Relationship advice: Forget Venus and Mars

A relationship guru explains that it's better to concentrate on the mismatched narratives in our relationships

Topics: The Browser, relationships, Sex, Marriage, Mira Kirshenbaum,

Relationship advice: Forget Venus and Mars
This interview first appeared in The Browser, as part of the FiveBooks series. Previous contributors include Paul Krugman, Woody Allen and Ian McEwan. For a daily selection of new article suggestions and FiveBooks interviews, check out The Browser or follow @TheBrowser on Twitter.

The Browser You asked me to tell you about the five best books on relationships. Well, that started me on quite a quest. There are certainly a lot of great books on relationships. In fact, you could easily argue that almost all great works of literature are about relationships. Where else would the conflict and drama come from? Sophocles’s Antigone is about Antigone’s relationships with her uncle and her sister and her dead brother. Homer’s Odyssey is about many relationships, but most of all it’s about Odysseus’s relationship with his wife Penelope, his yearning for her, strangely coupled with his delaying the journey home. And, when he does get home, we see how well-matched she is with him in both cunning and strength of character.

You can see where this is headed. I could just as easily give you a list of the five best works of literature if all I wanted to do was tell you about the five best books on relationships.

But, as I thought about it, I realised that none of these books, no matter how great, really explained relationships, how they really function, any more than the greatest paintings in the world explain human physiology. And so I realised that if I wanted to pick the five best books on relationships – from the point of view of how relationships work – I have to look elsewhere. I’d have to look at the foundational work of some thinkers who were responsible for one of the greatest revolutions in human understanding. This is a revolution so profound that even today most people either can’t grasp it or aren’t even aware of it. I know, that’s a pretty stunning statement, isn’t it? But, in fact, the average person’s understanding of relationships is about 100 years behind the time. The best couples therapists know about this revolution and use its discoveries all the time, but with too many couples therapists, their thinking lags far behind.

Quick! What is this revolution?

Well, let’s start with systems thinking. The first book I want to talk about is entitled Systems Thinking and it’s edited by a guy named F E Emery. This is where you’ll find one of the most influential essays of the past 50 years. It’s called ‘The Theory of Open Systems’ and it’s written by a guy named von Bertalanffy. There are a lot of equations in this article, so you might have an easier time reading another piece in this book by Katz and Kahn. The van Bertalanffy piece, which was written in 1950, not only changed people’s thinking about relationships but changed people’s thinking about the self. You see, previous thinking about relationships is dominated by our sense of personalities: mean people make bad things happen; nice people make good things happen. All of drama and literature is based on this idea. According to this old-fashioned thinking, when something really bad happens in a relationship it must be because someone has done something really bad.

Haven’t they?

No. From the systems point of view, things look very different. Systems thinking says that once you have two people who sort of fall into each other’s orbit, the relationship becomes a kind of third force. It takes on a life of its own. Certain initial properties, perhaps insignificant in themselves, can take on huge significance. Here’s a trivial example with important implications. Let’s say you and I set up housekeeping together. We decide we’re going to share the washing-up chores after every meal. Now let’s say that you’re just a little faster when it comes to washing dishes and you do just a little better job.

Or, I think I do.

Well, it’s quite possible that because of that little difference the responsibility for washing dishes every night will fall to you. After all, you’ll be itching to jump in when you see how comparatively slow I am and how I end up not doing as good a job as you.

Of course, now that you’re doing the washing-up every night, that’s one extra chore for you. And that might make you just a little resentful. You might not blow up. You might just act ever so slightly cold and hostile. Maybe not even enough for me to notice consciously. But I will notice it, and I will respond. And then you’ll respond to my response, and then I’ll respond to your response. And we’re off and running in a self-maintaining cycle of anger and distance. And there you have it. Two nice normal people in a terrible mess not because they’re terrible people but because of the properties of systems.

Now here’s the miracle. While this is very hard for two people to sort out on their own – which explains why we feel so stuck so often in our own relationships – it’s surprisingly easy for a good therapist who understands systems to sort this out, and you can do it without any blame.



