We Can Make This Work


Part I

This week's episode of This American Life features a segment from a new podcast called Where Should We Begin? Each episode is a slightly edited, one hour marriage counseling session with Esther Perel, someone who is apparently well known for her marriage counseling and relationship advice. After hearing the segment on TAL, I listened to the entirety of the first episode (available for free here), and was struck by the way in which marital conflict -- or at least this marital conflict -- is typically accompanied by a unique sort of communication breakdown; a breakdown characterized by the apparent inability of two people whose practical ends almost entirely overlap to comprehend and incorporate the experience of the other into their understanding of that relationship. For instance:

  • Husband: You never told me how difficult it was for you to watch the kids. 
  • Wife: I told you almost every night when you got off work! You were too busy planning weekends away to notice. 
  • Husband: My travel was entirely for work. And you said you didn't mind that I had to travel so much. 
  • Wife: I said I didn't mind, so long as you were more present when you were home. 


It was surprisingly easy for me to relate to this dynamic; easy because I'm married, but surprising because the resonance I felt is at odds with how I see my marriage (i.e. as happy, above average in terms of communication). Setting aside psychoanalytical speculation about both my self-awareness and the state of my marriage (!), I think many who have had long term relationships will recognize the dynamic at work in the first episode of this podcast.

How can it be that someone you care about so deeply, someone who cares about you, can do something so hurtful, sometimes over and over again? Why does it seem like basic facts -- like whether or not you've ever had this conversation before, or tried to express some point -- emerge and disappear in the course of the conversation, like they literally alternate between true and false?  How is it that a simple point -- "I always do the dishes," or "He never brings the kids to school" -- can serve as a stand in for one's deepest hopes and desires, and can stand in the way of understanding the ways in which those hopes and desires are frustrated or fulfilled in one's relationships?

Worse: why is it that everything that's said in these contexts becomes toxic? It's like each partner is hearing every statement in the worst possible light. "I didn't mean for my actions to hurt you," becomes: "None of this is my fault." 

It's seriously mysterious, and it reveals something that is at once fascinating and disturbing: we do things intentionally to ourselves and those we love all the time without fully understanding what we're doing or why. And further, it's possible for one's most basic forms of communications to breakdown: it's possible to be in a position where we really doesn't know how to interpret our own behavior towards ourselves and those we love, or the behavior of those we love towards themselves or towards us. 

Theoretically these aren't exactly novel insights. Freud recognized all this in a therapeutic context, a few centuries after Augustine recognized it theologically, a decent while after Plato recognized it philosophically. Indeed, this insight is likely embedded in the core of most discussions of human behavior and action, but -- still -- when it comes alive like it did for me in listening to that podcast, it has the feel of a minor epiphany.



Part II

I've actually been thinking a lot about marriage lately, and about the sort of communication it requires. I read this piece in the New York Times, a piece that seriously unnerved me for a good week and a half. For a long while, I couldn't figure out what about it was so horrifying. I still can't, really. Maybe it's the way that people who are, in one way, so familiar (they're ordinary married couples, working their way through ordinary, imperfect marriages), make what for me is for me a drastic and morally unthinkable decision. Like if you were reading an article on Slate about people who had trouble sticking to a diet, and you thought, "Huh, I can relate to that," and then the subjects in the story get their entire stomachs surgically removed and start bionically photosynthesizing for energy. ("Holy God! That's not...! You shouldn't...! I'm not...!")

Then there are the novels. I've recently read Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer and Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. Didn't love either of them (well, I sort of loved Here I Am), but they both prominently feature marriages falling apart. Because of this, they are both rife with dialogue like the above -- dialogue where the characters are constantly talking past each other (and themselves), and making decision after decision that frustrates their partner's goals (and thus their own). It's maddening, really. And not really great novel material. Maybe it's because this sort of dialogue is itself uninterpretable to the characters closest to it. Maybe we just can't take that much unintelligibility. I mean, there's something profound when this phenomenon is depicted in a sharp, concentrated way (as in Raymond Carver's Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?), but it's hard to maintain narrative momentum when everything stands for something else and all of it is somehow ineffable.



