Saturday, June 10, 2017

Life Is in the Details

From time to time I comment on a case study offered by a columnist. In particular, I am drawn to the Ask Polly advice column in New York Magazine and now to credentialed therapist Lori Gottlieb’s column, in the same magazine, that shows us how therapists think. To be fair, the column suggests that therapists don’t think: they emote and empathize and fail to understand anything that is going on in their patients’ lives.

When I write such commentary I often note that the prospective patients’ letters are often the best part of the exercise—unless you like reading Polly’s extended rants about herself—and that we would like to know more details about the case. You cannot help anyone deal with their problems if you do not have the facts. The old saying tells us that God is in the details. When it comes to offering advice and counsel, the person is in the details. If you don’t know the details, you know nothing. You cannot deal with an individual’s problems. You are dealing with your own mental processes.

As though to answer my critique, Lori Gottlieb proposes a letter that is short enough to be a tweet. Which is not a good thing.

The woman, calling herself, “Fighting Unfairly” wrote:

When my husband and I fight, one of us invariably threatens divorce. Does this mean we’re destined for our marriage to fail?

Short and sweet. Or, short and bitter.

Astonishingly, Gottlieb expresses something resembling joy at not having to deal with the reality of this woman’s life. Or, effectively, of dealing with this woman. Therapists, you might not know, do not much care about you or your life. They care about your mind and their ideas. They want you to absorb their very own ideas, and to feel your feelings, of course. They believe that once you feel your feelings you will automatically know how to deal with your life. Which is therapy's grand illusion... it's snake oil, if you wish.

In Gottlieb's words:

What’s beautiful about your question is how concise it is. Instead of describing in exquisite detail the particulars of your arguments — what therapists would call “the content” — you went straight to what’s known as “the process,” which is the emotional dance that you and your husband do while arguing about the content (money, sex, laundry, kids, your parents, toilet seats, whatever). Picture a triangle where the vertex at the top is “the content” and each of the bottom vertices are you and your husband, respectively. The baseline of the triangle, the line that connects you and your husband, is where “process” happens. In other words, the content happens “up there” and the process happens “down below,” at the emotional level beneath the content.

Gottlieb is happy that she can descend into psychobabble-- her comfort zone-- without examining the particulars of any specific argument-- over whether or not he will not defend her to his mother.

If you want to solve a problem, this is precisely the wrong way to go about it. Gottlieb continues with a long and mindless disquisition about how both of these people are reliving what they saw in their homes when they were children. It may be true. It may not be true. Certainly, the causality is dubious, on a good day. They might also have learned this debating style by watching television or by going to a therapist like Lori Gottlieb.

Antagonism between men and women is part of our culture. It is prescribed by people who think they know what is best and pretend that they can turn couples all loving and cuddling by helping them to understand why they have been rendered defective by their defective parents.

Once you throw people back into their miserable pasts you leave them with no skills to work on their present issues. It’s not that the couple is not loving and caring. From the evidence at hand we do not know whether they are. We do not know if they are simply replicating their parents’ style or are failing to deal with present issues because their therapist told them to rush headlong into their minds.

So, forget about the loving and caring. The couple in question does not know how to negotiate. They do not know how to engage in the normal everyday marital give and take. They might have learned from the culture that they should have it all. But, they cannot engage in an effective negotiation unless they deal with specific details. No good negotiator can succeed without knowing the details. And without addressing the details, one by one. Admittedly, some negotiators proclaim that they are letting themselves by guided by their guts, but they are wrong.

As Gottlieb presents it, therapy is the problem here, not the solution. By failing to address the details of these arguments, the therapist has failed her patients by not grounding them in reality and in not teaching them that marriage is a cooperative enterprise... that requires work.

As for the woman’s question: if she follows the therapeutically correct way of dealing with problems, then Yes, her marriage is probably doomed.


Shaun F said...

Stuart - I enjoyed this article. The comment that the "couple didn't know how to negotiate" made me wonder how old this woman was. I just find the younger generation lack's a certain ability to communicate honestly without manipulating to get a desired self centered outcome. (I could say that about a large portion of people.) And if this is the root of the relationship, self centeredness, communication isn't built on a loving relationship. What I see is a mutual exploitation to feel good - which I term a form of co-dependency/enabling relationship), so I see how negotiation can fail.

Sam L. said...

I thought by reading the original article I might get a better understanding of it. I vass wrongk. Too many unknowns.

Ares Olympus said...

FU: When my husband and I fight, one of us invariably threatens divorce. Does this mean we’re destined for our marriage to fail?

It does sound like someone who hasn't been married too long, and most certainly doesn't have kids.

I'd guess a divorce-threat in an argument is always about a "need for autonomy" of some sort, even the autonomy to be free to see things differently without being wrong. And its probably natural to feel that calling, while it is not necessary to express it. And words can be used against you later, so it's not even wise to threaten like that.

C.S. Lewis wrote in "The Four Loves": "It is one of the difficult and delightful subtleties of life that we must deeply acknowledge certain things to be serious and yet retain the power and will to treat them often as rightly as a game."

The game part might mean we have to be willing to lose to play, or it might mean there are always hidden rules in relationships that don't come out of logic, but come out of divergent needs, like connection vs autonomy, and neither side can "win" without everyone losing.