12/14/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Three Laws Of Relationship Misery, Pt. 1

Whether in the White House, your house or our house, the same three actions determine the quality of relationships. Relationships between countries and political leaders are an exact mirror of our relationships at home. The same things that cause relationship disruptions around the house cause relationship disruptions among our politicians. In the spirit of Newton's Law Of Gravity, we'd like to present Three Laws Of Relationship Misery (and the corresponding Laws Of Relationship Harmony.)

The First Law Of Relationship Misery

Painful, long-running relationship dramas are caused by two people trying to occupy the victim position at the same time.

Here's how it goes:
Partner A stakes claim to the victim position, blaming the other person as the persecutor: "You're the cause of these problems we're having. If you would just change, I'd be happy. I'm the victim here and you're the persecutor."

Partner B usually doesn't agree with this assessment. Instead he/she says: "As usual, you've got it backwards! You're the persecutor and I'm the victim. I was happy until you came along, and now I'm miserable all the time. It's obvious that the problem is YOU."

Partner A escalates: "Hold on, there! I've got evidence that I'm the victim. Every single one of my friends agrees that you're the cause of all my problems."

Partner B retorts, "Yeah, and that's why every single one of your friends is single! Gotcha!"

Partner A: "Yeah, well at least I have some friends. Gotcha!"

They continue to repeat this sequence until somebody gives up. Unfortunately, many people don't give up for thirty or forty years. (There's no statute of limitations on claiming the victim position: In our first session with a couple a while back, we introduced ourselves to them, then stepped into an adjoining office to get a form we needed. When we came back to join them, no more than half-a-minute later, they were arguing about something that had happened 29 years ago.)

The same sequence happens in political, racial and religious squabbles. Here's how it goes:
Country/Race/Religion A claims to be the victim of Country/Race/Religion B. B doesn't see it that way: they think they're the victims of A. Each tries to claim the distinction of being the true victim, repeating this pattern until somebody gives up. Unfortunately, they often don't give up for three or four thousand years.

A Corollary To The First Law

Here's a fact we'd never have believed until we saw it in a few hundred sessions: The person who complains loudest about being the victim is actually the biggest perpetrator. For example, Mrs. McCain recently made a grab for the victim position by accusing Obama of running "the dirtiest campaign in American history." Meanwhile, her husband was busily running if not the dirtiest, at least one of the dirtiest campaigns in American history. Fortunately the voters seemed to have a better eye for where the dirt was than Mrs. McCain did.

The students in our relationship coaching program made up a memorable name for the act of claiming to be the victim while actually being the perpetrator. They call it "pulling an OJ," in honor of OJ Simpson, who got away with murder by portraying himself as the victim of racism. John Edwards pulled an OJ a while back when he complained about being the victim of scurrilous tabloid rumors about his affair. When the scurrilous rumors turned out to be true, his reputation took a sharp and possibly terminal nosedive. Even OJ couldn't pull an OJ in his recent encounters with the law.

There's hope for us all, though, and it rests in the positive side of claiming responsibility.

The First Law Of Relationship Harmony

Relationship harmony occurs when all parties take full responsibility for creating the current conditions in the relationship. No energy is wasted through jockeying for the victim position and blaming each other for the problem, thus allowing maximum energy to be focused on solving whatever problem is at hand.

Here's how the First Law Of Relationship Harmony would look in a political/racial/religious situation:

Country/Race/Religion A declares "We take full responsibility for the situation as it is." Country/Race/Religion B declares "We do, too." They both say, "Now let's solve the problem."

Here's how the First Law Of Relationship Harmony looks in an intimate relationship:

Partner A: "I take full responsibility for this situation."
Partner B: "I do, too."
Both: "Let's solve the problem."

In order to have any positive effect on the life of a real person, responsibility is something that has to be claimed as an act of conscious will. It is not something that can be assigned by outside parties. Even if a judge says "you are responsible for these acts," you won't benefit in any kind of life-changing way until you claim responsibility for them yourself. The life-changing move is to catch yourself in the act of claiming the victim position, and make a conscious shift to taking responsibility for wherever you find yourself. We've done it hundreds of times in our own relationship, and it always creates more harmony and intimacy.

(We'll explore the other two laws in future posts.)