Last week, which was the second week of the government shutdown, was the week in which a large proportion of the clients I saw complained about the stress of having a government that, not only can’t get along, but does not seem to even want to get along. I didn’t bring it up; they did. These clients see me for all kinds of problems and issues; but for many, this was one of their issues last week competing or even eclipsing other concerns.
The stress might be similar to that a child might feel when his parents are fighting; when they are fighting so much that dinner never gets made, baths are never drawn, and bedtime is forgotten; except for one thing: my clients are not children and Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi are not their parents. The government is at odds because the people are at odds; at least the noisy ones. And they are at odds because they value the point they are trying to make more than they value getting along.
If you value getting along or at least having a civil dialogue and not making hostages of federal employees, then you could start yelling, too, and add to the clamor; or you could get involved with the Better Angels, a citizens’ organization uniting red and blue Americans in a working alliance to depolarize America. I’ve been involved for a couple years. Just before the holidays we tried to get a local event going, but simply lacked enough people to plan it. I know there should be more who are willing to speak up, not to add their voices to the din, but to get everyone else to settle down.
The trouble is, your partner is there, too, and if you try to get some space, they may take it personally. You don’t want to get into a long discussion over why you need your space when you need your space. It may not be good to get into discussions when you need your space. They seldom go well, then.
What you need, at times like that, is a hat.
Not just any ordinary hat, but a hat that is easily recognizable and officially designated as the I Need My Space Hat.
So, some time when you don’t need your space, pick out a hat and talk with your partner. Put the hat in a common area where both of you can find it. Whenever you need your space, put on the hat. Only use this hat for that one purpose. The hat communicates something to your partner, so you don’t have to. It says, I need my space. It’s not about you, it’s about me. I’ll tell you why when I take off the hat.
It’s important that you have this discussion first, before you need it, so both of you understand what the hat means. It’s also important to obey the hat, no matter which one of you is using it. Finally, it’s important to talk after you take the hat off. Tell your partner why you think you needed your space and was going on with you.
Some days, you just need your space and it’s hard to get it. Unless you use a hat.
If you have ever thought you were the only person who thinks the thoughts that you do, in the way you do, I would recommend that you listen to the Mental Illness Happy Hour. There, you will hear yourself think.
The weekly, hour-long audio podcast of interviews with artists, friends and the occasional doctor is hosted by Comedian Paul Gilmartin.
Paul hopes that you hope, that the show and its website give you a place to connect and smile. So look at the website, listen to the show, fill out and read the anonymous surveys, and watch for hope returning on the horizon.
When you meet someone for the first time, you’re generally on your best behavior. You’ll present the most polite, least objectionable version of yourself that you can come up with. This is called the public face, the mask, or the persona. Most of us cultivate this persona as carefully as we edit our Facebook page. Indeed, the Facebook page is another, virtual version of the persona. You probably possess several personas, some for work, others for family, and another for each circle of friends.
The easiest method of doing something is not always the most effective; but it is the easiest, so that’s saying something for it. Easy is more effective than the most effective if the most effective is impossible for you to do.
When it comes to treatment for mental illness, if I were to rank the forms of therapy in order of effectiveness, meaning how thoroughly and reliably they can solve your problems, I would put it like this:
Reading self-help books
But, if I were to rank them the easiest to hardest, it would go like this:
Two conspirators are arrested and brought into separate interview rooms. They are both given the opportunity to turn state’s witness against the other. The one that takes the deal goes free, and the other gets ten years. If both confess, each gets six years. If they both refuse, they both get six months.
If I was in this situation, my answer would depend on the nature of the alliance I had developed with my partner in crime. In every relationship there are multiple opportunities in which we choose to either cooperate with the other or go our own way. Most of these occasions don’t have the consequence of being sentenced to prison for ten years, but you get the sense of a person’s loyalty if they pick up the check at the diner when you plan the crime, bring their own burglary tools, and take off in the getaway car before you get in. You also get an idea of the cost of betrayal when you scarf up the tip he left, bend his best lock pick, and arrive late because you couldn’t decide on a color for a ski mask.
Every one of these tests is a miniature prisoner’s dilemma and every one of these tests is found almost continuously in every kind of relationship. Temptations abound, no matter where you are, especially in love. Do you steal the blanket? Put the seat down for her? Do you give her the first piece of toast in the morning? Do the dishes? Get up to answer the phone even when you know it’s for her? When she tells you about that dress she’s going to buy do you really pay attention, or just nod and smile? When she’s not listening do you talk about her with respect? Do you flirt when she’s not looking? Are you adult enough to admit there’s adultery afoot?
We form alliances because we get a better reward when we both cooperate, but it’s inevitable that every alliance is going to be violated in some way. It is impossible to go along with every little thing your partner wants. How are these inevitable violations handled? When you tug the blanket, does she tug back? Does she go all ape shit when you pee on the seat? When you put the seat down for her, does she put it up for you? Does she put the flirting in perspective, forgive the adultery? If she does, does it make her a patsy? If she doesn’t, is she just being a bitch?
Scientists have studied the prisoner’s dilemma by having players adopt certain strategies to see which win most often. Some will always cooperate, no matter how strong the temptation. Those players end up exploited. Their partners have no reason to play along since there is no penalty for failing. Others never work together with their partners, they give in to temptation every time. No one ends up trusting them. They say the winning strategy is called Tit-for-Tat: cooperate every time until your partner fails to, then punish him by withholding cooperation at the next opportunity. This will teach him a thing or two.
There’s one problem with that, though. We believe we are much better at detecting when we lose our partner’s engagement than we really are. The next time you are having a conversation with someone, watch her and you will see there are moments that she does not appear to pay attention, a minor violation in the alliance that could really piss you off. The thing is, she might actually be paying attention, or she might be the kind that can pay attention to two things at once. Ask her what you just said and you might be surprised that she can repeat it word for word.
There are times, though, that she can’t. You lost her; she tuned out, spaced out, went blank. It happens. If you taped it, hit the rewind, and play it back, you might discover something. You were boring. You went on and on and were inattentive to non-verbal cues that she wanted to participate in the conversation. Or you made your point in such a way that she couldn’t follow. Each of these errors is a violation of the alliance. You broke faith before she did.
We have built in, exquisite instruments that detect betrayal so sensitively calibrated that we are always chasing false alarms. What’s more, the instrument does not work on the operator. You don’t know when you are doing it. There’s a moral to the story. When you believe that your partner is violating your alliance, look to see if maybe you did so first.