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Commentary: Marriage lessons from a government shutdown

If Congress were a family it would be the most dysfunctional family in your neighborhood, regardless of where you lived. Congress is the couple with a dozen divorces between them and their attorneys on speed-dial.  Every two or four years Congress divorces soon followed by a celebration of newfound love. 
Each session of Congress pledges fidelity and commitment, cooperation and harmony. But within two years the devoted couple at the altar, promising each other (and us) the moon, becomes the bizarre characters fighting on the Jerry Springer Show. We don’t trust their vows any longer and have come to realize that the key letters in their pledge of “bipartisanship” are “b” and “s.”
In recent weeks, a cast of characters in Washington postured (but called it “principle”) while dangling the nation over the cliff of financial disaster. At times the stalemate and shutdown resembled pirates holding a ship’s crew and passengers hostage, threatening to blow up the boat if their demands for ransom were not met. The D.C. fiasco provides us with a few relationship lessons.  
Learn to Negotiate 
If my work as a marriage therapist for 20 years has taught me anything, it is that a basic and vital skill for couples and families is the ability to negotiate differences and resolve conflict. Couples who are unwilling or unable to negotiate their differences in desires, needs, and expectations will eventually stop trying and will ultimately divorce. 
The couple that doesn’t make it will be the couple where one or both partners refuse to acknowledge any validity of the partner’s needs or concerns. In Washington nothing gets done without a measure of consensus building and compromise. Power plays on Capitol Hill may appear to be successful but only temporarily; and manipulation comes back to bite hard when the inevitable pendulum swing of power gives the rival party the majority and the gavel. 
Couples, note that there are two elements that must be met for negotiation and compromise to be successful. Whether the issue is the frequency of sex, division of household chores, philosophy of parenting, or whose family we are going to visit for the holidays and for how long, the negotiated agreement must be MEANINGFUL to both partners and must seem REASONABLE to both partners. Otherwise the “agreement” will be superficial and temporary because it will be resented and ultimately undermined. It will be at best a cease-fire instead of a peace treaty. Negotiation means neither of us gets our ideal but we both get something that feels meaningful and reasonable. 
Stop the Blame Game
If marriage counseling gets stuck anywhere it gets mired in the mud of mutual blame. Most couples arrive in my office for their initial session and sit on the couch, each convinced they are seated beside the main/only reason they’re in counseling to begin with. Each silently hopes I can spot the obvious villain and victim in the relationship and will help by giving me clues.
Breakthroughs for couples occur when each partner humbly and courageously engages in self-examination of their attitudes, words and actions that contribute to the problem, and when they each own their responsibility to make changes. The alternative is a blame game and power struggle to see who will wear down and concede. This bad option is an emotional arm wrestling match with no end because pride and stubbornness can thrive without rest.
Speak Directly and Stay on Topic
No locker room has more sore losers than the out-maneuvered and outvoted in the game of government. Nowhere is passive-aggressive behavior more prevalent than in politics, a volley back and forth of retaliation and revenge. 
By its name and definition passive-aggressive behavior in a relationship is the bypassing of verbal, direct and reasonable expression of concerns in favor of indirect punishment. Instead of accepting the challenge of speaking to you about what’s really bothering me, I’ll just punish you with silence or lack of affection. 
I’ll cease a kind gesture like bringing you your morning coffee, with the full intention that you notice and get the message that I’m mad and you can make your own !@%#! coffee since you don’t have the decency to apologize for what you said about my mother. 
I’ll make small choices that screw up your schedule. I’ll conveniently forget to do something and will then act surprised that you’re aggravated. In the kitchen of my resentment I’m going through my recipe files, anxious to bake you dishes of inconvenience and cook you platters of frustration. And wait till you see what’s for dessert.
If you make the three adjustments I’ve outlined above it won’t make you a political winner in Washington, but you’ll probably be happier family in Tennessee. 
Author and therapist, Dr. Ramon Presson, is the founder of LifeChange Counseling and the Marriage Center of Franklin, TN.  He can be reached at

Posted on: 10/25/2013


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