RD&T’s contributing writer, Linda Bloom, discusses her experience working with couples and shares how both in the partnership can win when things become contentious.
Linda: There is a political activist I admire named George Lakey. He has been a successful change agent in the area of nonviolent actions for five decades. In his inspirational book, How We Win, he makes the important distinction between a protest and a campaign.
When I look back on the protests I’ve joined over the years, I don’t remember a single one that changed the policy we were protesting.
He draws a sharp contrast between a protest designed for venting and a campaign, which is characterized by clear goals and sustainability. It takes sustained power tactics to obtain a lasting shift.
Working With Couples
When working with couples, a counselor frequently witnesses their frustration spilling over into rage-filled outbursts. Although they do not become physically violent, the intensity of their verbal violence, complete with accusations, blame, and threats is difficult for everyone, both members of the couple and the therapist as well. In the midst of one of these painful interchanges, I remembered a horrifying TV news scene of a violent demonstration, complete with protestors throwing rocks, police striking them with bill clubs, and then dragging them off to paddy wagons to take them to jail.
Consider the case of Claudia and Jack:
Claudia’s complaints were nebulous.
I’m so unhappy in this marriage. I feel so unloved. You are failing me. I just can’t stand this.
Jack always countered with,
I do love you. I do value you. You expect too much of me.
Her fear, that came out as attacks on Jack, would first provoke resistance, then retaliation, and was finally followed by Jack’s stony silence.
It was a turning point in the counseling session when Claudia grasped the distinction between a demonstration and a campaign. She self-observed enough to grasp that the circular nature of their unproductive interactions was largely due to her being overwhelmed with fear that she would never get what she needed from Jack. Once she calmed down, she could see that Jack really did love her and truly wanted to understand what she needed from him. He was in need of her guidance.
Claudia took responsibility for being articulate in expressing her specific goals. In the process of Claudia containing her anger to articulate her goals, their demonstration transformed into a campaign.
One of the first things she asked for was for Jack to spend time with her by sitting down with her; to show interest by asking questions. Jack readily agreed. He told me he was delighted to be informed of something tangible that he could actually do. The ghastly impasse that had plagued them for literally years gave way.
I know that setting clear goals is an essential part of a successful campaign. But I also know that sustainability is just as important. Just because we realize the missing pieces doesn’t mean that everything will be fine now. We will both be required to continue to choose the more reasonable path of communicating clearly, Claudia with her specific goals and needs and me with giving more attention, presence and asking questions. The particular question that I find takes us the furthest is, ‘What do you need from me right now?’
I’m embarrassed about how long I continued to throw fits when I wasn’t getting the loving attention that I need to thrive. I had characterized Jack as a selfish asshole that needed to be straightened out. Those tactics weren’t working, but I was blind to any alternative. I know that old habits die hard, but I am committed to keeping my cool and being responsible about telling Jack what I would like at any specific time.
I had no idea how vague I was being. Jack wanted to improve our relationship all that time we were fighting so much. But I hadn’t offered him a clear vision of what I was longing for. Things are much improved as a result of these two pieces of understanding, setting specific measurable goals and continuing over time with a joint determination for both of us to show up and to cooperate to accomplish those goals. So I am now hopeful and confident that we can continue to grow an even better working partnership in our future.
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