From time to time, I watch the Dr. Phil Show to see what sorts of problems married couples bring him. Yesterday, his guests wanted him to make their spouses get rid of junk cluttering the house. The accused spouses, of course, did not see it as junk.
Dr. Phil made the mistake I’ve heard so many therapists and marriage counselors make: he served as arbitrator. He took sides. He encouraged the collectors to make more room for their spouses. He missed a chance to actually strengthen their marriages.
What could he have done? He could have walked them through finding a third alternative together. That’s an alternative that both spouses like at least as much as the one they’re defending. Finding one is like giving your husband or wife an incredible gift that costs you nothing. Your spouse wins. You win. Your marriage wins.
Discovering the Specs for a Third Alternative
To find a third alternative, you start by listing what it is you like about yours, what you’re trying to achieve. For the wife of the Star Wars collector, it might have been, “I want more room for my stuff in what used to be your house, especially a place of my own for exercising.”
You also list what makes the other spouse’s alternative distressing, in this case, keeping thousands of pieces in the basement and some in every other room. For her, it could have been, “I really dislike being unable to spend time with you in some part of the house where I feel like the most valuable thing in the room.”
Next, you agree to let go of the alternative you’ve been fighting for. You let your spouse know you want him or her to have everything they like about the alternative you’ve been fighting against, as long as you can have what you like about yours. And now you must ask questions to find out the same two things from your spouse: what is it that you want from your first alternative, and what is it you want to avoid from mine?
He wanted to keep his $200,000 collection where he could see it. He wanted to continue his hobby, collecting and caring for the collection. And he wanted to avoid spending “lots of time” doing nothing but cuddling with her, which is what she asked of him when she could get him away from his collection.
Moving from Specs to a Third Alternative
Once you have the specs, you work together to find a way to get what both of you want. If the couple on the show had let go of defending their conflicting desires, they might have seen one in a minute.
The alternatives they were defending both had to occupy the same space. A third alternative might be found in another house, perhaps one with a loft for his collection, so she could do something below while he worked up above, but they’d have the sense of being in the same room. It might be found in a smaller house, plus a rented office space or a separate building for his collection, which might be a great idea, since they were planning children.
The alternatives they were defending both had to occur at the same time. What if she’d gone to a great gym to exercise while he enjoyed his collection, but it was easy to close them off from view before she returned?
Once you know what really matters, it takes all the phony constraints off the situation. And neither of you will ever know what really matters unless you ask. We always expect our pros to be our spouse’s cons and vice versa. That’s seldom the case.
What’s Wrong with Letting Someone Else Judge Who’s Right?
Dr. Phil did this couple and his viewers a disservice. He encouraged them to see the husband’s hobby as inappropriate, even though he stated it wasn’t obsessive or compulsive. How many viewers walked away thinking this woman married the wrong person, and it’s possible they did, too? If she’d married a neatnik whose hobby was gourmet cooking, they’d have just as many points of disagreement about living together, just different ones. But the myth of the wrong person lives on.
He did them another disservice. How many couples will put off even trying to resolve their differences until they’re both upset enough to see a marriage counselor to “straighten all this out” by siding with one of them in a dispute caused only by the limits they accidentally put on their thinking?
And how about that couple? If they go home, and he packs his entire collection away in boxes, will they be happier? Or will he feel he can’t be himself with her? Will she see him differently, now that she’s got an “expert opinion” that his interests and behavior are childish? Will they move toward the “us” view that sustains a marriage or the “me/you” view that requires constant vigilance?
The next couple on the show both had lots more stuff than the average person. Dr. Phil told both of them their marriage would improve if they gave some of it to the poor and the homeless. I doubt it.