Despite how unappealing it would be to the average person, there’s an advantage to earning your living doing colonoscopies: other than in politics and social media, assholes don’t talk. Another choice for healthcare professionals who wish to avoid conversation is dentistry. It’s hard to talk with instruments camping in your oral opinion factory. But once in a while, bedside manner and all that, your dentist will ask a question, and they’ll pretend to listen for moments before they cram another instrument in your mouth. My new Portland dentist had that moment and asked the classic, “What do you do?”
“I’m retired; I was a marriage counselor.”
“What’s the secret to a lasting marriage?”
“Most marriage counselors will say, ‘communication and understanding,’ but that’s bullshit. It’s acceptance.”
The dentist shoves an instrument into my mouth.
The dentist’s assistant seems to like my answer (but he’s about twelve years old and unmarried): “Yeah, compassion.”
Good try, but by acceptance, I mean neither compassion nor how it may sound, resignation. I mean, it’s the only way long-term relationships—any long-term relationship—can sustain.
As I’ve stated previously, communication, as most understand it, is either biologically impossible (as professed by neuroscientist Humberto Maturana and those influenced by his work) or psychologically and cognitively unreliable (as supported by numerous theories in psychology and cognition). In either case, this means it’s the receiver, not the sender who determines the meaning of a message. Yet, since the sixties, better communication has been the Holy Grail of reducing conflict between spouses, parents and their children, business associates, and more currently, the polarized extremes in modern domestic politics.
How communication became the solution to conflict
In the first half of the twentieth century, pioneering psychotherapist Sigmund Freud and his followers focused on treating emotional problems that (he believed) stemmed from cultural sexual repression during the Victorian era. In Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, neuroses developed from internal conflicts—animal instincts (the id) versus culture (the super-ego) in an intra-psychic cage match, with the ego as the referee.
Several cultural changes shrunk Freud’s influence: the birth control pill and subsequent relaxation of cultural sexual repression; the leap in both propaganda used in war, and in advertising, that led to the study of communication to deceive;1 the evolution of marriage; and psychotherapy moving from a focus on individuals in internal conflict to individuals in relational conflict.
If the fifties in America was the “silent generation,” the sixties was the generation that would not stop expressing itself. Articles about psychology and relationships escaped from magazines targeted at women to newspapers and magazines meant for all. A new magazine, Psychology Today, dispensed relationships research in popular language.
Interest in communication began to generate scientific research. The social scientist Gregory Bateson attended the 40s–50s Macy conferences on cybernetics (“control and communication in the animal and machine”) and related fields—subjects previously tied to either the interests of war or to basic brain research.
After the conferences, Bateson received a grant to study communication. A trained anthropologist, Bateson hired researchers for his team to study the utterances of schizophrenics in the Veterans Hospital of Palo Alto. When Bateson’s grant ended after ten years, he went on to study communication elsewhere, but his team and consultants stayed in Palo Alto to found the Mental Research Institute (MRI), and MRI became the most influential and prestigious center to train therapists to deal with relationship issues. With books, conferences, and trainings, their ideas spread internationally, and the problem of communication among family members became the central theme of psychotherapy. In retrospect, this change in emphasis in psychotherapy was inevitable. In Western cultures, marriage had evolved from practical alliances of tribal, national, or household to romantic, and eventually, to best friend. Marriages, once dictatorships, became partnerships, and partnerships need agreements, (largely implicit in marriage), and agreements need communication.
As if marriage didn’t have enough cultural responsibility—its stated and unstated rules and regulations for the right kind of coupling—in modern Western culture, marriage has become a prototype for all types of relationships, even business. We’re supposed to relate to everyone as if we’re raising children together.
If not communication, what?
My articles have laid down my belief that because all realities are local to individuals, all incoming signals to our mind must get past border crossing agents so suspicious that little intended meaning is allowed through. Even your most devoted listener isn’t going to understand you. The good news is, regardless, some of us get along well enough to be friends, relatives on good terms, and intimate companions. The bad news is we believe we should get the good stuff in relationships without the conflicts, and that if we only communicated better, we’d understand each other better, and the conflicts could be tossed into the recycling bin and remanufactured into fluffy stuffed animals and Disney animated movies.
It’s common wisdom that generals are always fighting the last war. Nowhere was this better illustrated than when the Polish Calvary—that’s right, soldiers riding horses—attempted to beat back Hitler’s tanks in 1939.3 Not many years after the end of World War II, pioneering marriage and family therapists were still riding their theories designed to treat individuals into the mire of marriage and family therapy. Previously, because adult relationship problems were viewed as the manifestation of neuroses based in childhood,4 a couple asking for marital help would have been referred to separate individual psychotherapists. Marriage counseling was primarily the domain of the church minister. That era was not far in the rearview mirror when I began my graduate internship in family therapy. I was at best on my own, or worse, doing battle with my supervisors.
My first experience in private practice (that is, working under my own license) was with a man and a woman, unmarried but living together. I don’t recall much about the counseling other than the sessions were directionless. My lack of training in marriage counseling meant I had no agenda. The three of us talked and after several months, the members of the couple felt resolved, set a wedding date, and we ended the sessions.
The expression goes, fish don’t know they live in water. They also don’t know when their water is polluted and that their health is deteriorating. To couples living in discontent, the discontent pollutes everything in their relationship, conscious or not. By talking together, it’s not hard to remind those who love each other but are going through a bad patch that they still love each other. Any reasonably competent counselor can tip the conversation towards bringing out what got them together in the first place. Eventually, they’re swimming in the reminder of what they like in each other.