Part III 

This brings me to Mike Pence. 

First, the man. Pence is everything I hate in a politician in that he is a politician. He seems to be one of those people that's always known, ever since they were a kid, that they were going to be president. There's something despicable (or at least morally suspect) about such people. (I can think of a few others off the top of my head...but I won't name names.) 

The thing about Pence (and other pure politicians) is that they are perfectly intelligible beings. You need only look at how they see themselves and their careers to understand every word, every action, every position they take. They are eminently solveable puzzles. They want to aggrandize themselves, whatever the cost.  

Now, most of the time that entails doing some good things, or at least some relatively pro-social things. Their goals are to wield more power, and those capable of helping them amass such power typically (hopefully) have at least some  interest in the common good (if even just enough so that the social order doesn't collapse along with their various assets). Often (hopefully) those with power (and I include the electorate here, though, because so many of our views are basically just handed to us from the media class, and others are developed with resources shot-through with ideology from various other sources, it's often unclear the extent to which we're really able to exercise that power) there's more to the interest in the common good that a purely instrumental, ultimately self-interest. I would hope that the Koch Brothers wouldn't really be happy to watch the world burn so long as they could do it from their yachts. 

Still, the point, so far as politicians -- or, at least, pure politicians -- are concerned, is that interest in the common good is purely instrumental, and secondary to their own interest in political power. 

Mike Pence seems like just such a guy.  

From what I can tell, every political decision he made in Indiana was made with the presidency in mind. I can see him sitting down to sign a bill or draft a press release, thinking "How will this play to the Fox News crowd," or "Which donors will be impressed by the boldness of this move?" He did some truly stupid things while he was Governor of our state; exacerbated an AIDS epidemic, seriously damaged public education, refused to pardon a man who had been exonerated by DNA evidence. He also did some things that one could have done for principled reasons (i.e. RFRA), but probably just did because he's a spineless hack and thought it'd please the reactionary right (who, it turns out, were hungrier for blood than maybe even he realized).


But why walk out on his speech

This is something I've been puzzling ever since it happened. The group behind it, "We Stand For ND," is made up of undergrads at Notre Dame, many of whom I know. I've attended political organizing with many of them. I like them a lot. I disagreed with their decision to protest Charles Murray's speech at Notre Dame, but, in general, I'm really glad they've brought a culture of student activism and a greater political awareness to campus. 

But what did their walk out mean?  

Why was it so universally reported on, and so highly praised by those on the left? 

It didn't have all of the elements of the snowflake anti-free speech (or anti-academic freedom) narrative, so it was a bit harder for right wingers to criticize for principled reasons (they mostly just mocked it), but even though I find no substantial objections to the protest, I find myself without a clear understanding of its motivation.  

And this is true for a lot of contemporary political "action" for me. I don't get why we keep marching. I mean, I get that many of us feel bad, and that we want some things changed (conservatives and liberals alike), but I don't feel like we're really thinking much of our "activism" through. What are we asking for? What do we want? 



Part IV 

I think my confusion about the Mike Pence thing is exactly parallel to the confusion I heard in the conversation between the sad couple in that podcast. I think political discourse in our country is exactly like the sort of exchanges that occur between bitter, toxic spouses. 

  • "Why would you support policies that repress women and harm minorities?" 
  • "Why don't you care about the vulnerable unborn?" 
  • "Why don't you care about them once they've been delivered?" 
  • "How can you be so ignorant of fiscal realities?" 
  • "You're evil." 
  • "You're hateful." 
  • "You're disgusting." 

I don't know what to do about this stuff. Just like I wouldn't know how to go about fixing my marriage if it was at the point described above. Maybe, though, we could take some advice from marriage counselors like Esther Perel. Maybe we can more actively listen.  In a future post, I hope to spell out a bit more about what that would look like (both in the marital context, but -- more importantly -- in the political one). If you have thoughts on the analogy, or on how to fix our troubled marriage, I'd love to hear them in the comments below.