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Using marital advice to fix our political divide

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Friday, June 8, 2018 11:08 PM

Listening to people argue about politics these days is like overhearing people in a restaurant who are in a bad marriage. They’re always trying to use disagreements to establish superiority. It’s not merely, “We’re different.” It’s, “I’m better.”

So I thought it might be a good idea to consult some marriage books for lessons on how to repair national politics.

One of the things the books emphasize is that when a marriage hits a rough patch, both people in it are likely to feel unknown or misunderstood. So the first task in repairing it is to seek empathetic understanding of the other person – understanding the other person’s likes and dislikes, his or her oddities, how half-forgotten wounds in the past can trigger ridiculous overreactions in the present.

The second task is to understand the marriage itself. Each person brings into the marriage a pattern of interaction absorbed from his or her original family. Psychologists joke that early marriage is a battleground in which two families send their best warriors to determine which family’s culture will direct the couple’s lives.

Then over time the couple creates their own pattern of interaction, which may propel them to act in ways that neither person particularly likes.

Apparently one of the most common dysfunctional scripts is the demand/withdrawal cycle. One partner makes a request of the other – please do the dishes – but there’s a hint of blame in his or her words. The other partner hears it as complaining and just withdraws.

This prompts the person making the request to make the blaming more explicit, in turn causing the withdrawing partner to withdraw even more. The more the latter disappears, the more the former creates a scene to get any response.

It’s only by recognizing the old scripts that couples can establish a new one.

The third task is to recognize that repairing marital strife will require both spouses to become better people, more empathetic, more sacrificial on a daily basis. Marriage has been likened to a gem tumbler; it’s banging two rocks together in order to eventually bring out their deeper sparkle.

When you read these books in the context of today’s political tribalism, you’re reminded that we’ve had relational tears between groups in this country since the beginning. Overcoming tribalism means rising up and taking care of problems that weren’t addressed at the founding and certainly not during reconstruction.

In The Meaning of Marriage, Tim and Kathy Keller emphasize that in any bad relationship the natural tendency is to see the other person’s selfishness as the key problem. But relationships only thrive when each partner sees his or her own selfishness as the key problem.

After all, your own selfishness is the only one you can really control, the only one you have responsibility for.

This brings us to the truism that, when arguing, “I” sentences are better than “you” sentences. As Daphne de Marneffe writes in her excellent book The Rough Patch, think of the different emotional impacts of these two sentences:

“I’d stop yelling if you were more helpful.” And: “I know I’m a piece of work, but I’m trying to control my yelling.”

The crucial step, which several books come back to, is the raw and willful decision each partner must make just to recommit. The relationship is strife-ridden. Every fiber of your body says to retreat to the safety of your foxhole. But you have to go against yourself and lunge toward intimacy.

As Mike Mason puts it in The Mystery of Marriage, “A marriage lives, paradoxically, upon those almost impossible times when it is perfectly clear to the two partners that nothing else but pure sacrificial love can hold them together.” This involves, he writes, “a deliberate choosing of closeness over distance, of companionship over detachment, of relationship over isolation.”

That involves a relentless turning toward each other.

John Gottman, who I suppose is the dean of marriage experts, describes relationship as a pattern of bids and volleys. One partner makes a conversational bid: “Look how beautiful the sunset looks!” The other partner can either respond with a toward bid: “Wow. Incredible. Thanks for pointing it out!”; or an against bid: “I was reading the paper, do you mind?”; or a turning-away bid, which would be grunting and not responding at all.

Successful marriages, Gottman finds, have five toward bids for every one of the other kinds. The relationship masters, he told Emily Esfahani Smith in The Atlantic, are the people who are actively scanning the social horizon for things they appreciate about the other person and can say thank you for.

Good manners seem superficial but are essential. Furthermore, the people who repair their marriages don’t necessarily fix their central disagreement. They just overwhelm the negative with the positive.

Red or blue, we are stuck together permanently in this country. And as the saying goes, the only way to get out of this mess is to get into it.

David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018. © 2018 New York Times News Service

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