12/20/2012 05:57 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

Through the Therapeutic Looking Glass: Down the Fiscal Cliff

There is a significant challenge and dynamic that psychotherapists face in working with couples that parallels the dilemma facing the citizens and media representatives of our country. This dilemma is more serious than any one current political issue including the dreaded fiscal cliff. In working with couples in psychotherapy if we don't address the core systemic issue, the elephant in the room, there is great risk that no enduring or systemic change will occur. The change we must seek is what anthropologist Gregory Bateson described as "a difference that makes a difference." Without addressing the structural relational dynamics we will be relegated to returning to the abyss as do all too many couples who return to therapy emotionally drained holding their collective heads asking why the treatment has not brought about the "cure" they so desperately seek.

Couples come to therapy with one partner reporting a long history of offenses that will be limited or denied by their partner. The partner limiting the offenses may be eager for the opportunity, first and foremost, to inform an "objective third party" of the many ways his or her partner is wrong. The partner seeking third-party objectivity will likely employ a belief system that assigns rightness, virtue or greater morality to their position and therefore, will not be seeking some true compromise, but instead acquiescence by their mate to what must be the right way. This moral authority typically has a long history in the relationship as well as in the individual's life. It is likely that one's family of origin, previous generations as well as society have seeded and reinforced their position.

The systemic dysfunction is not simply that a power differential exists. Systems can tolerate and even thrive with power differentials when there is a clear understanding of mutual beliefs and a conscious commitment to live out those beliefs in a way that accommodates a power differential. One example of an agreed upon family systemic power differential is of marriages where both parties hold similar religious or socio/cultural beliefs that allow for the man to be the "leader" of the family. Systemic power differentials are not new or inherently bad as they have been applied for centuries in the business world, in the military and in numerous organizations/systems. A problem, a breakdown in the system or dysfunction occurs when one partner abuses power in a relationship even as both parties have an implicit agreement (read "balance of power") that each party is equal to one another in terms of opportunity for leadership, decision making, use of resources and validity of ideals or principles.

If we examine the opportunity for equality of political principles for Republicans as compared to Obama and Democrats, we will find that Republicans have built a narrative that assigns greater importance and validity to many of their core principles while demeaning those of their partners'. The most common example is of how being a "conservative" is to be somehow revered and sensible while to believe in or promote liberal ideals is likened to socialism and to be scorned. The principle of not raising taxes ever is so venerated that it requires a pledge that forsakes virtually any other condition that might warrant higher taxes; except war I guess. Of course we went to war and didn't raise taxes; G.W. Bush lowered them. The ideal of small government is touted over effective government while demeaning Democrats as only wanting big government. De-regulation or no regulation is acclaimed as part of an ideal that suggests that businesses need to be accommodated in order to have "certainty." This principle completely ignores how the rest of Americans have to live with the uncertainty of businesses closing, moving, and laying off workers or reducing hours and wages.

Couples may present in therapy with one partner describing a behavioral experience of an untenable power differential even as their spouse holds the view that the relationship is one of equality. The situation is complicated by the belief of the person wielding more power that working on the relationship means, first and foremost, that both parties must compromise. While compromise is important, it is not necessarily the first or primary task to address. A true compromise in a relationship is elusive if not impossible to achieve if the power differential is not first ameliorated. When there is a history of one party surrendering power while their partner has steadfastly sought to build and wield power, it is unreasonable and even unethical of the mediator to essentially ask the partner that has already relinquished so much to do more.

The responsibility of the therapist to the struggling couple is analogous to the responsibility of the media and the public at large in the political context of the fiscal cliff. Both of these groups are in a position to turn our collective awareness to the elephant in the room. Just as the therapist, we must face the difficult task of confronting the dreadful abuse of power. Power here is defined as denigration, defamation, threatening, and blaming the recipient of the abuse for the circumstances.

There has been a significant pattern of Republicans abusing their power to, first and foremost, malign Obama and obstruct his efforts to exercise the reasonable Constitutional powers of the presidency. Powers granted by the Constitution that they so dearly love when it is to their advantage to employ its principles. Esteemed political analysts Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein, authors of the book It's Even Worse Then It Looks, have documented the power wielding and shielding of Republicans. They describe the Republicans as extreme and not seeking symmetry or compromise. Republicans validate this description by their pledge not to raise taxes. This can be likened to a spouse who promises allegiance to protecting his mistress over the responsibility of his commitment to his spouse.

Another challenge in doing couples work is that a person abusing power in a relationship will have a great deal of experience in wielding that power in a way that defends or discounts their actions. We can see this in the political context where Republicans (and often the media) portray Obama as aloof, scolding, demanding or engaging in class warfare in an effort to deflect attention from their intransigence and less than genuine willingness to work with the president. Those accusations also completely ignore that abusing power will legitimately lead one to fight or fend it off in some equally powerful ways. Ignored is the more than one trillion dollars of cuts Obama agreed to as part of the debt increase and his agreement to extend the Bush tax cuts with nothing given by Republicans; no compromise.

By in large, pundits, media and the public are in denial just as family members, friends and even therapists can be when the abuse of power exists right before their eyes. These by-standers themselves experience the power differential and rather than stand up to the power wielder they suggest the other spouse needs to be more accommodating. They want the spouse of the power wielder to see this as the difficulty inherent in relationships, not complain, accept the other for who he is, spend more time with him doing what he likes to do, understand he feels threatened, or of all things, to win him over by being more intimate. There is only one thing more difficult to watch than abuse of power in a relationship and that is to watch the family and friends cover their eyes from the insidious, de-humanizing attempts at self-aggrandizement.

We must remind ourselves that our great country was founded on standing up to abuse of power. That which we hold most dear, justice and liberty for all and a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, has moved us even at great peril to stand up to the tyranny of abuse of power that is sadly, part of the human condition.

The underlying systemic problem will not be resolved by avoiding the fiscal cliff or fixing "entitlement" programs or reforming the tax code. When examining the solutions proposed by Republicans to these issues one will see that they all serve to support the systemic inequities. The problem is that one political party has abused power in order to serve their own political and economic principles which they have established as somehow more right, even more patriotic. This abuse of power is fueled by what Jean Paul Sartre believed was the great deception that leads to human suffering; the pursuit of and valuing things over humanness.

The time has come to address the elephant in the room. We are like the children who plead with their parent to divorce their spouse due to the abuse of power they have endured. These children courageously submit to the hardship of the separation because they recognize the status quo will be more destructive to their future.

The word divorce has its roots in the Latin word divortium which means to turn or go different ways. So like the children and the therapist we are called upon to turn away from the fear of going off the cliff to raise our collective voices proclaiming that compromise is not the most important action in the midst of a history of abuse that has led to obscene inequalities in our society. We must empower our president to go a different way than the Republicans, the pundits and the media suggest. We must stand behind the president so he can turn away from appeasement to instead continue his efforts to address that which is more dangerous to our country than the symptom of the fiscal cliff; inequality by virtue of abuse of power.

And together we are called upon to turn away from the abuse of power that the president and the people of our country have suffered in order to go in a different way. The different way is to courageously and willingly scale down the fiscal cliff and allow the Republicans to suffer the consequences of not previously compromising. This is not simply for the sake of suffering those consequences, but more importantly to wrestle away the power they have abused and to turn that force toward the pursuit of the ideals that founded our country.