The USA needs marriage counseling. I don’t mean counseling for the couples, but help for the 325 million people who are at such odds with one another right now. Watching the nation through the presidential election process and aftermath, I wish I could fit the entire country into my office for some help. I really think it could make a difference because what I see going on as a nation is what I often see working as a psychologist with couples in marriage counseling. This country is like a marriage in that our success and well-being is connected to how well we can work out our differences. Couples don’t fight over similarities; they battle over their differences. But, unlike a marriage, there is no divorce to escape the situation, which only intensifies the struggle and the need for teamwork. Despite people threatening to leave the country based on election results, most have decided to stay to try and work it out. That’s what we have in common: people really do want this country to work, but seem unsure how to make that happen or what to do next. Maybe this blog will offer a little help for understanding and work together in your marriage with your spouse, and with your neighbor regardless of whom they voted for.
Face the issues
I admit that the election results took me by surprise. I think it was a shock for many who may not understand the issues that are concerning half the nation. Denial is a recipe for failure and devastation. It’s crucial for this country, as well as any marriage, to turn toward the problem issues rather than denying they exist. This is going to be true from the president all the way down to the individuals. Denial can be a complete dismissal of an issue as actually existing, or offering a simplistic explanations or excuse for the problem. There has been monumental denial and distortion on both sides during this election of the problematic issues that exist, both for the candidates and the country. It’s also a huge stumbling block for many of the couples I see in marriage counseling. It’s going to take the effort to get out of your own “bubble of reality” to be able to see that there may actually be problems to face, or at the very least, a problem for the other person. Even if an issue is only a problem for the other person, it will not go away with denial. It will fester into hatred and resentment until it gets talked about. So, let’s start talking with each other, not at each other.
Seek first to understand
For me the biggest takeaway from this election process and results is that people are generally afraid of not being heard or valued. This is probably why the office of the president tends to switch back-and-forth between the political parties every so often. When one side of has been in office pursuing their ideas to the exclusion of the other, eventually one-half of the country becomes frustrated and votes in a president from the competing party. For me that is the beauty of this country; that two different viewpoints tend to keep each other in balance. The intensity of this presidential election looks to me like neither side is doing very well hearing the other. The same holds true in marriage counseling, where I see spouses escalate the intensity of their differences when they believe their partner doesn’t hear or appreciate them. When the insecurity and hopelessness escalate, it eventually ferments into angry outbursts and a defensive, closed mind.
Stephen Covey, the business consultants, said,”Seek first to understand, then be understood.” I think we would all do well with that advice for two reasons. First, when you stop to really listen to the other person, you may realize that you’re fighting over two different issues. It’s hard to fix a problem that you’re not understanding correctly. Second, when the other person knows that they have been heard and appreciated, even if you don’t agree with them, the anger subsides and they do a better job of listening to you. That helps with finding a way to move forward even if your opinions or ideas haven’t changed. Most fights, including what’s going on with the election, would probably go away if there was a certainty that our spouse or our neighbor actually understood and appreciated us and our viewpoint. So stop and really listen to what the other person is saying. You would want the same.
You’re on the same team
I can imagine the knee-jerk reactions some might have when I say that we are all on the same team. But the truth is, in a marriage or a nation, you’re going to have very different ideas, opinions, and talents. That’s normal and even helpful. There are fewer blind spots when there are different vantage points that all get considered in a situation. The problem is that we tend to notice more of what believe to be true, particularly if it’s something that generates angst or fear. Social media and news have increasingly used this subjective bias and tendency to fear in all of us to tailor an information stream, both true and false, to keep each person further isolate in their singular stream of thoughts and beliefs. The more someone is afraid and their fears confirmed, the longer they stay engaged with that narrow media feed of information, all so the provider can make more advertising dollars by keeping you engaged. Your news feed is generated by computer algorithms based on their profile of you, and is different than your neighbors. Probably more effective to talk to your neighbor, talk to someone from a different political view, talk to your partner, rather than buying into the self confirming fear based narrative we all can gravitate toward. Ask them what they are actually thinking, believing or feeling. Nobody is usually out to wreck a marriage or a country with their ideas. Different political parties or partners in a marriage can add strength and success to the outcome when their talents and ideas are recognized as the intended success for the team. What looks like opposition to success is probably just a different perspective on the situation from someone just as passionate about the success of the team as you are. The same holds true in marriage counseling. When couples in marriage counseling are at such odds with each other, my first goal is to help them remember that they are on the same team (that’s usually why people get married), then the differences are easier to listen to and work through. You probably don’t need a new marriage or a new country, just some growing in how to partner each other better.
Keep sight of the person
A funny thing happened after the presidential election. While people rioted and others were emotionally devastated, I had a wonderful block party with my neighbors. The kids were playing together and the grownups enjoyed some great barbecue. My neighbors are terrific people and we get together on a regular basis. I know for a fact that we did not all vote the same way, and that didn’t change a single thing when we got together. They are still the same great people I enjoy regardless of an election result. Having an opinion or voting for a political party doesn’t make you a moral or an immoral person. When we start to see someone as an ideology or a political opponent, and an evil one at that, it gets easy to dehumanize and dismiss them. Remember that your neighbors, friends, co-workers, and partners are people with the same worth as you, and probably most of the same concerns and fears.
After this election, president Obama said, “Remember, no matter what happens, the sun will rise in the morning and America will still be the greatest nation,” and challenged the nation to “…see each other not simply as Democrats or Republicans, but as fellow Americans.” In marriage counseling, sometimes I feel like I need to introduce the partners to one another again. It’s almost like they are interacting with a caricature of what they expect to find and are missing a human being sitting across from them. See the person in front of you, not their political or personal differences.
Yes, that is your president, partner or neighbor
One thing is true in most elections in the USA: about half of the country votes for each party. In other words, after every presidential election, about one-half of the country is disappointed with the results. But, the person elected is still YOUR president if you belong to this country. Same for a marriage. That IS your partner, whether you agree with them or not. And sometimes, you will strongly disagree and it’s harder to find a middle ground on the issue. Are you going to sabotage them and refuse to cooperate if you don’t get your way, or will you fight for the good of the union?
I read an article about the end of the American Civil War when the Confederates were preparing to surrender. General Robert E. Lee was being advised to break out into guerrilla warfare and continue the fight. He refused to do so, knowing it would further damage an already hurting country. He conceded for the good of the nation because it was the right thing to do for the healing and progress of the country he loved. No one president or partner has the complete vision or answers for the union to succeed. So concede when it’s important to pursuing good for the whole. Not because you are powerless to continue fighting, but because you are fighting for the good of the whole beyond your own personal vindication. Politics and marriage counseling both go better when it’s clear that the goal is for the success of the whole, not one side winning.
So until I get a much bigger office (and the scheduling for an entire nation would be a nightmare anyhow), I hope this offers some help in reconciling your relationships and this nation. We are in this together and there is absolutely no reason why America, and your marriage, can’t succeed and thrive. That’s not a slant toward a particular political viewpoint. It’s a hope and belief that the sum of the whole is much greater than the individual parts. That’s true for a country and in a marriage. Let’s get at it together, partner!