They sit on the couch, each one gaming out how the moves will unfold in their head as they wait for the session to begin. Like a chess master, winning will require having the past loaded into memory for immediate recall as well as being able to look into the future: weaponizing the knowledge of every gambit the other has tried before, and seeing through the feints of their latest move to discern what they’re really trying to pull off. Make no mistake: regardless of the contest, winning is always the object.
“What does winning look like for you?”
The Counselor’s question is unexpected, because the answer is so obvious as to be banal, right?
They look at each other. Who moves first? They both begin, talking over each other but essentially saying the same thing: winning means resolving the conflicts that are currently defining their lives and having a marriage that is the peaceful, happy, united union they thought they were going to have when they started on this journey.
“So, if you agree so readily, why are you here? If you are both focused on moving towards the same goal, why aren’t you getting there?” the Counselor asked.
This is such a waste of time, she thought.
I’m paying for this?, he thought.
After a heavy silence, the game’s first move was made.
“Fine, I’ll say it. She tells you that’s all she wants sitting here, but before we came here, and as soon as we leave, the truth is that for her, winning means being right, and me admitting I’m wrong. Always.”
“Yes, I’m so horrible for insisting that a healthy marriage means you actually listen to how I feel, instead of dismissing everything I say. Whenever I dare to voice a concern, all I hear is how I have the ‘facts’ wrong.” Her response was quick and on point, because she just knew what he was going to say. He was so predictable that way.
His effort at self-restraint began to crack, and his volume began to creep up: “That’s because you do have your facts wrong, and you never care that you do! And how many times do I have to tell you that I do care about your feelings and what you’re upset about?”
“You never mean it, regardless of how many times you say it!” she parried. “You only listen to me long enough to find an opening to tell me I’m wrong. It’s hard to believe your words that you care when they are always followed up with ‘but here’s where you’re wrong right now’.”
His eyes narrowed. “Well, maybe if you would ever admit you were wrong, I wouldn’t have to keep pointing it out.” Whether he sounded like he cared about her feelings at this point was no longer a concern for him.
Back and forth the game went, move after move, volley after volley. The Counselor listened intently, but said nothing. The fault lines were coming to the surface, visible to anyone without a rooting interest into which side one.
She had subconsciously resolved long ago never to concede having her “facts” wrong, because she knew that to do so would give him the proof that she was wrong … and the excuse to dismiss her every next time in the future, her fears be damned.
He had subconsciously resolved long ago never to acknowledge as legitimate the basis for her fears and anxieties, because he knew that to do so would give her the validation that her grievance was true … and the justification to use it to her advantage every next time in the future, the facts be damned.
And so, the Dance of the Moving Goalposts was in full swing, as the professed and readily agreed to goal of a peaceful union gave way to the real conditions for winning: full surrender by the other side first, evidenced by an unequivocal apology for the allegations of the past. The thoughts were the same on each end of the couch: How can we move forward if he/she can simply pretend the past didn’t happen? How is an acknowledgment and an apology too much to ask?
“Do you want your marriage to work?” the Counselor asked directly, and without a trace of indication as to which direction their answer should point.
Through the haze of anger, and in contravention of the loudest voices at the fringes of their thoughts, they answered in unison: “Yes.”
“So long as that remains your answer, there is Hope,” the Counselor replied. “And that’s critical, because Hope is the only fuel you will have to help you do what needs to be done.”
The Counselor let the question hang unanswered for an extra beat before speaking.
- Forgive the past and let it go.
- Focus on what winning is: a peaceful union.
- Force yourself to take the other person’s words at face value.
At first, you’ll need to do them in that order. You won’t be able to set aside what you think your partner is actually meaning and take their words at face value if you don’t firmly hold onto the idea that winning is a peaceful union, not being right … and you won’t be able to convince yourself that being right and being happy aren’t necessarily the same thing without first forgiving the other of the wrongs — actual or perceived — from the past. As for that piece, there’s no predicate baby-step to take: the only way to forgive and let go is to simply choose to do so.”
“What about trust?” she asked. “How can your prescription for moving forward not include anything about rebuilding trust?”
The Counselor smiled. “I think these three steps are hard enough without adding the pressure of thinking about rebuilding trust. If you zero in on turning these three choices into habits of behavior, Trust will come as a natural byproduct. Trust me.”
“So, facts no longer matter?” His question was honest, but tense.
The Counselor didn’t hesitate: “Yes, of course they matter. It’s a question of priority. Does getting every fact ‘right’ matter more than maintaining the relationship? Answering ‘yes’ is a recipe for a great journalist, but an unsuccessful husband. There are facts, beliefs, and values that are truly non-negotiable. They always matter, and their fundamental importance sometimes means choosing to put stress on the relationship through conflict in order to preserve them. The question, though, is which ‘facts’ to put into that category, and which to leave in the ‘important but not more important than the relationship’ bucket. The more things you put into the ‘non-negotiable’ category, the harder it becomes to negotiate a continuing relationship with someone who is different than you, no matter how much you want it to work.”
The couple sat silently on the couch. Their time was up, and a resolution seemed no closer than when they arrived in the parking lot in separate cars.
“Will I see you next week, then?” asked the Counselor.
Substitute “country” for “marriage” and “Left” / “Right” for the spouses, and that is America here in 2016.
Both sides have a long list of past wrongs committed by the other. Both sides profess the goal of a peaceful and just Union, but too much of today’s rhetoric is about being right and forcing the other side to unequivocally acknowledge as much. One side won’t admit when their fears latch onto facts that prove to be false, while the other side clutches its facts while plugging its ears to the pain and fear being experienced by the other side.
We talk over each other, and even when we stop to hear, we don’t listen: we hear subtexts and dog whistles and what is “really meant,” and ignore what is actually said. Discussions become arguments, and arguments become unfalsifiable self-fulfilling prophesies. We devote so much energy to reminding each other of hypocrisies that even when the other side says or does exactly what we’ve been saying is needed, we instantly twist it into proof of their failures instead of a sign of genuine progress.
This isn’t my normal fare for this blog, but these aren’t normal times.
As a former prosecutor, my heart is heavy with sorrow and aflame in anger over the Evil that has been visited upon the law enforcement community, most recently and viciously in Dallas and Baton Rouge.
As a lawyer, my heart is gravely concerned about the hatchet being taken to the concept of the Rule of Law, a central load-bearing beam holding up our civil society. When the laws are not applied fairly and equally to all regardless of title, position, color, or creed, our system which was built to facilitate the pursuits of Life, Liberty, and Happiness will not long last.
As a human being, Empathy demands that I take seriously the experiences of others not like me and pick up the tools that are within my reach to help craft a solution, however small and seemingly insignificant my reach may be. No, I am not Black, or a Woman, or Gay … but I better damn well sure be able to understand what it feels like to be so, and move forward with those empathetic insights ever in my mind.
As a Christian, my marching orders have not changed:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
As an American, I want desperately for this marriage to work … more than I want to be right about why it isn’t working. Who is willing to walk the simple but steep road with me towards a more peaceful and just Union?
Forgive the past and let it go.
Focus on what winning is: a peaceful union.
Force yourself to take the other person’s words at face value.