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Microaggressions - Did You Really Just Say That?

Microaggressions are often a source of silent frustration, resentment, and hostility in relationships. They are subtle, often unintentional, statements or actions that reveal unconscious biases or prejudices. They can be based on race, gender, sexuality, disability, socio-economic or any other characteristic.

When microaggressions occur in relationships, they can erode trust and create tension. In romantic relationships microaggressions generally indicate that some form of resentment is present. It's essential to recognize, address, and work to prevent them for a healthy and respectful partnership.

What is a microaggression in a relationship?

Microaggressions can be hard to distinguish from passive-aggressive statements. Microaggressions are hostile, derogatory, or negative words or actions that communicate people’s biases against particular groups of people. Though often unintentional, microaggressions frequently leave recipients feeling slighted and stereotyped.

"But other times, your partner

doesn't even know that they've insulted you. You must remember:

No matter how it comes at you, the impact matters more than the intent.”

George M. Johnson

Passive Aggressive vs Microaggressive: What's the difference?

A microaggression is derogatory, negative, and hostile actions or speech that relays one’s bias against a particular group of people. Although it may seem hard to distinguish it from passive-aggressive behavior, it too can create cause different anxiety symptoms that need to be treated by therapists. In a romantic partnership, they can often be unintentional, but they leave the recipients feeling stereotyped and disrespected. Even when you believe you won’t have to deal with racism, like with your romantic partner, these things can still happen.

Passive Agressive Comments:

Slights used when someone is bothered and either doesn’t know

how or is uncomfortable with assertive, clear communication.



Passive-aggressive comments used knowingly or unknowingly

that reinforce stigmas of marginalized groups.

Examples of microaggressions that could be seen in relationships:

1. **Gender-Based** Making assumptions or comments based on traditional gender roles. E.g., "You're the woman, shouldn't you be in the kitchen?" or "Men don't cry." 2. **Sexuality-Based** If someone is in a same-sex relationship, they might hear, "Who's the man/woman in the relationship?" This is a microaggression because it enforces traditional gender roles and disregards the individual dynamics of the relationship. 3. **Race-Based** Making comments or assumptions based on one's race or ethnicity, e.g., "You're Asian, so you must be good at math," or "You're Black, so you must be good at dancing." 4. **Socioeconomic-Based** Making comments based on someone's perceived socioeconomic status, e.g., "You wouldn't understand this, it's a rich people thing." 5. **Religion-Based** Making assumptions about someone's beliefs or practices based on their religion. For instance, "You're Muslim, so you must be very conservative." 6. **Ability-Based** Making comments or assumptions about someone based on their physical or mental abilities. E.g., "You're so brave for dating someone in a wheelchair."

Scenario: How to respond to microaggressions in a relationship

In a new interracial relationship between a Person of Color (POC) and white woman, the man cooks food from his native culture. The woman appreciates the effort but is sensitive to strong smells and a messy kitchen.

Partner 1: One night, in frustration, the woman says, “Your food smells so bad and is so messy!”

Partner 2: The man feels offended and upset that his gesture is not only criticized, but done so in a way that he feels is a slight to his ethnicity. Instead of saying that directly, he says, “You’re racist!”

A healthier exchange might have gone like this:

Partner 1: “Thanks so much for cooking for us! I love trying new cuisines. I’m actually sensitive to strong scents though. Can we open a window or light a candle afterward? “I also get stressed when the kitchen isn’t clean. How about we work together to straighten up after dinner?”

Partner 2: “I had no idea you were sensitive to certain scents. Thanks for letting me know. Deal.” your text here. Edit to add dynamic values like name, email and more.

Here’s how to work together with your partner to address, prevent and avoid microaggressive comments and keep the peace at home:

1. **Awareness**: Recognize and accept that everyone, including yourself, has biases. Understanding that these biases can manifest as microaggressions is the first step to addressing them.

2. **Listen Actively**: If your partner says something has hurt them or feels like a microaggression, listen to them without becoming defensive. Their feelings and experiences are valid.

3. **Educate Yourself**: Take the initiative to learn about different cultures, genders, and experiences. It can help in understanding where microaggressions stem from and how to avoid them.

4. **Open Communication**: Encourage open dialogue in your relationship. It's essential for both parties to feel they can express when they've been hurt by a comment or action.

5. **Apologize and Learn**: If you've committed a microaggression, apologize genuinely and take it as a learning experience. Avoid making the same mistake in the future.

6. **Establish Boundaries**: Make it clear in the relationship what comments or behaviors are unacceptable and hurtful.

7. **Seek Therapy or Counseling**: If microaggressions are a recurring issue in the relationship, consider couples therapy or counseling to address the root causes.

Remember, nobody is perfect. Everyone will make mistakes, but it's essential to learn from them and strive to be a more understanding and compassionate partner.


Stephanie Burchell PhD LMFT PCC is a licensed therapist and certified coach. With over 15+ years of experience, Stephanie offers expert guidance and support to couples, individuals, and families. Both video and in-office appointments are available. For further information or to schedule an appointment please click below.

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