A More Perfect Union: A Marriage Counselor Takes on Politics, Part I
Like any two people who come to see me for marriage counseling, these two have been fighting for years. They seem to make it a point to contradict one another. Whenever one mentions the other, their voices drip with disgust and contempt. Everything is perceived as an attack. Whatever one manages to accomplish, the other hastens to undo. They have very different ways of doing things; different systems of values. More and more, they seem to live separate lives. They listen to different radio programs, watch different TV shows, and read their own newspapers. On social media, there is some overlap; but mostly they have distinct circles of friends. And now, if statements are to be believed, there are alternate versions of the truth. It seems, at times, that the two don’t even know they’re married. If they came to my office, they would sit at opposite ends of the couch and glare.
Can this marriage be saved?
It has to be saved. I’m not talking about an actual married couple. I’m describing our country; the red states and the blue states, although they’re really not divided by state. If they were, then it would be a relatively easy matter for one to go one way and the other another. The conflict partitions communities, divides friends, and splits families. It infects every corner and sows dissension and strife. The two are so separated and so intent on prevailing over the other that they seem to have forgotten that they’re in this together. You’d never know they are joined by a common heritage, heading for the same outcome.
A month before the election of 2016, the American Psychological Association announced that the campaign was a very or somewhat significant source of stress for more than half of Americans. The stress doesn’t appear to have abated since the election. It’s not like this conflict is confined to the halls of Congress, where it is debated and resolved, or unresolved, by parliamentary procedure. The battles are fought among family over the Thanksgiving Dinner table. There are clashes on Facebook as friends leave incendiary messages for each other. Lunchroom conversations at the workplace are tense, lest they erupt into arguments. With the election of Trump, women, immigrants, Moslems, blacks, gays, and lesbians are terrified of the future. The Trump supporters wish they’d stop their whining. People can’t look at representatives of the other side without loathing and scorn, or talk about them without mockery and malice.
Having to share the world with a Trump supporter, or, conversely, a progressive, is such an uncomfortable prospect that it has become a leading topic in therapy. No one is delusional about men from Mars anymore, but many are convinced the Democrats want to take their guns away. There’s plenty of folks addicted to alcohol, narcotics, and cocaine; but many more are hooked on the news. The anger management crowd still flocks to my door, but now they’re outraged about the last thing Trump had to say on Twitter. Politics has taken the place that abusive fathers, narcissistic mothers, perfidious spouses, and that guy-who-took-your-number-but-has-never-called, used to occupy as the thing most likely to drive you mad.
Because politics has become so much like the contentious couples I see, I thought that I, as a marriage counselor, would take a crack at it. I wrote the book on Constructive Conflict. I’m writing a book on reconciliation. If anyone can bring two poles together, it’s a marriage counselor. The usual practitioners of this art in the civic arena, the statesmen and stateswomen, don’t seem inclined to do anything about it. Perhaps there are none left.
I’d like to share what I know about resolving conflict in marriages so people don’t have to fight about politics over the dinner table and don’t have to avoid it at work. I’d like to see them turn down the heat so many more can come into that legislative kitchen where the future is decided. I’d like to see them more effective at speaking their minds, asserting their point of view, and working things out so we don’t have to keep arguing about the same things all the time. I’d like to see people go back to being troubled by the usual things, like how they were treated in middle school, and not have their mental health at the mercy of every tweet. I would like nothing better than to see women, immigrants, blacks, gays, and lesbians join together with Trump supporters in an atmosphere of mutual admiration, tolerance, safety, and respect. As bizarre as that sounds, the two sides already sit together in every diner, every barbershop, beauty parlor, and movie cinema. They shop with each other in every store and stand together in line at every bank. We cannot escape the people with whom we disagree.
You cope with with sharing the world the same way you cope with any other relationship. When things get tense in a marriage, for instance, you can avoid the issues, have conflict about the issues, or work something out. There’s also the nuclear option: divorce. The choices are the same when it comes to politics, except we call them different things. In politics we call avoidance, political non-engagement; conflict is activism; and working something out is statecraft. Then, when statecraft fails, there’s always moving to Canada.
In this series, I’ll talk about each of those options and how they manifest themselves in politics and personal life. I’m most interested in the last thing everyone tries: working things out, or statecraft. It’s the most challenging; but we’ve go to try it if any association is to endure. But, first things first. In my next segment, I’ll talk about political non-engagement and the half of our population that is so burned out they don’t even bother to vote.