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The left's sorry response to San Bernardino.

"People do not become 'radicalized' any more than they become 'alcoholicized' by someone else's behavior. They choose it--as [conservatives] angrily would assert in response to [liberals'] excuse-making obfuscation."

IN THE WAKE of the San Bernardino terror attack, as is so often the case after terrible violence, the talk (I hesitate to call it an actual dialogue) among the commentating and political classes often sounded more like people in need of serious family therapy than the thoughtful, analytical discourse that we the people--the children, in effect, of these dysfunctional adults--have a right to expect.

The national government and the various commentators do, in fact, resemble a big, dysfunctional family. The Supreme Court, like a lot of cranky grandparents, occasionally throws a wrench into the works by invoking how it was done in the old country. The Executive Branch, like a bossy grandmother, overrides the rule-setting legislature. Beyond these formal functionaries, though, the real parent figures in this family are the liberal and conservative branches and, for our purposes today, we are calling them Libby and Connor, respectively.

Any good therapy process begins with an assessment, including taking the client's history. For a family, we often use a genogram, which is a type of family tree but, in addition to the usual demographics of age, name, and relationships, it includes aspects like religion, attitudes towards education, careers, major family events such as emigration or natural disasters, and patterns of physical health, mental health, and addiction. With the genogram, much of Libby's and Connor's dilemma becomes more focused.

For our purposes, this applies very well to Libby, although no doubt there are other examples in the U.S. family system. Way back when, great-great-great-granddaddy Woodrow Wilson resegregated the U.S. military and made other racist decisions. Then great-great-granddad Franklin D. Roosevelt set up internment camps for Americans of Japanese descent, and tried to figure out how to deal with a thriving Nazi party in the U.S. during the 1930s and World War II. Great-grandfather Lyndon B. Johnson begrudgingly signed the languishing Civil Rights Amendment Republicans had been pushing for years to "buy the n***** vote for ... years." Gentle, idealistic grandfather Jimmy Carter blocked Iranians from entering the U.S. during a stressful stretch. Libby's pennant of tolerance is a patchwork of prejudice. As often is the case, children try to "undo" or avoid the problems of their families by doing the opposite.

Libby is codependent on approval and overcompensating for the sins of her political fathers; Libby is very anxious to be thought of as "good." She has difficulty setting limits with the children and tolerates abuse from other people. When others are abusive, she blames herself. She is so entrenched in her efforts to please outsiders that the concerned interventions of family members are rejected angrily or brushed off.

Connor keeps trying to do a half-hearted intervention and sabotages those interventions by worrying about approval and resenting being misunderstood as the "mean" one. Connor worries that Libby's low self-esteem has led her to tolerate all sorts of abuse. He suspects that giving way to the children on every whim is not doing them any good in the long run. The kids and Libby think Connor is the family fun-killer.

Another part of the family--comprising a number of children, adolescents, or the random adult family members who manage to sneak by on the goodwill of others--are oblivious to most of what goes on. Sedated by drugs, alcohol, and entertainment--a sort of 21st century bread and circuses--they are annoyed by the unpleasantness that arises whenever Connor starts complaining. There are plenty of kids on Connor's side, too, but they have become so disgusted in the family system that they distance themselves--going about their business, begrudgingly participating in family life when they must, and wondering when good old Dad is going to grow a spine and get the family back on track.

There are others involved, as there always are, in a family system. These include outside forces, such as the hypocritical friends who cluck-cluck with Libby when she explains--again--how Connor is dead wrong, how they should just be nicer to the neighbors and overlook various unpleasant occurrences. Then they roll their eyes at each other behind her back and, in their hearts, decide that Libby's the easy mark when they need a "loan" or some sort of unpleasant favor.

Like all dysfunctional families, there are layers of problems and lots of opinions--from within the family as well as among interested outsiders--about what "should" be done. It is clear that change is necessary, but everyone's notion of what ought to change is in apparent conflict with everyone else's.

