November 20, 2020

Dear Drama Observers,

When couples come to see me, I typically open by asking some version of the following question: “What brings you in?” This is followed by an awkward silence where neither wants to be the first to speak. But when one of them does speak up, I usually hear them describe some long-standing area of disagreement. “We’ve been having the same argument for years,” is what I often hear. Their wheels are spinning in relational mud and are hoping I’ll provide some sort of therapeutic tow truck service.

At this point, I come to a fork in the road where I could go one of two directions.

One would be to elicit from each a fuller description of the sticking point. Indeed, this is what they often want—that I’ll hear each side and issue a judge-like ruling where the wrong one hears why the other is right.

The other direction is the road-less-traveled, so to speak. Instead of focusing on the particular place of stuck-ness, I’ll call attention to the faulty process that keeps them perpetually stuck.

Since most couples prefer the first road, I have to sell them on taking the second. My sales pitch usually sounds something like this:

“What I’ve picked up so far is that you guys are having problems—some areas of disagreement that have lowered the warmth and caused you to feel disconnected. And I understand that’s what motivated you to come in. But here’s the thing. That’s actually not your biggest problem. Your biggest problem is that the system you’ve been using to work things out doesn’t work. Your conversations reach stopping points, but rarely reach resolutions. My best service to you is not to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong but to help you learn to converse in such a way that, when you do, talking leads to resolution.”

You know how when you tell a dog something and he cocks his head, thinking maybe you’re talking about steak?  That’s how the couple usually looks at me in return. I’m trying to get across that there’s a distinction between issues and process. If we focus on issues, we might resolve one or two. If we focus instead on the process used to resolve issues, they’ll acquire a better-functioning system to resolve issues on their own as the need arises along the way.

This is the relational application of that give-them-a-fish-or-teach-them-how-to-fish proverb. The best relationships are not those that have no differences (spoiler alert: no such relationships exist). The best relationships are those that address their issues in such a way that talking leads to resolution.

This relational principle applies to couples but, really, to any gathering of homo sapiens. For example, most of us have heard tell of some church somewhere that split up over which color carpet to put in the sanctuary. But carpet color is not what split them up. What split them up was their inability to resolve differences like carpet color.

What applies to couples applies to churches and also applies to nations. We’re a diverse country with diverse groupings and varied opinions about what our priorities should be and how to get things done.

Taking that into account, our founders set up a problem-solving system where differences could be elucidated, debated, and decided upon. There would be no central figure determining who was right and who was wrong. Instead, they outlined a system (the Constitution) that, when used properly, citizens could get along despite their differences. I suspect the founders understood well the principle of focusing less on the issues themselves and more on the process used to resolve those issues.

People get along poorly when issues are the only focus. But when the process is given its proper place of priority, we get along better. Every time we need to resolve a difference and do so, it builds connective tissue between the opposing parties. But when something needs resolution and we fail to do so, it shreds that tissue.

I’m sure this at least partially explains why our nation is so divided. I wonder if it should pursue process-focused relationship counseling. I’ll check on the rates.

Till next week.