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You probably saw tons of articles or news segments over Valentine's Day on how to improve your relationship. And while I know you've been inundated with advice, I want to add just a bit more.
If you want to improve your relationships, have conversations about racism, heterosexism and transphobia.
If this advice seems strange, it's probably because - like me - you're a cisgender (the gender you identify with aligns with the sex you were assigned at birth), white person in a straight relationship. When people like us hear this advice, our first thought can be 'how will this improve my relationships?”
If this was indeed your first thought, then you've just recognized a privilege you hold. You've been able to exist in your relationships without thinking about how larger systems can stress and sometimes threaten your relationships.
You've likely never had to have a conversation with your son about what it means to be a young, black male in America. You've probably never had a conversation with a partner about which bathroom you should use, or if you should just hold it. You've never wondered if you hold hands in public that you might be met with violence. It means that as a parent or partner, you've never had to be constantly worried that someone you love may be met with violence because of their skin color, how they present their gender, or who they love.
This is the reality for many people and their relationships. The existence and the validity of their relationships is constantly called into question.
So, if you are a cisgender, white person in a straight relationship, how does talking about this improve your relationship?
Conversations about racism, heterosexism and transphobia are complicated. They require us to listen, be vulnerable, recognize when we mess up, and do better. These are all skills that we need to create and maintain loving relationships. When we have complicated, nuanced conversations, we learn more about the people that are most important to us, and we feel more connected.
But more importantly, having these conversations can move us toward action that can result in changes that benefits all relationships. Racism, heterosexism and transphobia are the outcomes of oppressive systems and policies. One purpose of oppression is to tear down and break apart relationships. Oppressive systems perpetually narrow definitions of which relationships are acceptable, resulting in policies and structures that are inhospitable to empathy, connection and love.
For our neighbors and friends who are persons of color or queer identified, oppression can result in family relationships being broken apart through violence, forced separation, or even death. For us white, cisgender, straight folks, it's often not as great a cost, but these oppressive systems still affect us. As oppressive systems continue to narrow which relationships are deemed acceptable, they can suffocate our ability to connect, stress us out, and eventually lead to anger and despair.
Having conversations that move us to action to dismantle oppressive systems is giving a gift to the people who are most important to you. As we have these conversations, we develop relationships skills that will help us navigate tough emotional times. And if these conversations can lead us to action, we can create a society in which relationships of all kinds, including yours, can thrive.
Jacob Priest is a licensed marriage and family therapist and a professor in the University of Iowa College of Education. He is also the co-host of the Attached Podcast. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org