June 26, 2020
Dear Drama Observers,
I do a fair amount of marital counseling and I’ve noticed over the years that when I see a couple’s name on my schedule for the day, I have an emotional reaction. And I’ve learned to use that visceral sense as a thermometer of sorts which gives me a reading on the couple’s relational temperature. Let me explain.
I’ll sometimes get to my office, look over my daily schedule, see a couple’s name, and immediately feel my colon tying itself into knots. It’s not that I don’t like these people, that’s not it. But what I’ve observed about them thus far is that they’re caught in a perpetual cycle of reacting to each other’s reactions and nothing ever gets resolved. Like being trapped on an interstate cloverleaf with no exit ramp, they’re driving thousands of miles but never leaving the loops. That’s not pleasant for them to experience nor is it pleasant for me to observe. Anticipating that upcoming displeasure ties my colon in knots.
But then there are other couples that, when I see their names on my schedule, my colon unclinches into a state of relaxation. That’s because they’ve discovered the cloverleaf exit ramps and are moving on down the road. They’re learning to resolve their differences and are becoming—as Billy Graham once described his marriage when asked by Oprah Winfrey—happily incompatible. And that happiness spills across the room onto me.
Hence, my differing emotional reactions.
I have the same visceral responses to political discussions. I listen regularly to a podcast called Beg to Differ in which two individuals from the center right discuss political issues with two individuals from the center left. It’s a civil discussion where they listen to each other, don’t talk over each other, let each other finish their sentences, and deal respectfully with each other. I’m always better informed after listening to that podcast and I’m never clinched up. Afterwards, my colon is relaxed, has its feet up, and is calmly drinking a glass of tea.
But I have precisely the same visceral reactions to most political discussions that I have to seeing the name of a squabbling couple scheduled for later in the day. Should I ever suffer an attack of sudden-onset masochism and actually to listen to one of those verbal fist fights, I’m left all clinched up and I’m pretty sure my IQ has dropped several points—points which I can’t afford to spare.
The reasons why political discussions go badly are myriad and books have been written by social and political scientists explaining their theories. I’d like to mention just a few. Keep in mind that these parallel the reasons why couples stay trapped on relational cloverleafs.
Rightness Over Relationship
Granted, everyone thinks they’re right or wants to be right when disputes arise. But so many people are willing to sacrifice their relationship—in some cases a close friendship or family connection—in order to maintain their position of rightness. The stance, “Let’s agree to disagree agreeably,” allows one to keep their ideas while simultaneously keeping the relationship intact. That notion is lost on many people.
Talking Over Listening
It’s become cliché that God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason. It’s human nature to be so concerned about getting one’s point across that the other person’s point is never heard or understood. And when you feel your point is being missed, you’ll either say it louder or just quit talking.
Winning Over Persuading
In the gladiatorial contests of today’s political discussions, the contestants seem more interested in conquest than in persuasion. They seem more interested in scoring points than in making points. The goal of a political discussion should be to make your point in such a way that other person will give your ideas some consideration. But no one ever changes their mind when their opponent calls them an idiot.
Team Over Truth
Psychologist Edmund Bourne has researched and written extensively about anxiety and speculates about why anxiety disorders have become so prevalent. He states,
Cultural values are unclear. We lack a consistent, externally sanctioned set of values (traditionally prescribed by society and religion). This leaves a vacuum in which people are left to fend for themselves. Faced with a barrage of inconsistent worldviews and standards presented by the media, people must learn to cope with the responsibility of creating their own meaning and moral order.
With so many competing views about what’s true and what’s not, many people default to their own political tribe to determine truth for them. In the absence of any mutually agreed upon set of facts, people cherry pick the facts that fit with their pre-determined conclusions. And you can always find an article that supports whatever view you hold.
By the way, the above-cited Bourne quote was from 1990. It seems exponentially more relevant today.
Arrogance Over Humility
I’ll not say much about this except to contrast the stances of arrogance and humility:
Listen poorly, draw dogmatic conclusions, get mad
Listen carefully, draw tentative conclusions, stay calm
Our politics could be less divisive if we were to apply these principles. And our colons would be better off, too.
Till next week.
Wow! The whole world needs to read what you just wrote! I am so sick of the know-it-alls of this world, on social media and everywhere else, that I am almost glad my geographical area has been sequestered (a whole other argument from the know-it-alls). And you’ve hit the nail on the head in every category.
I’ll bet the Beg to Differ rating numbers will go up. I know I’m going to check it out. And I’m pretty sure my colon will be happier too.
Thanks for this enlightening column.
You’re awfully nice to take the time to write, Patti. I appreciate your kind remarks.
Hi Dr. Godwin,
What happens one one partner is attempting to get off the hamster wheel and the other is not?
That’s a very good question and I’m sure, due to space, my answer won’t be very complete. Generally speaking, the one who’s willing to exit the back and forth of the reactive cycle should go ahead and do so whether the other one does or not. They refuse to participate because escalation can only occur when both sides play their parts. That’s true in marriage and in contentious political discussions. I say “generally speaking” because every situation has its on particulars that makes this easier to say than to do.