None of us exist in a vacuum. The “personal problems” that bring us to therapy are always silhouetted against a cultural backdrop, one that — depending on the climate at any given moment — can either support or undermine our growth and healing. In the worst cases, the social structures that create our wounds themselves become barriers to confronting them.
Such is the case with patriarchy.
The Great Collusion that keeps patriarchy alive is the pressure to not talk about it, what Terry Real calls “the conspiracy of silence.” Recently, the MeToo movement has broken the silence for many women, empowering them to speak out against sexual assault and abuse.
For every woman who has dared to speak out publicly, many more have been spurred out of isolation into seeking support. My own practice has seen a surge in such cases. For me, the movement has highlighted both the strength of women as well as the despicability of patriarchy.
The therapy room is a container designed to insulate our clients, as best we can, from the power structures that influence them in their daily lives. Within these walls, truths that can’t be uttered elsewhere can be proudly shouted. Identities long disowned can be explored anew. Voices that have been suppressed can momentarily breathe.
Sadly, the field has not always held so steadfastly to this ideal. Psychotherapy, like any other institution, is a product of its times, and for many years psychoanalysts attributed the “woman’s disease” of dissociation to unconsciously repressed aggressive impulses. Freud himself treated many female patients who reported being sexually violated by his esteemed peers. Rather than believe the women, he wrote them off as being hysterical. The symptoms of what we now call post-traumatic stress were chalked up to unconscious conflicts.
A century later, thanks to the work of many brave feminist writers like Carol Gilligan and Judith Herman, the issue of dissociation has been shifted from an intrapsychic issue to an interpersonal one. Women do not disassociate because of repressed impulses. They disassociate because there is no safe place for them to speak the truth about their experience.
Aside from being a platform for breaking the conspiracy of silence, the MeToo movement has allowed women to stand in their own truth, many for the first time. It is truly amazing that a movement at the societal level can empower women to begin their personal healing. I am humbled and grateful to bear witness to this process.
I am even more encouraged to be seeing an increasing number of men who are seeking their own healing, both from the damage done to them, as well as from the moral injury of perpetrating. As the saying goes, “hurt people hurt people.” Ultimately, if we are to inspire lasting change, we must be willing to help not only those who are wounded, but the hurt people who do the wounding.
Therapists have developed a certain reputation for having non-judgmental attitudes. This, however, should not be confused with moral neutrality. I cannot and will not take a morally neutral stance on patriarchy. Patriarchy is damaging to both men and women. Our liberation is two sides of the same coin, and will be achieved together or not at all.