Next we turn to a book by one of the pioneers of family therapy, Don Jackson. It’s called The Mirages of Marriage, and he co-wrote it with a professional writer named William Lederer. But Jackson is the mind behind this book. It was the very first self-help book for married couples from a systems perspective and it’s still one of the very few from this perspective. What it also includes, which is very important, is everything that had been learned up until that time about communications theory.

I don’t want to make this book sound heavy. It really is a nice self-help book for regular people. But the question is: if you really want to change things do you want to be told what you already know, which clearly hasn’t been working, or do you want to see things with fresh eyes, even though none of us is comfortable with what’s unfamiliar? The Don Jackson book will help you see that there are things going on with communication in your relationship that you never realised, and I’m not talking about that Mars/Venus junk. You see people don’t just exchange information. They do things with words. They issue commands even when they think they’re just describing reality. They create realities even when they think they’re ‘just talking’. For example, someone might say ‘How are you?’ to you in a way that both made you feel dominated and made you feel like crap.

And one of the cool things about the Don Jackson book is that he explodes a number of myths about marriage, particularly about the role of love in marriage. If your marriage is in trouble, this book will help.

Fantastic. Do you have a book about couples therapy itself on your list?

You bet I do. It’s called The Family Crucible by Augustus Napier and Carl Whitaker. Whitaker was one of the founders and pioneers of family therapy. If you read Whitaker, you’ll immediately see how lame the therapy is in a show like In Treatment. Whitaker embodies the family therapy revolution in the most amazing way – he jumps in and makes things happen. This is not therapy that consists of turning to somebody and saying ‘How do you feel about that?’ It’s about rearranging the molecules in the family. In this book you see how somebody can tackle the family as a whole living organism. Whitaker shows how important it is to change people’s assumptions about who they are to each other, to change the ways they interact with each other, to change the very structure of the family.

All this change sounds a bit worrying somehow. Everyone has to change.

Well, you see, Whitaker introduces us to the notion of change. This is a very important concept in family therapy, and it grew out of work with people in relationships. I’m talking about the idea that therapy is not about insights. It’s about change. This makes sense. After all, when people come together to form a relationship, whether they realise it or not, they’re trying to change each other. All too often, though, they fall into a situation called homeostasis in which change is impossible. They are stuck in seemingly unchangeable patterns. So what you do?

That’s where the next book comes in. It’s called Uncommon Therapy, and it’s by one of the family therapy pioneers, Jay Haley, but it’s about another therapist named Milton Erickson. Erickson understood that if therapy is about change, not insight, then in some important way you’re not tethered to reality. The therapist is free to create new realities.

This tremendously empowers the therapist, but it also changes our whole sense of what is to be a person. The notion that who I am is this stable entity gets exploded. In fact, and the evidence for this is overwhelming, who I am and who you are is pretty much a plaything of context and assumptions. Change the context, change the assumptions, and you change the self. Do that with people in a relationship, and you change the relationship. As with Whitaker, this book will give you the sense, wow, I never imagined that therapists could do this. It’s enormously exciting, but for those people who have a traditional view of the self, it’s also deeply challenging.

It does sound quite challenging… So, what’s your last book?

Well, since we’re talking about assumptions, I thought it would be worthwhile mentioning a book called Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends by Michael White and David Epston. Now we’re getting into the next generation of family therapists. What Michael White is talking about is how who we are and how we relate to each other grows out of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and about each other. In a very real sense, who I am is the way I’ve lived out my story about myself, and how I treat you is the way I live out the story I have about you. These are stories that talk about where we’ve come from, where we are going, and how we plan to get there.

But what happens in a relationship, or a family, is that you have duelling stories. In much of literature, like Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, there’s a tragic mismatch of people’s stories which leads to a tragic clash. Emma Bovary was doomed because her story about herself and her story about her husband Charles were unsustainable. Well, the same thing happens in real-life relationships, and it can be just as tragic. It can certainly cause a lot of aggravation.

But there’s good and hopeful news here. Michael White shows how you can understand the dysfunction in people’s stories and actually give them new stories about themselves and each other that can transform their lives and their relationships. All these books are challenging but they’re tremendously exciting and deeply hopeful in the promise they hold forth for change and growth in even the most troubled relationships.

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