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Beyond Right and Wrong
Teaching Couples How To Embrace Fair-Mindedness
By B. Janet Hibbs
Q: Many of the couples I see are at an impasse, caught up in a struggle to prove who's right. How can I help them get past this kind of unwinnable argument and resolve their differences?
A: The first step is to get partners to relinquish the certainty that they're right, which prolongs a point-counterpoint, my-side-against-your-side stalemate. Too often, all of a couple's emotional energy is expended on winning at the cost of being able to understand a central issue in the relationship: what's truly fair. Bob and Sandy illustrate how "being right" leads to a crossfire of unfair accusations.
In their first therapy session, Bob tells Sandy, his wife of two years, to stop e-mailing her former college boyfriend and insists that she end that friendship. She refuses, feeling mistrusted and controlled. As their exchange heats up, Sandy bristles as she defends her innocence, while Bob becomes more adamant and demanding.
Bob: I can't believe that you're still e-mailing your old boyfriend, even though I've asked you not to!
Sandy: And I've told you it's nothing! He's just a friend. I married you. You have nothing to worry about.
Bob: But when I've asked you to stop e-mailing him, you've just blown me off. You have to choose him or me!
Sandy: You sound just like a child. Frankly, I'm insulted that you don't trust me.
Bob: And I'm outraged that you'd put our marriage at risk.
Sandy: It's not me putting it at risk: it's you, being so controlling.
Bob: It's him or me: I mean it!
Sandy: That's your choice then!
Couples in this sort of an impasse often want therapists to be judges: "Tell her she's being unreasonable!" "Tell him he only thinks of himself!" The therapist's challenge is provide a practical guide to resolving this power struggle. The crucial issue in these stalemates isn't so much who's right, but what's fair, and how to define fairness when partners disagree. My goal in such cases is to help each partner learn to balance the sense of personal deserving with the overriding value of being fair-minded.
The therapeutic model I use in these matters is Iván Böszörményi-Nagy's contextual theory, with its distinctive emphasis on relational ethics. The first lesson in relational ethics for couples is that neither partner can dictate the terms for give-and-take. Neither partner can define what's fair between them because fairness is a process, which blends the different legacies of owing and deserving that each person brings to a relationship. But before this blending can happen, it's crucial for the therapist to help each partner understand that their deeply felt "truths" about fairness are actually learned and biased by their unique family-of-origin experiences.