A Couples Therapist Explains How Politics Can Make for a Thorny Romantic Relationship

Dating is even more complicated than you thought

Love isn’t always roses and rainbows—getting close to someone often means
unpacking your most over-stuffed emotional baggage. Thankfully Melissa Lopez can help you work through it. The Pasadena-based therapist specializes in an intersectional form of analysis, focusing on the ways gender, race, age, and class discrimination, among other factors, can complicate romance.

By helping couples understand what role politics plays in their love lives, Lopez helps patients better deal with trauma, explore their sexuality, or simply rekindle a lost spark. We asked her to give us a few lessons, straight from the therapy couch.

Communication is crucial.

“I get a lot of folks who are contemplating opening their relationship. We talk about what kinds of communication might be needed, establishing limits, feelings of jealousy—things that monogamous couples sometimes take for granted. In some ways, the level of communication required in open and polyamorous relationships should really be practiced in all partnerships.”

Love may not be color-blind.

“We live in a racist society. Just because you love your partner doesn’t mean white supremacy doesn’t show up in a relationship, especially when one person is white and the other person is black, indigenous, or a person of color. Talking about race is hard and can get really muddled and confusing if there isn’t an understanding of oppression systems. A lot of multiracial couples come to me because they want the space to explore that.”

Sex is cool, but have you tried setting boundaries?

“With folks from the BDSM or kink communities, boundaries come up a lot, especially if one person is new to it. Issues of trauma might arise, and the couple might need to navigate that—trauma isn’t something that just goes away. Power dynamics can play out in unexpected ways, too, especially with partners who are marginalized in various ways. This can come up with any relationship, not just BDSM.”

Romance is for every body.

“We have these very narrow views of what romantic love looks like. Desired bodies are thought of in terms of whiteness; smooth skin; lack of lonjas, which are love handles. These standards of beauty have impacted people’s self-esteem so much that they’re unable to receive love. I talk with couples where one partner has a disability or chronic illness, too—we talk through how to feel sympathy for their partner in a way that’s not patronizing as well as issues around sex.”

Codependency ain’t cute.

“So many people have expectations of how a couple should behave, but it’s based on this toxic idea of constantly wanting to be together. You can’t listen to a radio station without hearing some love song that’s, like, ‘You’re my whole breath.’ It’s actually really healthy to be your own person and have your own hobbies that you don’t always do with your partner.”

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