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The country needs marital therapy

A national divorce isn’t really an option. So what would it take to make this broken relationship work?

A confrontation at the Pennsylvania State Capitol on Nov. 7.
A confrontation at the Pennsylvania State Capitol on Nov. 7.Victor J. Blue/NYT

In his acceptance speech, Joe Biden called upon Americans to shelve the harsh rhetoric. To see each other again. To listen to each other again. All around the nation, people are calling for an end to the deep divide of political polarization. At the same time, many are acknowledging it might not be possible. People are angry and hurt. Some are even starting to ask whether it’s time for our nation to call it quits. There are campaigns in states including California and Texas to start divorce proceedings.

As a social psychologist who has spent the last 17 years studying romantic relationships, I cannot help seeing the parallels between our country and a marriage gone sour.

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What our country needs is marital therapy.

There are many reasons our political relationship has hit the rocks, and as in any distressed relationship, the fix won’t be easy. But a national divorce really isn’t a viable option. Could we ever agree on how to split the assets? And who would get custody of Hawaii? I think we all know the islands need to be kept together. For the sake of our democracy, we have to figure out how to start listening to and respecting one another.

Fortunately, researchers and clinicians have developed tools to help couples come back from the edge. For these tools to work, though, couples must be motivated to try. We have to recognize that name calling, while momentarily satisfying, is getting us nowhere. Neither is stewing in our resentment and anger at how the other side has let us down.

Many of you may be ready to stop here because you feel this is pointless — after all, you are willing to try, but the other side has made it clear they are not. You want to listen, but they have shown through their behavior and rhetoric that they do not. You might also wonder: How can we try to understand someone whose views so oppose our own? But trying to understand is not the same as agreeing. We need not condone bad behavior. And while name calling breeds defensiveness, seeking understanding and opening a dialogue promotes change.

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So how do we get past the hurt? We start by trying. Even if it feels like the other side — whether that’s a loved one or a stranger — isn’t interested, someone has to take the first step.

Changing how we think. Distressed couples tend to see a partner’s bad behavior as who they are and how they “always” act, but happy couples assume bad behavior can be explained by outside circumstances. Your partner forgot your anniversary? In an unhappy relationship, you’re likely to see this as just another example of how your partner is uncaring. In a happy relationship, you might think about the stress they’ve had at work lately. These everyday attributions shape the future of relationships. They can determine who stays together and who breaks up after infidelity.

Like happy couples, we need to start giving the other side the benefit of the doubt. One way to do this is to ask ourselves when we see the other side acting badly what we’d think if someone from our own side acted that way, and then be honest about the answer.

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Changing how we talk. We need to stop spouting off our own views and start asking questions. Why do you feel that way? What experiences shaped your beliefs? What bothers you about what I am saying? And then we need to restate their answers, to make sure we understand. We should still call out bad behavior — but do so by focusing on the behavior, not the person. Rather than calling the other person bad, we need to explain which of their behaviors upset us, and why. In a romantic relationship, explaining why it bothers you when your spouse watches TV instead of helping make dinner is likely to prompt more behavior change than just calling them lazy. The same is true in politics. We also need to stop being defensive and call out people on both sides of the aisle. Acknowledging our own bad behavior and that of people in our party may be one of the most powerful things we can do to rebuild trust. We are more forgiving of those who recognize and acknowledge their role in causing pain.

Changing how we listen. We need to listen with the goal of understanding people’s points of view and finding solutions to disagreements. Asking more genuine questions helps start this process, but then when they answer, we have to actually listen. Whether fighting about a marriage or politics, it is really hard to listen when we don’t agree. But what would happen if we truly tried to hear what the other side has to say? I’ve found that people are more satisfied with their relationships if they feel understood by their partners, even when they’re fighting about big, unresolvable issues. In the end, everyone just wants to be heard.

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I’ve also found that people who feel appreciated become more appreciative — criticizing won’t convince them to try, but truly listening and making sure they feel heard and valued just might. And it’s worth asking yourself — are you actually trying, or are you so focused on seeing the other side as the problem that you’ve forgotten to be the solution?

Naysayers will point out that some marriages aren’t worth saving. No one should have to stay married to a narcissist. No one should have to suffer abuse in a relationship. And they are right. Some relationships aren’t worth saving. But fortunately, politics isn’t about one person or any one moment. It’s about all of us as members of a diverse nation who have to figure out how to live together under one roof. If one person truly isn’t willing to work with us, there probably is another willing person just down the hall.

Others will say this has never been a happy marriage. There is truth to that. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to make it one. Or at least one that’s reasonably functional. The fact still stands that separation is not a feasible option. So we can continue to live together in misery as any last shreds of respect unravel, or we can take a page from marital therapy and begin the work of finding common ground.

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Amie M. Gordon is assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.