Dear Comrade Femme #6: Shadow Work

"Dear Comrade Femme," is an advice column meets queer theory daydream meets insurrectionary love letter. With her toolkit (working-class roots, queer femme modality, a PhD, and a little magic), Comrade Femme responds to your questions about politics, sex, identity, feelings, work, family, friendship, astrology, and the intersections of them all. Write to her at raechelannejolie@gmail.com and put "Dear Comrade Femme" in the title. xo



Dear Comrade Femme,


My husband and I have been married 18 years. We’ve been through good and bad times (mostly good), and have a close, devoted relationship. We’ve both said countless times that we are each other’s best friend. I’m a very strong, independent woman who believes in gender equality, and that’s something he’s always loved about me.


Neither of us is a heavy drinker, but we do occasionally have drinks with friends and get a bit tipsy. We probably get drunk a couple times a year. He’s always been an admitted lightweight and a few drinks can have a big effect on him. In the past, his behavior when drunk has been silly, affectionate, touchy-feely, and sentimental.


Last week, we had a holiday party with friends. We both had a few drinks over several hours, though I still felt clear and rational, if a little more relaxed. I could tell my husband was pretty toasted. He was his usual silly self, and seemed to be having a really good time.


After everyone left, we started cleaning up. As he was putting things away, he tipped over a glass bottle of syrup. There was a lot of broken glass and sticky syrup on the floor. Both of us were startled but then laughed and he started cleaning up the mess. I continued putting things away. He asked me to bring the trash can over.


As I was standing there holding the trash can for him and he was picking up pieces of glass, he said, “You’re lucky, you know that?” His tone of voice was strange. I said, “how so?”


He said in a nasty, mocking tone, “Some guys would make you clean this up.” I was absolutely shocked. I didn’t know how to respond, so I just looked at him and and said, “Um...no they wouldn’t. Nobody is going to ‘make’ me do anything.”  


He got up and walked into the other room to throw the rag in the wash. I took a moment to think about what had just happened. I was really hurt and angry, but also completely blindsided. It was so unlike him. When he returned, I said as calmly as I could, “I’m going to let that go because you’re drunk.” He was immediately angry, almost aggressive. He accused me of belittling him and talking down to him and saying things I had never said (and never would). He was furious and paranoid that I was lying to him.


I was just so taken aback...he imagined me saying things...was he hallucinating? I had never seen him be so nasty or heard the dark tone in his voice. I felt like a stranger had taken his place. I denied saying those things and when he shouted at me again, I told him I was going to bed. When I was laying in bed, he walked in and looked at me with a cold rage, “You know what you said,” he growled, and walked back out.


Later that night, he woke up and apologized and said he loved me and he just drank too much. I said I was really hurt but forgave him and we went to sleep.


Since then, we’ve both been affectionate and normal toward one another. We made up, and I’ve tried to forget about it, but sometimes I can’t stop hearing him say those things, his nasty tone, the cold look in his eye. I’ve never seen him that way. He’s never been cruel or misogynistic before. I know he was really drunk, but I can’t help but think...is this how he really feels after all?  

He doesn’t remember saying what he said, so I don’t know how to tell him how I’m feeling. I’m not even sure if I know him now. What can I do?


-A Stranger’s Wife



Dearest A Stranger’s Wife,


First, my dear strong woman, I am so sorry you are hurting. The incident you recount sounds awful. And I know all too well both sides of this: being on the side of receiving hurtful words (with or without alcohol) and being on the side of shouting hurtful words (with or without alcohol). It’s jarring to see your partner behave in a way you never expected. And it’s scary, and terribly lonely, to feel like a stranger in your relationship.


I want to first hone in on the alcohol piece because I think it’s important. I’m going to be pretty vulnerable here: the older I’ve gotten, the more fraught my relationship to alcohol has become. And I know I’m not the only one. While we may be able to “handle” binge drinking in our 20s, the effects of getting drunk as we get older are often more troublesome. In addition to worse hangovers, studies also show that alcohol is linked to aggression. According to one study, “Compared with sober participants, the intoxicated volunteers were found to have reduced functioning in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain linked with moderating social behavior. That reduced functioning was also linked with aggressive behavior.”


So, alcohol certainly played a role, but I think you know (and perhaps what you most fear) is that the drinking is only part of the equation.


In the witch world (and in Jungian psychology) we talk about something called “shadow work”--shadow work means confronting the darkest parts of ourselves, or, as Jung explains it: “the thing a person has no wish to be.” It’s the thoughts we never say outloud, the behaviors we’d never snap a photo of for Instagram, the fantasies we’d never share in public. Every single one of us has this “dark side,” but to ensure it doesn’t bubble up and become destructive, we must confront it.


For Jung, the shadow is representative of our deep, animal instincts, but I would argue that our shadows are invariably a result of our deeply fucked up society and the lessons we learn from it. Your husband made a misogynist comment because, guess what? No one is exempt from escaping the virulent messages a patriarchal society teaches us about women. We all (of all genders, but especially men) must admit to the parts of our brains that hate women. Just as we must all (of all races, but especially white people) confront the thoughts we have that are a result of a white supremacist and racist culture. They exist. Shadow work wants us to stop pretending we’re above it and do the painful work of unlearning and rewiring our thoughts.


All of this is to say: do I think your husband secretly hates you and all women? No of course not. Do I think something in our horrifyingly sexist culture stuck with him and, when mixed with alcohol, emerged without filter? Yes, I think that may be what happened here.


It’ll be up to you to decide how to proceed with alcohol, but whether drinking is involved or not, the shadow work will remain important.


You say you do not know how to talk to your husband because right now he feels like a stranger. But if you are able to admit that you too have learned lessons you would have preferred not to, perhaps you can shift from fear and anger to compassion. It’s a big ask, and you have every right to take as long as you need, but I think it’s crucial to see your husband as human who has some work to do rather than an unforgivable monster.


The onus to do the work of healing internalized misogyny is, of course, on him. But I would strongly encourage, if you aren’t already, seeing a therapist, both separately and together. We can all benefit from addressing the things that have arisen for you: internalized “isms”, alcohol habits, communication with spouses. And our shadow plays a role in all of it.


Tender ASW, I wish you and your husband strength during this work. And if he’s not open to doing the work, you’ll have a new question to explore.... I hope he’s up for the challenge.


Xoxo,

Comrade Femme

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