To Politicians With Love: Five Lessons from Marriage Counseling for Political Discourse

[This article was published in the November 2012 issue of The Catholic Lighthouse.]

“Give it a rest, Kristi,” Chad moaned as the family minivan idled before an eternally red light, lamenting the latest impasse in which he and his wife had been entrenched all morning. “You spend money like a drunken sailor and won’t stick to our budget, but when I confront you, you explode like it’s my fault. That’s so childish!”

As Kristi fumed in the passenger seat to Chad’s right, she was too upset to realize that they only had time to fire back and forth several more times in the three blocks that remained between their car and the school fundraiser, an event for which they were fifteen minutes late. They’d argued that morning in every room of their house while struggling to get themselves and the kids ready, make breakfast, and cram into the car. Still, she was in no mood to let Chad have the last word. “It’s okay for you to spend thousands on an unbudgeted boat, but if I buy a used lamp at a rummage sale, I need Dr. Chad’s written permission. You’re such a hypocrite.”

Suddenly, the high-pitched voice of a seven-year-old interrupts from the backseat, where Chad and Kristi’s two kids were strapped in tightly. “Will you two stop fighting? You sound like those two guys that are running for president!”

And a little child shall lead them.

Indeed, conflict in marriage often stems from a fairly typical pattern of communication breakdown, which can easily be recognized in politics. We know that marriages can improve their conflict resolution with a little elbow grease, and so it makes good sense to apply some “lessons learned” to the political realm as well. What follows, therefore, are several principles which, when adopted in either marriage or politics, lead to better dialogue, increased mutual respect and understanding, a more effective outcome, and generally happier people.

1) You can be dead right. In marriage and politics, feeling right” is woefully inadequate in producing a positive outcome, and it can easily destroy the relationship. Spouses and politicians can hold to an inflexible and uncompromising position in such a way that places them in isolation from those with whom they would otherwise collaborate. It can undermine their willingness to respectfully engage parties with whom they disagree, and it often leads them to demonize and assassinate the character of the opposition. But being “right” isn’t enough. Healthy individuals honor their personal convictions while engaging in a productive dialogue in which opposing parties and spouses (who also believe that they are right) can get a fair hearing. It’s okay to believe you’re right. But don’t be dead right, or you’ll lose the relationship along with any hope of a positive outcome.

2) Pick a time and place. Most marital conflict happens when tempers flare, with no thought to managing the sensitive issue in the context it deserves. This leads couples to argue in stressful car rides, public places, or late at night when they should be enjoying a bit of sleep (or romance!). This same tendency leads politicians to take shots at opponents through the media or in speeches to like-minded individuals, rather than holding their tongues until they sit down on the committee or task force where the issue can actually be worked out. Such tactics might score points in a mixed martial arts contest, but they diminish people’s willingness to work together, deepen entrenched battle lines, and tend to provoke retaliation. Instead of destroying trust and collegiality before we ever get a chance to deal with an issue calmly, we do ourselves and our opponents a favor by giving the conflict the context and attention it deserves.

3) Try listening first. People tend to listen to those who are willing to listen to them, and they refuse to listen to people who don’t. So spouses and politicians must show a willingness to listen and empathize first in order to gain a hearing. While this principle seems obvious, it’s rarely adopted in marriage or politics, as people are too eager to be heard, score points, and to assert their views.

4) Admit how your side has caused the problem. Credibility is a funny thing. We lose it when we try to appear faultless, and we gain it when we admit our own fallibility. Few marriages work if one or both spouses are unwilling to acknowledge wrongdoing. Politically speaking, with all of the long term challenges that linger because of the decisions, endeavors, or inactivity of both major parties, there is plenty of blame to go around. As with marriage, political discourse should start with how one’s own party has contributed to the problem so that we don’t cling to prior mistakes with a kind of self righteousness that prevents honest and creative thinking.

5) Go back to the beginning. When a marriage is on the rocks, a counselor will often guide couples back to the early days of their relationship in order to remember and reclaim the original feelings and values that brought them together. In politics too, we must also remember and reclaim the aspirations and values that led to America’s founding in order to come together around our commonalities, rather than defining ourselves by divisions that have since evolved. Sadly, those in office are rewarded for partisan behavior and frowned upon for reverting to the “classical statesmanship” that made George Washington the most trusted politician in American history. Unfortunately, it often requires a national crisis for today’s political rivals to embrace one another with the spirit that permeated America’s founding days. But if we can’t reclaim the momentum generated by those formative years, we’re left in the conflicted foxholes of our present day divisions.

Matthew M. Anderson envisioned the story in “Running Mate”, his debut novel, during the 2008 presidential election. A former history teacher and lifelong student of American history, Anderson reflected on his experience as a pastor and marriage counselor, and the visions for a bipartisan presidential partnership established by the founding fathers, as a way to change the face of today’s political climate.

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