they were all really hetero-centered and didn’t address lesbian marriage, and what issues might come up in them. Help.
Thanks for taking the risk to share this with me. Taking steps towards honestly examining the state of our relationship can be incredibly painful, but is often the only way to help things move forward. This is my opinion, and other people may feel differently, but I believe that we are all longing for and deserving of love and belonging. We can’t use those things to cover up our insecurities, and stop us from doing our own work, but there is something fundamental to who we are that desires to know we matter to those around us. When we feel disconnected from someone who matters the most to us, that can feel particularly painful.
It might seem like a harsh place to start, but the best way to begin change is to consider what we need to take responsibility for. So, can you see what you need to own in your marriage, that might have contributed to this distance? Ideally, if I was seeing you both in therapy, I’d ask you both to answer that question. I know I’m biased as a therapist, but I really do think that we have way too much stigma against therapy in our culture. We don’t expect ourselves to know how to fix our cavities ourselves or check our own eyesight, yet we assume that we have to know everything about relationships and how to heal them? I cannot say this enough: there is no shame in going to therapy. There is only strength and courage in asking for help. You are not alone.
While it’s good to have people in our lives we can talk to, be careful not to disclose things to other people that you are both close with and who aren’t safe (i.e. who can’t keep confidentiality). And if you share your marriage struggles with a friend, try and do it in a way which says more about your feelings, your hopes/dreams, than describing the other person’s wrongdoings. It’s hard to uphold the other person’s dignity, and our own integrity, when we’re hurt and alone. Its best to go to your wife and tell her how you’re feeling. Try and do it in a way which brings her close to you, instead of pushing her away. This might sound like, “I’ve noticed recently that I feel further away from you than I want to. I love you and want to be close to you. I want more of ______”. Pushing her away might sound like, “You never ______, I always ______, why can’t you just ______.”
There is a super book by Dr Sue Johnson called Hold Me Tight that looks at relationships and healing destructive relationship patterns while building strength and intimacy. Johnson is great at using examples from all kinds of relationships, addressing how a person’s past and personality shapes their patterns in relationship, instead of focusing on the idea that people should behave in a certain way because they were born male or female.
I have a lot of hope for your marriage, and believe that this could be a great opportunity to deepen your bond with each other. But don’t be afraid to ask for help with it. If you do decide to see a couples therapist, ask for someone who has training in EFT or EFCT.
You can send your questions for Hillary, our Feminist Therapist, to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com 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.)