In Betty Smith's classic novel of early 20th-century New York, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, adolescent Francie notes angrily in her diary that, having found her diary, her mother insisted that she cross out the word "drunk" and replace it with "sick" everywhere the child described her beloved--but perpetually inebriated--father as "drunk." Mama was unwilling to deal with reality, and she is not alone.

In William Glasser's Reality Therapy, the essentials of mental health and healing from psychological distress include three personal practices. First is accepting responsibility, meaning to accept the control one has for one's own actions, but not trying to maintain control over what is not one's to control. The second is dealing with reality, which includes identifying one's own and others' actions accurately--even if it hurts, and not believing one magically can control other people. Reality therapy also emphasizes striving to do right, rather than wrong--and working to discern the difference with sincerity. Evading responsibility, pretending things are not as they are, and fuzzing the boundaries of right and wrong are guarantees for profound unhappiness in adults.

Dealing with denial

Being in denial about the depth of a problem is typical of struggling families. Often, one parent has a problem (gambling, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, etc.) and the other parent becomes so enmeshed in protecting the person with the problem and trying to keep everything "okay" that jumping through the hoops necessary to "keep things okay" becomes a problem in its own right. This enabling, emotionally dependent position becomes codependency. Other people in the family--children, siblings, parents of the parents--can see aspects of the problem with more clarity but, the couple, and some within their influence, will buy into the mythology.

Mother drinks too much. Then she falls asleep on the couch. If those darned kids just would not make so much noise, and if Dad only would make sure there is enough alcohol in the house, she would not "lose it" and everything would be fine, just fine. Is it too much to ask, the drinking spouse wants to know, for there to be enough booze in the fridge and for the kids to keep it down? The codependent spouse stops allowing himself to ask if it IS too much to ask and just goes along with the demands because the immediate alternative--an angry drank--is too disagreeable to be borne. Most of the children know this is not normal, although often one or two will buy in and join the sober, codependent parent in making excuses for the drunkard. The interventions of concerned friends and family will be rejected--in fact, those intruders are seen as mean. Don't they realize how much the drank person is suffering? How about a little compassion?

Consider the responses in the media after the San Bernardino attack. Didn't the county health department make accommodations--all the way to prayer breaks at home every day during work hours, without any expectation of accommodation to length of work day? (Note to self: ask for my 8 a.m. class to start 15 minutes late as matter of course because 7 a.m. Mass sometimes runs a bit long.) Maybe that nice young man snapped because a Messianic Jew asserted that Islam is not a religion of peace; maybe someone else was mean. If only those health department employees had been nicer, Syed Farouk and Tashfeen Malik would not have killed all of those people.

Connor's side of the family are beside themselves at this rationalizing by Libby and her side. Their suggestions (hey, maybe you should take a page from Granddad Carter) are met with rage, as if Connor were suggesting decapitating people on the beach or drowning entire families in cages.

Exploring the family's patterns and belief systems leads to a greater insight into conflicting value systems and beliefs about human nature. These apparently contribute to intractable conflicts between Libby and Connor. Consider, for example: there are no bad people, just victims (Libby) versus the gift and responsibility of free will (Connor).

Libby asserts there are no bad people--well, except for the bad people and circumstances that created those victims. She embraces the victim/disease model of human nature. Thus, Libby talks about alcoholics who "became" addicted and terrorists who became terrorists because they were "radicalized," as if addiction or radical notions were something that just happened to them, like being struck by a meteor. The fact is, these personal metamorphoses require that a series of decisions be made consistently, day after day after day--whatever the form of excess might be. Except for pain medications prescribed for surgery, etc., every other form of addiction is acquired on purpose. The person decided to drink to dissipate stress. The person decided to use cocaine every Friday. The person decided to borrow a roommate's Ritalin for finals week ... every term. The person decided to read certain publications, limit consultation only to certain people and not to others--selectively, to reinforce his or her own leanings instead of to become more well-rounded--and made these decisions repeatedly. People do not become "radicalized" any more than they become "alcoholic-ized" by someone else's behavior. They choose it--as Connor angrily would assert in response to Libby's excuse-making obfuscation.

