What If We Applied Marriage Counseling Principles To The Gun Control Debate?
I was beginning to think America should just get a divorce.
Dr. John Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (four sure predictors of divorce in a marriage) have certainly ridden in. Between Democrats and Republicans, Criticism and Contempt are at an all-time high, there’s certainly some Defensiveness coming out of the White House these days, and one need only look at the Obama years to see Stonewalling at its finest.
(And boo-ooo-ooo! to that last link. What would conservatives be saying if we liberals had done that to them?)
Since, for the time being, it’s considered treason to even talk about splitting up the Union, I’ve looked back on the Gottman research — which served me so well in my own marriage — and wondered why we don’t apply it to the problems dividing the nation.
It wouldn’t make big news, for sure. Morning political segments all across the country would have to book guests for some other topic if they wanted to show angry people screaming over each other.
I can hear the heads of all the cable news outlets now: “Hmm. Bad for profits.”
Sad to say, anything that doesn’t make a rich person more money isn’t likely to get done in this country.
Which is too bad, because I’d love to see a prime-time special devoted to what I’ve been trying the past few weeks.
If we put this on TV instead of the usual fare, what do you think would happen?
The Gottmans prescribe specific antidotes for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, as follows. Here’s how they’ve been working out for me:
- ) The Gottman antidote to Criticism is something they call, “Softened Startup.”
I figured we liberals could really use this one, because around us we have a horde of anxious, panicky conservatives all screaming, “They want to take our guns!” And, to be fair, we do have a few extremist liberals shouting from their pulpits that the only way to stop mass shootings is to ban gun ownership.
(Really? How are we supposed to confiscate every firearm that’s ever been made? And, even if we did, we’d incur a lot of resentment from millions of law-abiding people who would never think to shoot anyone. Never mind that the survival arts of hunting and fishing aren’t smart ones for the country to lose.)
If we as a country want to come to any meeting of the minds and do anything at all about the mass shootings we’re seeing every day now, we need to use Softened Startup.
How that might sound if you’re a liberal:
“I don’t want to take guns away from law-abiding, mentally stable people, and I understand you’re concerned about that. However, I’m also really concerned about the number of people we have dying in mass shootings now, and I’m pretty sure we can do something about that legislatively without banning all gun ownership.”
So that’s what I’ve been doing.
I’ve found that I’ve had to repeat myself several times for it to register. I’ll say or write outright, “I don’t believe in relieving every American of the right to own a firearm, and I don’t agree with liberals who believe the only thing to do is ban all guns,” and conservatives come right back saying things like, “But I have absolutely no trust in the political left, especially those who want to take away the rights of others.”
(That’s one of the more polite ones.)
But, I’ve discovered that if I just repeat myself and let the other person know I disagree with extremists who want to ban guns (several times, if necessary), the other person will settle down and we can actually have a productive discussion.
Conservatives will say things that have me combing the internet looking for facts and statistics, and I let them know I’m willing to do that, and also, that I’m willing to change my opinion if it looks like I’m wrong.
(I used to be one of the gun-banners. So there.)
If we want anything productive to happen instead of all the screaming and yelling, both sides need to be willing to do this.
For the conservative: Softened Startup might look like this. I notice that many conservatives lead off a contentious discussion with something that sounds like, “MY guns. MY rights.” The liberal will say something like, “But what about all the children who’ve been shot? What about all those grieving families? I want all that to stop.”
And the conservative goes right into a solution, such as arming teachers in schools, or they quote the Second Amendment and fall back into, “MY guns. MY rights.”
What the conservative needs to do, before wading in, is express sincere concern about the shootings, the murders, and the people bereaved and grieving.
When you lead with yourself, whatever your personal feelings about the murders really are, you sound as if you don’t care, and that’s what liberals hear.
Go ahead and make your points, but do so calmly, and never make any point until you’ve made this one: “All these killings are horrible. I feel so bad for all the people injured, killed, and grieving, and I want to make that clear.”
It would take you so much farther with liberals if you would do just that one thing. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
Once you establish that, you’ve established that everybody really wants the same thing. Amazing how much
you can avoid once people agree on that basic understanding.
About contempt. I’ve been guilty of my share of name-calling, especially when closeted among fellow liberals. (Especially after a really bad Trump Twitter rant.)
Everyone needs to blow off steam sometimes.
But you need to make clear to others in your own political persuasion that you don’t really hate others in the other party, and express faith that most of them are reasonable people, otherwise you’re fueling extremism. And to those you oppose?
Never, never, never, ever resort to blanket accusations that paint everyone with the same brush, or to name-calling. The Gottmans recommend, in a marriage dispute, that if you find yourself slipping into that, it’s time to walk away, cool down, and pick the issue up again when you can be calmer. In marriage and in politics, I’ve found it to be the truth.
It’s as simple as that.
I found that when I refrained from all that, I was able to listen to conservatives a lot better, and I actually learned facts about guns that I didn’t know before. (Seems essential for anyone considering writing or voting for gun control legislation, right?)
Gottman calls that, “Building a culture of appreciation,” and it works.
Aside from Trump’s situation right now, I see a lot of a different kind of defensiveness whenever situations liberals and conservatives differ on are discussed.
People don’t want to listen. They “already know” this and that, when God knows where their information came from, and what they say is often based more on feelings than facts.
The Gottmans tell us that, if we want to solve conflict, if we want to fix problems, we have to do two things: Accept our partner’s perspective, and take responsibility for any wrongdoing.
Every American, essentially, needs to swallow One Important Fact:
It is indeed possible for us to be wrong.
If nobody’s willing to do this, we’re essentially driving ourselves into extremism.
If we don’t want some lunatic coming to power who’s going to get a firearms ban passed, we need to calm ourselves down and talk calmly about alternatives.
When we don’t do that, we push people who don’t see a mass killing every day as a viable alternative, more and more toward extremism.
Just like the wife who finally packs her bags and walks after begging an obstinate husband to listen to her for twenty years, even the most reasonable person can get pushed toward extremism by one thing: The simple fact that they can’t get heard using more moderate means.
If we hate extremism in the other party, then we have to own our own part in pushing them toward it.
The fact is, when we can’t meet in the middle, we’re headed toward a fight. And that’s never good.
Right now, we’re all in a state of
and bringing some time-tested principles onto the national stage could help save this uneasy Union of liberal and conservative we’re all mired in by virtue of having been born on American soil.
Why can’t we build a reality TV show around less conflict, instead of more?
What if someone won the million dollars by using good conflict resolution, instead of getting crowned the “winner” by beating the crap out of a loser?
Savannah? Hoda? Katie? Oprah??
How about it, y’all?