Monday, July 20, 2009

Stones of Memory - Pt 2

Originally published, in slightly different form, on Blog Them Out of the Stone Age in August 2005

This is a post I've been reluctant to write. But except for me, the people principally involved have long since passed away, and what happened to us was no different than what happens to thousands of families each year.

Five days before Christmas, 1974, my father suffered a heart attack. He was barely forty years old. The day after Christmas my mother summoned me into her room and told me that my father wanted to leave the marriage. There were a number of reasons he wanted to do that, and there's no need to review them here. I think that fundamentally it had hit home to him that he had only one life and he wanted to grab for happiness while he still could.

My mother did not know what to do. She seemed lost. She asked me for my advice. She was very serious about it. I knew nothing about marriage or relationships so I drew upon the one thing I did know something about, which was war. I had been steeped for years in military history. It seemed to me instinctively that this situation -- Dad wanting to leave the marriage -- was like a kind of war. Mom was wondering about how she might plead with Dad to stay. I told her flatly that the best thing to do was to give him an ultimatum: that he either had to agree to marriage counseling or leave the marriage, and that she should start finding herself a lawyer.

The whole idea ran counter to Mom's instincts, which were to try to do something that would win him back. But she was so benumbed by the situation that she decided to take my advice. It worked. My father, shocked at the sudden reversal of momentum, agreed to enter marriage counseling. I wish I could say that things improved between them, but they never did. Eventually they divorced, but not for another eight years.

When I advised my mother to confront my father with an ultimatum, I was operating on a strategic principle I had learned from Robert E. Lee: In war you do not let the enemy keep the initiative if you can possibly help it. It was not until my late 30s that I finally understood why the strategy worked. I found the explanation in a book by sociologist Diane Vaughan entitled Uncoupling: Turning Points in Intimate Relationships (1986). On the basis of interviews with 103 people, Vaughan argues that relationships tend to end according to a certain pattern. It begins with a secret -- one member of the couple is dissatisfied with the relationship, but keeps it to herself or himself to avoid rocking the boat, or because the level of their dissatisfaction is not yet apparent even to them. Eventually the discontent comes into the open and larger confrontations ensue -- but still within the context of an on-going relationship. Finally the dissatisfied person announces that they wish to leave. Vaughan calls this person the "initiator," and her analysis indicates that they hold most of the cards.

Often, however, the initiator's desire to leave comes out before they have completed the financial and psychological preparations for abandoning the relationship. Their problem is eased by the fact that the partner -- the person who wants the relationship to continue -- makes desperate efforts to save the relationship. The partner may respond by trying to change themselves so as to become someone the initiator can again love. They may make concessions of other sorts. They may agree to a trial separation, which in their minds is an effort to save the relationship but to the initiator simply reduces the social costs of moving out, while supplying the comfort of knowing that until their preparations are finished, they always have the option of coming back.

The initiator's advantage is so pronounced that Vaughan devotes 13 pages -- an entire chapter -- to explicating it. Mostly the advantage turns on the fact that the initiator has already had lots of time to prepare for the break, and that the partner tends to supply whatever additional time is needed through various efforts to save the relationship. The solution, strategically, is for the partner to make no effort at all to save the relationship; on the contrary, to push toward an end to it at the earliest possible moment. Either one of two things will happen. The erstwhile initiator will be confronted with an end to the relationship before their financial and psychological preparations are complete, and, shaken, may try to return to the relationship. Or the partner gets the break-up over with as quickly as possible.

My ultimate point is that war turns out to be a dynamic that applies, metaphorically, to many other areas of life. And if a = b, then it follows that b = a. Other areas of life apply metaphorically to war. Thinking about the options faced by a small kid having to deal with a playground bully can deepen our understanding of war, because it forces us to think in fresh ways. So can thinking about the conflicts within a relationship. The single most interesting review of The Hard Hand of War was offered by my sister. She said it was an allegory of our parents' marriage.

1 comment:

Nicolas Holzapfel said...

Thank you for sharing that story – distressing to read but, well, real life is distressing and it's good to have the upfront version.

I think there is a lot of truth in the war analogy. However I think that if someone starts to think about their marriage problems in those terms – the best course of action for maximising their own power – it's really time for the marriage to end!

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