E.L. Thorndike Professor and Director Emeritus of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Teachers College, Columbia University
Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003
This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).
Q: So, once you achieve that self-awareness of your own impact on the relationship and there is that recognition that maybe the other person is hurting as well, is that when you can start to make some progress on the non- negotiable? Or how do you deal with those?
A: With the couple, I had to teach them how to listen to one another's story. How did they come to their respective view points? Their sort of life stories that allowed the man to have his life view points of what it meant to be an adult male, and the female, the woman's point of view, what it meant to be treated as an equal. For them to understand where they were coming from, then they could understand that the other wasn't trying to humiliate them, or hurt them. They could then start thinking was about, how can I preserve the dignity and well-being of the other as well as my own dignity and well-being? And they can work out what potential solutions there might be. With this particular couple, they both were employed, they weren't poor, so a lot of the income, what the man considered unpleasant chores, and what the woman considered unnecessary burdens, could be done by hired help.
It was not necessarily the best outcome, but it was an outcome that both could live with, even though it may have given them less income for other purposes. It then enormously dropped the acrimony and enabled them to live together even though there were some basic differences. Here's where being a psychoanalyst and understanding the inner psychic processes that are involved is important, why people make that kind of choice. I mean, the woman had some investment in feeling like a victim because she was not confident whether she would be successful in her career. So if she had a husband who created a lot of obstacles that, in a sense, gave her an excuse against the possibility of failure. A man, who had troubles in intimate relations, having a wife who was somewhat bitter towards him, enabled him to keep his distance, and to feel not like he really had to open himself up, which would have been very difficult for him personally. You had to work with those elements individually so that those would not hinder, even though they were not completely limited.
I think in the real world, there are conflicts that are based on either different values, which are ultimately difficult to reconcile. The conflicts between pro-choice and so called pro-life, may be ultimately difficult to resolve if you try to resolve it at the deepest level, but there are a lot of things that can be resolved. Like the idea of encouraging situations where it's not necessary to have abortion. I mean creating conditions where that is an unlikely outcome. That could be a joint process.
Q: So avoiding the circumstances that would bring to light the conflict of values?
A: In some cases that's important to do. Its not always possible, but some times it might be that there are conflicts and values that have to lead to separation. Maybe this couple, these two people shouldn't be married to one another. If they can't, if there differences are too deep and too embedded, then they can't really ultimately be happy within themselves. Or, at the national or international level you can imagine those kinds of conflicts. I don't know. I would like to have a dialogue with bin Laden and see. I don't know if it would be possible, but when somebody has an attitude that requires your destruction for their happiness or survival, you are in a zero-sum conflict.