Gettin’ some education
Over the next few years, I read nearly every book that came out about marriage and family therapy. I experimented with the ideas, implemented some well and some badly, retained the ones that worked and discarded the ones that didn’t. You’d think after my book knowledge and later experience, I’d speak with authority on how couple counseling works and doesn’t work. Limited authority, anyway. But I don’t. I do, however, have some ideas about how couples work, or don’t, and who benefits from couple counseling and who doesn’t (at least with an unexceptional marriage counselor as I am)5.
The following is likely to be disbelieved by many if not most marriage counselors. They can write their own articles.
I note three types of couples who make it to counseling. 6 The first two come with one or both of them immunized against success in marriage counseling. First, when one of the members has already left the marriage but is coming to sessions to demonstrate that he or she tried. I find it cruel to extend these sessions beyond when the soon-to-be-left partner realizes that he or she is the only one trying to better their relationship. Second, when the members of the couple don’t like each other (let alone love each other) but don’t want to be alone. They are the type of couple most likely to end the sessions, quickly. If they stayed, they’d have to face that they don’t want to be together. Last, the couple who love each other but encounter problems when they must adapt to change, typically around job, money, children, and their living situation.
I believe it is nearly impossible for a counselor to have success extending a marriage with the first two types of couples, and the futility of the process is quickly discovered.7 On the other hand, it takes practiced incompetence to not help the third type of couple.
Whether consciously or subconsciously, experts can’t observe behavior in their domain of expertise without getting drawn in. What I observe is that couples who’ve managed to stay together for decades are not particularly good at listening to or understanding each other, and I can’t assign the success I had in marriage counseling to improvement in what we refer to as communication.
(Spoiler alerts ahead) What I believe creates a lasting coupling is best illustrated by the TV series, Doc Martin. Martin Ellingham is a noted London surgeon who moves to a small fishing village to work as a general practitioner. During the series' ten seasons, his personality ranges from brusque and aloof to Asberger’s8. (Either the show’s writers don’t know the difference or I don’t.) On the other hand, he’s a brilliant physician who becomes full-on heroic and caring during medical emergencies.
Into the seasons, despite Martin’s best efforts to subvert his happiness and his romance with his wife-to-be, Louisa, marriage and child come to the couple, but not for long as Martin continues to be Martin. His insensitivities grate on Louisa, and she becomes fed up and leaves him. Martin and Louisa make a final attempt to rescue their marriage with sessions with a so-called expert psychotherapist, but the counseling fails miserably.9
(Spoiler alerts ahead, really!) The last episode of the seventh Doc Martin season has the most illustrative moment of what defines a successful coupling. Martin and Louisa, are currently separated. Martin is held under gunpoint on a rural farm because a patient’s wife demands Martin come up with a miraculous cure for her terminally ill husband. After the bumbling sheriff fails, Louisa rescues Martin. In the final scene, they’re sitting and talking on a hilltop on the farm. Louisa realizes she wants to be with Martin regardless of his insensitivities.
You don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone. —Joni Mitchell
Louisa apparently concludes that (in my words) coupling is not about communication and understanding; it’s about acceptance, acceptance of differences, and even differences in how love and caring are expressed. Because our cognitive system can’t grasp another’s version of reality, no matter how much we care for that person, we can’t communicate; we can’t understand. What we can do is accept the differences between ourselves and others.
In sessions with couples, I believe the counselor’s main role is to maintain harmony but leave the lyrics to the couple.10 In the case of the marriage counseling described above, I did not observe increased communication or increased understanding between the partners. I observed a process—being together in words and body language that created acceptance.
(Groom’s name), do you take (Bride’s name) to be your wedded wife, to live together in marriage? Do you promise to love her, comfort her, honor and keep her for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, and forsaking all others, be faithful only to her, for as long as you both shall live?
Do you take this person you found on the Tinder dating app to be your wedded spouse, to live together in marriage (in a four-bedroom house and three-car garage)? Do you promise to love this person, comfort this person, honor and keep this person for better or worse, for richer or poorer, (but define “poorer”) in sickness and health (as long as we meditate together), and forsaking all others, be faithful only to each other (except we each get a free one), until you realize you don’t get just the parts you like about your spouse?
The first version is the traditional marriage vow from the groom side’s from the Book of Common Prayer. The second version is from the book How to Do Your Own Divorce or Find the Right Lawyer.11 The second version is because those Disney movies you watched as a kid never show the after-the-wedding Prince throwing his dirty underwear on the floor and spending the weekend drinking beer and watching TV.
The difference between the two vows: in the second one, you’re unhappy that you don’t get just the parts you like about your spouse. In the first, you’re making a vow of acceptance. Five centuries ago, someone had coupling right.
Propaganda was a big part of pre-World War II and WWII itself and was major ammunition in the Cold War between the Western allies and the Soviet Union block. Advertising took off, care of Edward Bernays who exploited his knowledge of subconscious processes, thanks to his Uncle Sigmund Freud (his mother was Freud’s sister). ↩︎
I use “marriage” as shorthand for any category of intimate couples. ↩︎
Despite the myth, the Polish Calvary did not attack the tanks with swords, but they might as well have. ↩︎
While that may be true, it doesn’t mean that a marital rift will be healed from dealing with individual issues. ↩︎
My comfort zone is one-on-one. Marriage and family therapy is conducting and refereeing. I don’t like conducting or refereeing. ↩︎
I’m not referring to troubled couples who don’t come to counseling. For various reasons, usually trust-related from their history, many individuals have one foot out the door during the entire relationship. ↩︎
The main clues for one or both not being interested in making the marriage work are either petty arguments (with me or their partner) about the details of homework I assign or failing to do the homework at all. “When we were about to start the homework, the phone range.” ↩︎
How the harmony is maintained depends on the approach of each therapist. I’m not teaching couple counseling here. ↩︎
There are similar books, but I invented that one.# Communication and Its Discontents, Part 1, Coupling ↩︎