The human capacity to endure cognitive dissonance is impressive. Humanity has a long, shameful history of blaming the victim. Women over age 50 are very familiar with the phenomenon of blaming rape victims. Countless women have decided against reporting a rape--even a violent stranger rape--because of the fear of being dragged through the court system, with her sexual past and underpants up for discussion. Psychiatry and law enforcement, of course, used to see sexual crimes as victim-specific (see Lolita). So, Libby eyes the victims of terrorist acts with a cynical eye. Didn't that Messianic Jew say something mean about Islam not being a religion of peace? Didn't that French Jew walk down a street too close to the no-go zone? Weren't they really asking for it? In my wildest dreams, I never expected to hear yarmulkes talked about as provocative, the way a 1960s era rape victim's lace panties would have been evidence she was "asking for it."

Aren't we all asking for it, after all, with our big mean military going out trying to keep ISIS from crucifying preschool-age Christians, or tying up homosexuals and throwing them off buildings as a form of punishment for being gay? Aren't we to blame for otherwise imposing our elitist democratic values on the rest of the world?

Connor, hearing this argument against making changes, as one might expect, becomes nearly incoherent with disbelieving rage. Is Libby seriously blaming some of the kids for their bad behavior when they are victims of violence, and letting the violent entirely off the hook? The risk for Connor in this dysfunctional family is to come across as too strict, trying desperately to counterbalance what is seen as Libby's shame-based, codependent appeasing behaviors toward abusers and manipulators.

Libby has learned that compromise is a magic word: suggesting compromise immediately stakes out a moral high ground to those who are not thinking clearly and carefully. The kids have learned to push compromise: it keeps the grownups arguing and allows a lot of bad behavior to go unnoticed. It also results in little change, because compromise does not happen easily.

Compromise is not necessarily good. This is a common discussion in couple's therapy. A lot of people seem to feel that every disagreement requires some sort of compromise or clear victory. In reality, most of the things couples disagree on will be areas of perpetual disagreement. It is more important to figure out how to agree to disagree where appropriate, how to accommodate differences, how to let one another's preferences be honored where it makes sense, and to know when compromise is reasonable.

Connor and Libby need to do better at articulating why certain issues are not open for compromise. I always wonder about the spouse who intractably demands compromise; it seems more power-driven than principled. I also wonder about the character and backbone of a spouse too willing to compromise for temporary tranquility. This combination usually means there is a history of stealthy verbal and emotional abuse from the demanding side, which still manages to seem to be on the higher ground due to the magic word "compromise."

I really would prefer to consult on this with Pulitzer Prize-winning Charles Krauthammer, who is wiser and more informed than I on the nuances of this family's multiple levels of dysfunction. Without him, though, I will do my best. Suggested interventions:

* Optimally, Libby needs to see that the pattern of overcompensation, excuse-making, and other codependent behaviors are not helping the family. In fact, the dependents are failing to thrive in great number.

* However, we know from experience that it is extremely difficult for the codependent to admit the error of his or her ways. This means that change has to come from elsewhere in the system. Systems theory teaches us that changing part of a system inherently will result in change throughout the system, although we cannot know for sure exactly how that change might unfold. Thus, Connor needs to be the one making change.

* Connor will have to come to terms with Libby's shame-based pattern of behavior. Trying to shame someone out of shame-based behavior is not helpful. It does not work with toddlers and it will not work with big people, either. In this case, compassionate application of reality therapy will be necessary. He needs to set boundaries (a Constitution comes to mind but, in family therapy, a family contract--even if short term--might do).

