Protecting Your Relationship from Racism

By Annie Chen, LMFT

PACT Level 2 Therapist

As society shines a light on the injustice and racism that persists within its ranks in the last few months, it's time to take a look at what you can do about racism within the context of committed partnership.

Does societal racism negatively affect your relationship? It very well might, especially if one or both of you identify as Black, Indigenous, or Person of Color (BIPOC). In this article, I use racism as a catch-all term for any number of denigrating and/or defeating insults toward BIPOC, including but not limited to racial slurs, scapegoatingsystemic discriminationcultural appropriation, colorismmicroaggressionsimplicit bias, and structural inequality

Not knowing when you could be subjected to a negative or fatal experience because of your race creates chronic stress and hypervigilance. It's the mind and body's way of being prepared for something bad. Living under racist conditions takes a toll. BIPOC experience higher levels of cumulative stress. Plenty of evidence is available on the disparities in health outcomes for BIPOC,  whether it's disease mortality, mental health, allostatic load, and cortisol levels, even when we adjust for factors like social economic status.

The Reality of Racism

Racism is real and harmful. It's something that we will take society as a whole to fix. In the meantime, partners are in a prime position to offer one another some protection from racism's cumulative stress.

The PACT model teaches couples to develop a keen awareness of the stressors that their relationship must endure from internal and external sources. As a couple, you are then tasked to collectively manage those stressors to protect the relationship, and one another, from harm. 

Ways that racism may affect or come between you and your partner 

  • You are White and your BIPOC partner tells you they have had to deal with a pattern of microaggressions from your family that make them feel excluded. You've never thought of your family as racist.
  • You are BIPOC and through a process of learning, you realize that internalized White superiority is one of the reasons you chose the White partner you married. Now you are doubting whether that was the right decision.
  • You are both BIPOC from different backgrounds, and experience different angles of marginalization particular to how racism is levied against your respective identities. 
  • Your BIPOC partner is struggling with impostor syndrome at their new workplace, and you're not sure how to support them.

Ways to be an ally to a partner who experiences racism

Be open and curious. If you arrive at these conversations with the perspective that you already know what there is to know from your life, reading, and talking to others, then you will miss the opportunity to build a stronger relationship with the person you are with. Be open and curious enough to let your partner's experiences guide your learning.

Learn your partner's specifics. Make it your job to learn about your partner's experience of racism and of any sources that aren't obvious to you. To build a secure foundation in relationship you'll want to know everything you can. This gives you the best chance to be there for them when it matters most. So, be prepared to find out these things and more:

  • How has your partner learned to protect themselves from the stressors of racism?
  • With whom does your partner feel safe when it comes to living in their racial identity?
  • How does your partner relate to the experiences of others who share their identity? Do they feel accepted or marginal as well? 

Validate their lived experience. Racism is even more injurious when there is gaslighting. Racial gaslighting happens when the racism that a person experiences is silenced, ignored, or unaccounted for in service of a narrative that is more comfortable for someone else. For example, after hearing your partner complain about being tokenized for their race at work, you might excuse it as, “But they mean well,” or wonder, “Maybe you’re being too sensitive.” Racial gaslighting in a relationship can be subtle but has the effect of saying, “Your account of reality isn’t valid in the world, and neither is it in this relationship.” 

Instead, I recommend prioritizing so that your partner can feel safe with you and heard by you. Sometimes this reassurance is as simple as acknowledging the existence of the racism stressor and expressing care: "I know how uneasy it is for you to get pulled over. I'm sorry you had to deal with that." 

Validating a partner's experience of racism may come naturally to you if you have had similar experiences. Or, that validation may be incredibly uncomfortable because it challenges core worldviews that provide security, for example the idea that it's a good idea to call police for help if you are in trouble. But if you hold these worldviews more dear than your relationship, even when you see obvious conflict, you make a choice that could erode the foundation of trust between you and your partner.

Create an alliance. To get on the same page, develop a shared language for talking about racism and a shared understanding for when racism is happening. Make sure this shared language works for your partner and includes their marginalized experiences and realities. Consider together how you can be helpful to them and have their back both in public and in private.

Ultimately, being a supportive partner is about recognizing the ways that racism causes harm to your BIPOC partners and being willing to take this on as needed for your relationship. Be gentle with yourselves and each other in the process of figuring all this out. It may take time and some learning and growing before you feel comfortable with the territory of talking about racism and where it impacts your relationship. In the meantime, acknowledge your commitment to grow together toward creating the safest, most supportive relationship for both of you.


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