Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Learn from losers? (part 2)

Carrying on from what I was saying earlier about marriage advice based on the experience of divorced people, I'd like to pull out some interesting tensions in the piece. All of these tensions exist over the same fault line.

1. For example, there is an interesting reversal that occurs in the advice given by Terri Orbuch. Here is how the WSJ article opens the discussion of showing your love:
Of the divorced people, 15% said they would give their spouse more of what Dr. Orbuch calls "affective affirmation," including compliments, cuddling and kissing, hand-holding, saying "I love you," and emotional support. "By expressing love and caring you build trust," Dr. Orbuch says.
Now look what happens in the very next paragraph:
She says there are four components of displays of affection that divorced people said were important: How often the spouse showed love; how often the spouse made them feel good about the kind of person they are; how often the spouse made them feel good about having their own ideas and ways of doing things; and how often the spouse made life interesting or exciting.
 In one paragraph we went from the person who wishes they gave more love to their former spouse who to the perspective of the person who wishes they had  received more love! How did that happen?

 2. There are other odd things. Consider this, for example:
The divorced individuals didn't specifically identify sex as something they would have approached differently, although Dr. Orbuch says it is certainly one aspect of demonstrating love and affection.
Okay, but it might be worth asking whether the fact that they didn't identify sex as an important issue is not worth investigating all by itself. The single best predictor of failure is poor risk assessment skills: people who fail at things tend to do so mostly because they don't see risk factors or don't attribute enough importance to the risk factors they do see. I'd say that while Orbuch is right that sex is" certainly one aspect of demonstrating love and affection" she isn't giving it nearly enough weight.

Consider the advice you'd give to someone who wanted to be a lifeguard. A lot of it would overlap with the advice you'd give them if they told you they wanted most other jobs but you'd absolutely insist that they be a strong swimmer to be a lifeguard! Sex in marriage is like swimming to a lifeguard. It's not an incidental thing, it's not "one aspect" of expressing affection. It's right at the centre of your marriage. If you can't, don't or won't put a lot of time and effort into expressing love sexually, then don't get married.

3. There is another anomaly when we hit blame. Orbuch is being very even-handed in her approach but her own data makes it painfully clear that the people who need to handle blame issues better are mostly women and she won't come out and say that.
In the study, 65% of divorced individuals blamed their ex-spouses, with more women blaming an ex-husband (80%) than men blaming an ex-wife (47%). And 16% of men blamed themselves, compared with only 4% of women.
I'm sorry but there is a divergence of attitudes here that is not just marked, it's breathtakingly marked.  If we can admit, as we do admit, that more men than women sabotage their marriages by having affairs, why can't we admit that more women than men sabotage their marriages by complaining too much?

The article goes on to give advice about how to blame in a healthy way but why blame at all? If you're always unhappy with your spouse, the problem is you. Step back a moment and try to imagine what it feels like to be married to someone who is unhappy and complaining all the time. Fix it and stop blaming the other person!

4. Okay, but what about legitimate complaints then? Well, a huge problem is that Orbuch never confronts the issue of legitimacy of complaints. She just goes from "you have a complaint" to "how to express it" without ever passing through a stage of "is your complaint legitimate". And the advice she gives on expressing these feelings is bad advice.
How do you blame in a healthy way? Say "we," not "you" or "I." Say, "We are both so tired lately," not "You are so crabby." When you remove blame, it's easier to come up with a solution.
To see how stupid that is, consider any real-life problem. May wants Jim to stop cheating on her, do you think it helps for her to say, "Why are we so unhappy?" She doesn't mean that for a second. It's a lie. Jim is doing something she wants him to stop. The problem is "him" and not "we". What possible good will it do to lie and pretend it's something we need to work on together?

Worse, this approach simply opens the door to some of the worst passive-aggressive tricks. If you've ever dealt with passive-aggressive behaviours in others or analyzed your own passive-aggressive subterfuges, you will know that shifting from "me" to "we" is always the first evasion.

Terry tells Karen he is unhappy with their sex life and he has evidence to back it up because they've only had sex three times in the last four months. Karen looks chastened when he points this out to her. If Karen plans to do something about it, she will apologize and set about improving. If, on the other hand, Karen has no intention but can hardly argue the point in the face of the evidence, the move that any passive-aggressive person will make at this point is to is to immediately shift from "me" to "we" by saying something such as the following:
Yes, you're right but I am going to need help fixing this. We have to work on getting me to a place where I can be more relaxed, where I don't have to worry about ....
If Karen says something along those lines, what she really means  is "No!" If Terry takes Orbuch's advice and approaches this as a we problem, all he is doing is handing Karen the knife so she can stab him in the back with it.

The problem with the we-instead-of-you approach is that it begins with a lie. Putting things in less-threatening terms in an attempt to be more effective at changing them is just a polite way of describing how to be a manipulative jerk.

The missing element in all these things is truth. Before we talk about what are good and bad ways of expressing blame, for example, we need to talk about whether blame is justified. For everything changes when you know it is justified. You can be damn sure that Orbuch would never tell a victim of domestic violence to approach her husband with "Why are we so unhappy?"

Here is an analogy: suppose Sue tells us that she doesn't think the thing that caused her accident is her being a bad driver but that she was "simply driving too fast". How do we test that claim? We'd start by considering the evidence. She was driving over ten speed limit? How much over? Most people drive over the speed limit and most people don't lose control of their car. Sue only has a point if she was driving way over the speed limit or if she drove into a curve much faster than was reasonable.

But notice how that changes the way we see the driver. If Sue was driving way over the speed limit we are more inclined to ask, "What the hell were you thinking?" And if she drove into a curve much faster than was reasonable, we might ask what's wrong with her judgment that she either can't figure this out or was she simply not paying attention and didn't see the curve coming. And the problems we will see here may begin with technique but ultimately they point to problems with Sue herself.

The same is true of advice about how you might handle issues that arise in marriage. Yeah, this advice is valuable to a point but there is also a point where you start wanting to ask, "What is wrong with these people that they couldn't figure this stuff out for themselves? Why do they need to be told how to better relate to another human being in the first place?"

And that, to go back to the point in my earlier post, is the real issue: are you good enough to be successful at marriage? It all comes down to that: Are you good at being a man or good at being a woman? That's what it takes to make a marriage work.

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