As the world burns...Some solutions from marriage therapy


As debates rage on about police targeting of young black men, police brutality, and the role of racism in all of this, I encourage my readers and clients to seek out dialogue rather than violence. Dialogue requires self-seeking, which is something Americans are increasingly unwilling to do. The marriage therapist I most follow, Dr. John Gottman, has a basic intervention for troubled marriages that uses a political model to encourage dialogue, and the basic premise is this:

If you see something good in yourself, try to see it in the opposing side, and if you see something negative in the opposing side, try to see it in yourself, too.

This is based on 20th century political scientist David Rapoport's ideas about how to avoid nuclear war between the USSR and the USA during the Cold War. The idea is that the very formulation of "us versus them" PRESUMES that agreement is needed for progress. But research shows that even in happy marriages, 69% of "problems" are never solved. What made these marriages happy? Dialogue, which was based on validating perspectives even while disagreeing on facts. Only then could a productive discussion take place.

What are the most common factors producing emotional disengagement and lack of dialogue? I believe it's the same for marriage troubles as racial strife, four principles Dr. Gottman called the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse." Here they are, with their research-proven antidotes:

1. Criticism. Instead, lead off with feelings and needs, using "I statements" rather than "you statements."

2. Defensiveness. Instead, take responsibility for your part in the conflict. That doesn't mean you're "wrong," it just means you care about a solution.

3. Contempt. Instead, validate an opinion you don't agree with, for instance by asking questions until you can repeat the opinion back.

4. Stonewalling. When emotions rise to a fever pitch (heart rate >95bpm), the research shows that dialogue cannot occur. The only solution is to take a break until tempers have cooled.

So what do I mean by dialogue? Dialogue is different from discussion. Discussion, by definition, is successful only if it produces a solution. This presumes frustration if a solution is not reached. Dialogue, however, looks for a solution in increased understanding by each side. Through dialogue, perhaps there is an "answer," but without such understanding, a good compromise leaves everyone unhappy, as someone once said.

Using Rapoport's principle above in italics, along with Gottman's antidotes to the Four Horsemen, is a great way to encourage and maintain dialogue. A marriage therapist properly trained facilitates this in a controlled setting. Political, religious, and cultural leaders could be doing the same thing.

For now, it looks like they would all rather watch the world burn. Don't embrace the pessimism.