Meta-Conflict: Playing couples counselor in your own marriage can be dangerous…or helpful depending.

I got in a hassle with a friend’s wife a few years back. We both work in psychology. I was arguing that in a good relationship you have to have compatibility in negotiating the incompatibilities and for that you need compatible epistemologies-basically, your assumptions about what counts as evidence, knowledge, belief or wisdom.  She was arguing that that’s awfully dry, unromantic and analytical. What you really need is love.

It was at a dinner party.  The debate escalated quickly while people watched. About two minutes in I backed off.  Later I talked to her husband with whom I work on these very epistemological questions.

I’ve always been impressed by his ability to leave his work at the office and not burden his relationship with his powerfully analytic mind. I know how this guy thinks and sometimes his wife says things that are truly incompatible with his assumptions.  For me, that would be awkward, but he handles it with great aplomb. He picks his epistemological battles and none of them are at home. I asked him how he does it.

He knows me too, knows how my relationships have generally been more dramatic and shorter than his.  He took my question as an opportunity to make some suggestions to me that I have since found both useful and intellectually powerful.

I’ve talked lately about the way deadlocks lead to escalations to higher perspectives.  If you and your mate are unable to resolve something, chances are one of you will shift perspective from a position within the conflict, to talking about the conflict. This shift up a level is called “going meta.”

Going meta is a relatively new intellectual discovery and we’ve tended to see in it great prospects for improved thinking and communication. Instead of thinking counterproductive thoughts we engage in meta-cognition, shifting up to think about how we came by these thoughts.  Instead of fighting with our mates, we can shift up to talk about the dynamics of our fight.

Psychology is largely about going meta.  We hire therapists and couples counselors to help us go meta.

Meta sounds great but it isn’t always. Think about it-you’re in conflict with your partner or for that matter anyone, and you decide to think it up a notch.  You have a new insight that you introduce with the I’m-going-meta traffic signals “I see what’s going on here…”

You’d like to think your new insight was had by means of having entered some take-in-the-big-picture neutral place above the fray you were just embroiled in, as though you’ve checked out of your role as an advocate within the conflict in order to play the role of neutral judge considering the nature of the conflict overall. But who really can leave their biases at the door? Besides, helpful or unhelpful, it’s a power move.  Judges have power over advocates.

If you go meta then, there’s a good chance your partner in conflict will join you at the higher level, maybe saying something like, “No, that’s just your opinion about what’s going on here, actually I’ll tell you what’s really going on is…”

You end up with a new conflict a level up, a conflict about the cause of your conflict-a meta-conflict.

You remember the card game war?  Remember how when there’s a tie or standoff where you’ve both thrown down a Jack, for example, you each then play three cards face down and one more face up to break the tie.  That’s what a meta-conflict is like, and indeed with both war and meta-conflict the stakes go up.  In your conflict you were only debating how you two were going to pay this month’s phone bill, with the meta-conflict you’re debating who’s a better judge, and who’s just an advocate in judge’s clothing.

And as in war where you can have another tie a level up, in debates you might have another standoff a level up and may have to uplevel once again. A meta-meta conflict:

“Why is it every time we fight, you try to get the upper hand by analyzing me?”

“I do not.  And besides you’re analyzing me too.”

“Yeah, but only because you took it to that level.”

My epistemological friend will have none of this.  Home is a sanctuary. He does enough meta-cogitating at the office, sanctuary much.  It’s risky for two analytical people like him and his wife to even broach such stuff. And besides it is endless.  You can go meta-meta-meta, ad nauseum.  That is not what the home is for.

My friend says he simply doesn’t go meta at home.  When his analytical mind hears his wife declare something he disagrees with, he shunts his attention back to fundamentals–that he has loved her for decades, that she is a wonderful person, that their marriage is stable, nurturing and good.

To which I reply, cool move-I’d like to be better able to access that option. But I also reply sorry dude, that too is going meta, just a different kind. Instead of going meta on the conflict it’s going meta on the relationship itself.  It’s leaping out of the particulars into a higher-level perspective on the goodness of the relationship overall.

This month’s PT cover story, suggests a move similar to my epistemological friend’s. I wrote a critical blog entry a few weeks back about it.  My point wasn’t that the article was wrong but that it underplayed the question of when to apply that move.  There are limits. There are times when you do your partnership good by glossing the particular conflicts and upleveling to loving acceptance of things as they are, as both my friend and PT suggest. There are times when you do your partnership good by noticing and challenging, and in conflict upleveling to address the process even at the risk of escalating to meta-conflict and beyond.

Of course the real question is when to do which.

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