Microaggressions are often a source of silent frustration, resentment, and hostility in relationships. Here’s how to avoid them and keep the peace at home.

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When you think about microaggressions, it’s usually in the context of work, school, or our larger society. The truth is, microaggressions can happen in our romantic relationships, too.

Racism, sexism, ableism, and ageism underline everyday interactions — even in partnerships with the best of intentions.

Knowing how to identify and address them when they surface can help maintain respect in your romantic bond.

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.

Passive-aggressive commentsMicroaggressions
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.

Microaggressions stem from “implicit bias”

The term “microaggression” was first used in the 1970s by psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce, with a focus on racial microaggressions. Many believe that microaggressions reflect implicit biases.

Implicit bias is defined by the Perception Institute as having mistaken or negative attitudes toward people, or assuming stereotypes about them, without your own conscious knowledge.

The shortlist of microaggressions in relationships might include:

  • making snide remarks or jokes with racist or sexist undertones
  • being condescending to your partner due to their age or disability

An example: 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.

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

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 healthy 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.”

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What is a nonverbal microaggression?

Nonverbal microaggressions, whether from you or your family, could look like the following:

  • placing “air quotes” around words in the native language of your partner
  • mimicking stereotypical gestures of a man, woman, or older person like a caricature
  • bending over repeatedly when speaking to someone who uses a wheelchair

Microaggressions can lower or at least impact relationship quality, which is highly correlated with mental health outcomes.

Research from 2014 suggests that racist microaggressions negatively affect mental health and can contribute to:

When your partner experiences microaggressions outside your relationship, you can also support them. For instance, research from 2021 suggests that a strong relationship helped transgender folks manage microaggressions.

Say what you mean

Let’s say one partner would like to increase the frequency of sex or explore sex positivity with their partner.

Microaggressive language

  • “Now that you’re ‘over-the-hill’ we never have sex anymore!”
  • “I thought your type is exotic and wild in the bedroom?”
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Healthy and clear communication

  • “I’d like to talk about our sex life. I’m open to trying new things and increasing our intimate time. Would you be open to that?”
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Be open to other perspectives

Sometimes, the root of microaggressions is a disregard for another person’s feelings or experiences. Before speaking or acting, it can help to consider how your actions and words will affect others.

Ignorance may also be behind some microaggressions. Consider investing time to understand more about the experiences of marginalized groups in general, especially any groups your partner belongs to.

Set boundaries

Setting boundaries in relationships can strengthen your bond and remove any room for microaggressions.

Two examples of gender microaggressions in romantic bonds might be:

  • subtle remarks that you expect your partner to watch or clean up after the kids because they’re female
  • half-serious jokes that it’s your partner’s job to empty the trash or fix things around the house because they’re male

Boundary setting might include:

You could also set another boundary around how much emotional energy you choose to extend (or not extend) when it comes to explaining systemic racism to your significant other or the sexism at play in toxic masculinity.

You could even go over these ideas to improve your relationship together.

Learn to ask ‘What did you mean by that?’

One part of any healthy relationship is the ability to repair. If your partner has done or said something that feels like a microaggression, you can always ask them to clarify what they really meant and give them an opportunity to share their intentions.

Author don Miguel Ruiz has sage advice for seeking harmony in life and relationships in his book “The Four Agreements.”

One of the four agreements is “Don’t make assumptions.” Ruiz suggests folks muster the courage to make a habit of asking open-ended questions.

Microaggressions can happen in relationships just as much as they occur outside your home.

Partners may knowingly or unknowingly make passive-aggressive comments that communicate hostile and derogatory biases toward certain groups. Over time, these microaggressions can affect the quality of your relationship — and mental health.

Keeping microaggressions out of your relationship could help strengthen your bond and your well-being.