Vulnerable Conversations as a Road to Bonding in a Relationship

Creating space for authentic discussion of lived experience of race and racism.

Posted Aug 19, 2020

Since the death of George Floyd on May 29, 2020, people have been gathering in major cities to protest police brutality and demand social justice. George Floyd is one of countless victims of systemic racism and oppression. People from all walks of life, colored and white, young and old, individuals as well as families are engaging in ongoing open dialogue about what can be done to change the system that does not guarantee justice to Black people as well as to other colored people. A recent article in New York Times indicates that the Black Lives Matter movement has become one of the biggest movements in U.S. history.

In this post, I present a narrative of two people in a couple who share their lived experience of racism and oppression with each other. In therapy, they explore what they can do to understand and empathize with each other as they work together to dismantle the system of oppression—especially as it has been internalized and has influenced how they relate to each other and themselves.

Lucas and Julie

“I got angry and cried for days after watching the death of George Floyd,” said Lucas. “And seeing the outcry of the people who stood with each other and spoke about dismantling the system of oppression spoke to my heart. I saw people from all walks of life demanding justice and working to dismantle the systemic racism that killed George Floyd and many other Black men and women. Seeing the outcry and actions that are meant to change the oppressive system has encouraged me to talk about my experience as a man of color with Julie.”

“Honestly,” replied Julie, “I did not know the extent of how systemic racism had impacted African-American communities in this country. I cried and raged with Lucas. And I am very grateful for Lucas telling me how racism has affected him and his family and continues to impact how he navigates his way through the world. Having this conversation with Lucas about his race and how he often conducts himself with hypervigilance and a need to present himself with perfection made me question my own privileged life. I am white and grew up in a predominantly white middle-class neighborhood in New Jersey. Through the conversation, I am gaining a better understanding of how much power and privilege I’ve had in my life, and how my experience came with a sense of safety and protection. Since we started this conversation, I am confronting my own blind spots, especially how justice is not guaranteed to every one of us and how this comes with sometimes with deadly outcomes.”

Lucas and Julie are in their mid-30s, in the financial field, and recently engaged. They met in New York City while attending graduate school and have been together for the last five years. Lucas grew up in Pennsylvania, and Julie grew up in New Jersey. Witnessing how they talk to each other, I can see that they are very much in love. They want to have this dialogue about systemic racism since they want to get married and have children. As a biracial couple, they feel that talking about race, racism, and systems of oppression is imperative for them—especially as it influences how they experience themselves individually, as a couple, and as the family that they dream of having together.

Talking about the lived experience of racism brings up uncomfortable and painful feelings. But silence hurts more.

“When I saw the video, I can’t deny that I wondered, ‘It is going to be me next?’ As a person of dark skin, I have been subjected to racism in micro and macro levels.” At a micro-level, Lucas feels that his opinions get dismissed easily by others or don’t have the same weight as other men and women do.

At the macro-level, he has been subjected to racial profiling. As a recent example, he discusses being followed by a security guard with no apparent reason. Typical, but real, being stopped and questioned while driving. The list of incidents of being subjected to racism for Lucas is very long. He says, “I swallowed these experiences for too long thinking that It has been this way, and it is going to be this way. Nothing is going to change. But I am beginning to think that silence won’t change anything. I want to share my own experience of oppression with Julie. I am committed to her and this relationship, and I want to be honest and authentic with her about my racial identity and what it means to me. I am a Black man and she is a partner of a Black man.”

Making room for the differences: What people need from each other when having a conversation about race and racism

When asked about what they need from each other in this conversation that brings up so much vulnerability, Lucas says that he wants Julie to listen—to really hear him. He does not need her to comment on the things that she has not experienced. Julie wants Lucas to keep talking about his experience and to be aware that he has tended toward default thinking that she won’t understand—or try to—what he’s been through.

“I feel that I experience guilt, shame, and discomfort when I listen to Lucas talk about his experiences with racism,” says Julie. “But I know that I have to sit with my guilt and shame and listen. I try to relate to his experience of injustice by tapping into my own personal experience of being subjected to sexism and misogyny. I want to provide safe and open space for Lucas to just speak.”

Lucas says he needs to push himself to talk about race issues. He says, “I need to be very mindful of how easily I go to a place of ‘you don’t understand’. If I don’t talk about it, Julie will never understand. So I have to let her know what it has been like. It is hard for me to talk about racism and how it has affected me. For me, admitting that I was subjected to racism makes me feel weak and exposed. I feel that my armor is down.”

Conversation to action taking

Lucas and Julie say that talking about racism has been difficult but that it is bringing them closer to each other. They feel very confident about their relationship—especially as they navigate their way through times of turmoil. Together, they have participated in protests for Black Lives Matter in New York City and donated to the BLM cause.

Julie says she has attended a Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity group at her work and made a commitment to ongoing attendance in this group. Lucas decided to be one of the chairpersons of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity at his company. Both of them are thinking about ways in which they can be a part of the broader cross-racial conversation to equalize power and privilege. They want to make this a long-term commitment.

Let this conversation be ongoing

As I listen to Lucas and Julie talk about how the Black Lives Matter movement impacted them as a biracial couple, I think the conversation of racism needs to be an ongoing conversation for all of us. Personally, I am in a biracial marriage, and my partner and I have been making time and space for conversation about our experience of the system of oppression and racism. I too relate to their experience of feeling discomfort while sharing their lived experiences of racism and system of oppression.

Engaging in conversation about race and systemic racism with your intimate partner requires tolerance of your own discomfort. It requires active listening and an openness to empathy. I wonder if all of us can make this conversation of race and racism ongoing. We have a lot to unpack in the area of systemic racism. And the conversation starts with me and you and our loved ones.