Last week, a new couple came to me after 21 years of marriage, 21 years of arguing, and four attempts to find help from Marriage Therapists. As I started to work with them, I found once more that they have not heard about Master/Slave, respecting each other’s autonomy, nor about Differentiation – critical skills for living together. And apparently the “therapists” they had seen didn't know these skills either.
As I looked closer, both seemed thoroughly involved in advancing their own way of looking at reality, while at the same time extinquishing their partner’s – typical Master/Slave stuff. And when they spoke of their experience with Marriage Therapists it was all about which one was taking who’s side. The last therapist was “taking” the wife’s side, and the husband grudgingly went 8 times before “being unable to take it any more.”
I’ve worked with this situation between couples so many times, that it seems simple to me – and simple to resolve. Yet, this couple and their therapists had been baffled for decades.
Here’s my advice, up front. If your therapist (counselor, coach, etc.) takes sides, fire him/her!
Dealing with Reality
What is reality? This topic that has been discussed by Philosophers for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. The average person, I find, has not been part of these discussions. Yet, every average couple is directly faced with it. Successful couples resolve how to deal with it. I believe that the more people seek intimacy, the more important “reality” becomes.
Let me briefly share a point of view. Probably the best source for the discussion of reality is the book “The Art of Awareness” by J. Samuel Bois. This book is a good introduction the the scholarly subject of General Semantics. I strongly recommend this book for the deeply curious.
What I’ve come to see is that there is such a thing as Reality. That is not the problem. It is just that no one knows what it is, exactly. Each of us experience reality. The problem is that our experiences of reality are so heavily biased by our own history, our memories, our past experiences. And when we speak of our experience of reality it is impossible to tell where reality ends and our internal experiences begin.
Here’s the deal. My senses (ears, eyes, etc.) take in the outside world. Then my brain works frantically to make something of those sensations. I believe that about 95% of what I call “an experience” is really my brain’s internal attempts to grasp and make sense of that outside world, and the other 5% is my sensory experience of the outside world. This is what makes witnesses of a crime see such different things. Court lawyers know about it. And so do couples. Repeatedly I find myself in a situation where my wife sees something “definitely” differently. We even have a name for this – The 2–3 Problem. This is a moment when I recall an event happening two times and she remembers it as three times. The differences in our memories are sharp. And these little 2 – 3 events happen frequently.
Over a period of time we became used to this, these differences. And finally we relaxed into the awareness that people never see anything the same way. And we are happy to finally have this comforting awareness. We laugh when one of us assumes that the other will see something the same way. We laugh when one of us tells the other “what reality is.” We laugh at the words “fact, true, real, correct” and those other black/white words. We laugh when someone needs agreement. We laugh at The 2–3 Problem.
But most people don’t laugh. I believe this is because our community, our culture is based upon Ideology – all people agreeing with one person’s ideas. Disagreement seems a reason for distress, for upset, for battle. This seems so silly. Here we are in a world where we all see things differently, and we are trained to fight about it. Yet it seems so. Why do we do this?
My belief is covered in my papers on Master/Slave, and in my observations about people’s frequent explosive reactions to the appearance of disagreement. In experiencing Naval Boot Camp many years ago, I saw this cultural training in its most direct form. The core training of boot camp is that “at any moment, one and only one point of view counts” – the senior person present. This is certainly efficient, but not very stable. For what it also means is that “at any moment, all points of view are unimportant except one,” or “at any moment, everyone must shut up about their point of view, except one.” Now apply this to a married couple, democracy at its very basic, and I think you have a disaster.
One thing I found over 5 years ago was the concept of MasterTalk. A person can form a sentence in such a way that alternative points of view sound closed off. This is done when a person uses a sentence that implies that only one point of view is correct. The sentence sends the meta-message (hidden message) that other points of view are not welcome. The two normal responses to a MasterTalk sentence appear to be a) silence or b) a fight. In boot camp the appropriate response was “silence.” I’ve been teaching couples how to deal with this concept for five years now.
Every argument I’ve heard has emerged from MasterTalk. Every argument I’ve heard has been a battle of MasterTalk, thrown back and forth. I believe arguing can be avoided by teaching people to avoid MasterTalk. Simple! I’ve tested this for years and it works. But better than that, I’ve taught people what to do when their partner slips into MasterTalk. And that really really works.
For years I thought that a MasterTalk sentence contained the hidden message of “shut up.” I thought that was why people would react to it so strongly. But recently a man in a group pointed out that he reacted because he “anticipated” that his point of view would not be listened to. This interested me. I’ve believed for years that people raise their voice as they anticipate that people won’t listen. But now I got it that people hear MasterTalk as a message that people won’t listen to them. Perhaps that is why I’ve heard so many people yell their reactions to a MasterTalk sentence. Veeery interesting.
What does a person do when they hear differing points of view? They take sides. Of course they do. I think everyone is involved in the process of having the best point of view they can. My point of view is my best – at any given moment. I change my beliefs all the time, as I get new information. I always change my point of view toward what I determine is a better one. Thus each of us prefer our point of view. It is the best that works for us. It is the one we use to predict what will happen next and to decide what to do next. Our current point of view is GREAT! — until we get new information and change it for the better.
And so, on the one hand we takes sides. On the other hand, what does it mean when a couple comes to us and disagrees —– they always do. Our job is to teach them to take sides with their partner’s right to express their side. Our job is to model taking sides with both people’s point of view being their best. (See my paper on Being and Staying Dialogical.)
This can be a bit of a challenge, but not much. I love using the phrase “My opinion plus a dollar gets me a cup of coffee.” I say it, put it up at home. What I mean is that my beliefs have value within me, but not necessarily any value to anyone else. Still I would like to share them.
I’ve found that many people have a hard time recognizing and respecting their partner’s or friend’s point of view. Many people are trained not only to trust their own point of view (that’s normal), but to believe that other people should give up their point of view and trust "mine". I’ve found that many professionals have trouble with this. Often law enforcement or military professionals have trouble with this. Counselors, psychologists, doctors, and clergy often have trouble with this. And guess who most are most marriage counselors – counselors, psychologists, doctors and clergy, etc..
Picking a Marriage Counselor
If you are in the market for a marriage counselor, I want you to reflect on two things. First, marriage cannot be rocket science. It’s not that hard, if you know what to do. True we may not be taught what to do by our parents, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn. Second, the only ones who can teach a subject are the ones who know the subject. The only ones who can teach the skills are the ones who know the skills.
I think you are better off talking with another couple who is ahead of you in learning couple skills, than in talking to a professional counselor who doesn’t have the skills yet. A counselor should, in my opinion, be a tutor — think of remedial math. A marriage counselor, in my opinion, should know how to solve the problems and be able to show it in their own actions.
Since probably the most tricky issue that couples face is that of disagreement or handling reality, I think you should only see someone who knows how to happily and comfortably handle disagreement and different realities. If they argue, even with you, move on. If they talk confidently about reality, as if their version is the right one, move on. If they ask questions to find out what “really is going on” and their conclusions do not validate both of you, move on. If they take sides, move on.
If they share their experiences, are curious about yours, speak of what works or has worked for them, perhaps you should listen.
Just one man’s opinion.
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