President Trump and presidential challenger, Joseph R. Biden Jr., held a debate on Sept. 29 that was described as a chaotic disaster. The candidates were instructed to stick to the subject of the question, “to encourage deep discussion of the leading issues facing the country.” The debate descended into chaos almost immediately. Voters overwhelmingly called the debate’s tone negative. President Trump was described as having bullied, bulldozed, and obfuscated his way through the 90-minute showdown. President Trump took every opportunity to speak over the former vice president. Over Trump’s interruptions, Biden responded by mocking the President, calling him a “clown,” a “racist” and “the worst president America has ever had.” Biden largely responded to Trump’s interruptions with eye rolls, head shakes, chuckles, and “C’mon, man” comments. He never lost his temper — but he made glaringly clear how little he thinks of Trump. Biden responded to a series of Trump interruptions by saying: “Will you shut up, man?”
This exchange is not unfamiliar to me as a Marriage & Family therapist. I often witness couples in conflict expressing themselves in the worse possible way as they re-enact their arguments in my office. I saw a Facebook post illustrated by a football referee calling fouls, intending to be humorous, that pointed out problems in the debate. Unfortunately, this is often what I see in the first session of couple’s therapy.
- Personal foul; attacked the opponent instead of his argument.
- Circular logic; argument has no supporting evidence.
- Defense demanded more proof after the offense successfully proved their point.
- Attempted proof by intimidation. Player failed to understand the difference between refuting a point and just shouting it down.
- Player provided no source.
- Play caught in an echo chamber. They refuse to accept any facts contradicting their own bias.
- Coincidence illegally substituted for proof.
- Illegal use of a word that does not mean what they think it means.
- Player here just to create trouble. Player is ejected with prejudice.
- Refused to accept any solution that was not absolutely perfect.
- Offensive foul, false dichotomy. There are more than two options.
Moderator, Chris Wallace struggled to maintain control. He repeatedly admonished Mr. Trump for speaking over Biden and disregarding the rules both sides had agreed to. My role as a therapist is not unlike a referee as I attempt to provide structure and guide the communication toward a productive and helpful engagement.
This debate made clear that additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues. Common debate ground rules are:
- Treat each other with respect. Name-calling, accusations, verbal attacks, sarcasm, and other negative exchanges are counter-productive and won’t be tolerated.
- The purpose of discussions is to generate greater understanding. Dissenting views accomplishes this goal. However, in expressing viewpoints, you should try to raise questions and comments in a way that will promote understanding, rather than defensiveness and conflict in others.
- Communicating is both about sharing different views and actively listening.
- Keep the discussion and comments on the topic, not on the individual. Don’t personalize the dialogue.
- Remember that it is OK to disagree with each other. Let’s agree to disagree.
According to the marital researcher, Dr. John Gottman, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are considered to be the destroyers of relationship satisfaction and can be the slippery slope that leads to divorce. These Four Horsemen are: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling (which occurs when one partner shuts down).
Through his research, Dr. Gottman determined that newlywed couples who displayed the Four Horsemen were, on average, more likely to divorce 5.6 years following the wedding. In contrast, couples who didn’t have escalating conflicts but exhibited emotional disengagement divorced 16.2 years after the wedding.
Couples who present to therapy often display the Four Horsemen during conflict discussions. Therapists are trained to help couples find more adaptive means to communicate during these occurrences. In the face of the Four Horsemen, these therapists help clients learn and implement the antidotes to these destructive patterns of interaction:
Criticism – Gentle Start-Up
Defensiveness – Take Responsibility
Contempt – Build a Culture of Appreciation
Stonewalling –Self-Soothing, in order to stay calm and engaged
If your relationship conflict begins to resemble a Trump v. Biden debate, it is time to seek counseling.