* Libby and Connor both desire to help others, but their notions of how this should be done differ. Libby is focused on short-term gratification (they like me; everything's calm for now) and Connor is focused more on long-term objectives (the kids will grow up healthy, happy, and self-sufficient). Until Libby becomes open to feedback--to hearing that the effort to make everything "nice" has not been working out well--it is necessary for Connor consistently and firmly to point out errors in thinking and act rightly.

Bringing about change

How would this look in real life, outside the protected space of the therapy room? The person who wants change is the client in the therapy room. Sometimes the client ostensibly is the marriage, but only one partner is lobbying for change. Likewise, one parent may be advocating for change in the family but, there is little, if any, buy-in within the rest of the family. In this case, Libby will be resistant to making changes, which makes Connor our actual client. Connor is the one who wants change. So, he needs to change. A tenet of reality therapy is that we change ourselves, not other people (at least not directly). Do not waste a lot of time trying to control what you cannot control. This is, of course, part of Libby's pattern: Libby wants to force others' affection, rather than acting rightly and assuming that this will result in affection, or at least benign disinterest from persons of good will. You cannot make someone else like you, but we all know that telling people this does not do much good until they are ready to hear it.

Connor needs to be succinct. The youngsters' attention span is not up for big words and long explanations. A clear, simple explanation for a position has to be articulated and repeated as much as necessary. Any tone that smacks of shrillness or pettiness will be viewed as evidence that Libby is right--Connor is just the family fun-killer. The members of the family on Connor's side--who have been living happily and trying to stay out of the family feud--will have to make themselves evident, so the kids who have been taking Libby's side start seeing there are lots of alternatives.

Connor must be consistent. Rules are rules are rules. Connor also has to be able to delineate--and articulate--the difference between the family's space and personal space. If one of the kids wants to wallpaper his bedroom with posters of Five Finger Death Punch, that is his business. If no one else wants to hear FFDP at 130 decibels, that is everyone's business. If a Catholic university wants to have a crucifix in every room (a common practice in all Catholic spaces, including homes), that is fine. No one has a right to expect complaints about this to be taken seriously.

As Connor slowly engineers a trend towards complying with the family's contract, pushback will occur from Libby and much of the family. There will be complaints (You're cutting my allowance? What's up with that?) and resistance. Libby will commiserate with the complainers, trying to edge into the position of "nice." Connor will have to resist reacting to this with anger and, instead, briefly validate the emotional aspect (feeling badly for others' passing inconvenience or discomfort; wanting to get along) without buying into the inherently flawed methodology of excuse-making and overcompensation.

The long-term prognosis is unclear. Each party has a role to play. If sufficient members of the family can wrest themselves from inertia and align with Connor, things can improve. I am a family therapist and therefore an optimist: I see the potential for change and a meaningful, good life just about everywhere. However, I am not a fool. Sometimes situations simply are dangerous. The family here is in danger, and the duty of every adult in the family is to protect the children.

Any inconsistency on Connor's part will result in serious backsliding--all the way to square one, or worse. Every parent of a preschooler knows (or ought to know) that yielding once--just once, in embarrassed desperation--to a checkout lane tantrum means a year or more of testing by the child. So, Connor will have to grow a steely spine while retaining a loving heart. The temptation to give in just a tad--to compromise where no real compromise is appropriate--will be great. It will be a long road; the a-ha moment of insight does not commute to immediate and lasting change in behavior, thoughts, and feelings. These take time, because the brain's neural patterns for the old ways are so well developed. The new ways will require deliberate effort, which is, I grant, often tiresome and painful.

I pray for my clients between sessions, and Libby and Connor's family are no exception.

Dolores T. Puterbaugh, American Thought Editor of USA Today, is a psychotherapist in private practice in Largo, Fla. and an adjunct instructor in psychology for St. Petersburg (Fla.) College; Troy University, Tampa, Fla.; and University of the Rockies, Colorado Springs, Colo.; and author of Toxic Mythology: Breaking Free of Popular Lies and Cultural Poison.
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Title Annotation:Political Landscape
Author:Puterbaugh, Dolores T.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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