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Apr 29 2009

What can possibly go wrong?

Published by at 5:21 pm under Advice,Miscellaneous

They started the session so pleased with each other and the promise of their relationship. They’d been through a lot and now it looked like they were in for a patch of fair weather. However, thanks to my careful questioning and comments I’d managed to bring her to the point of seething resentment and in response, he was on the cliff edge of committing himself to some way of expressing some kind of punitive and spiteful payback: He was suddenly more than willing to do exactly those very the things she feared, just make her eat her damn words and stew in her own fears until she choked. Based on that I figured the session was a success.

Perhaps you are wondering why? Let me give you some background and also let me see if I can persuade that this was a good exercise for both them. And also, perhaps I can persuade you that this exercise might be a good idea for you and your partner.

They’d had a hard ride, these two. It had been a difficult on-again-off-again relationship. Honeymoon became hell became break-up became make-up became honeymoon became hell and round and round. It had happened enough times that they knew and feared their routine. This in itself was great progress. Before this realization they seemed surprised to find themselves again and again in the same place.

Their routine reminded me of an old Bob Dylan song, “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” The last verse goes like this: “And here I sit so patiently, waiting to find out what price, you have to pay, to get out of, going through all these things twice.” Hah. Twice indeed! What youthful optimism! Most of us have to recycle several more times than twice before we realize we are going in circles. This is a midlife realization, and this couple had reached it.

Now, after a promising honeymoon, they were contemplating moving in together, again. “Can we do this without repeating the cycle?” they asked. They had asked the Dreaded But Necessary Question: “What can possibly go wrong?”

“What can possibly go wrong?”

My dad made a comedy routine out of this question by performing this line as a naïve and enthusiastic fool. The way he delivered seemed to mean, “Well of course nothing’s going to go wrong.” He was able to say it in a way that made sensible people shudder and say, “Don’t say that!” But say it he did, and like bats in a cave reacting to a gunshot, the ten thousand things that could go wrong suddenly swarmed around in your mind. It was his personal version of “Murphy’s Law.”

Murphy’s Law, like my Dad’s question, is the question you have to ask because it tells you about baggage. When we take a closer look at Murphy’s Law we see why.

In their article on Murphy’s Law, Wikipedia offers an American newspaper in verse printed in 1841:

I never had a slice of bread,
Particularly large and wide,
That did not fall upon the floor,
And always on the buttered side.

Wikipedia also quoted Alfred Holt at an 1877 meeting of an engineering society:

It is found that anything that can go wrong at sea generally does go wrong sooner or later.

The same is true of an intimate relationship because getting involved in a long term intimate relationship is like crossing the ocean in a two person boat: Sooner or later, anything that can go wrong between two people who loving and living together will.

Eventually there will be a bad day. Sooner or later, they will bring out the worst in each other. Nothing will be hidden. That is the nature of intimacy.

Do you want the relationship to last? Then my dad’s horrible question is the one you have to ask: What could possibly go wrong? Except it’s not a joke, it’s a conversational agenda. That was what I tried to accomplish for this dear couple. I wanted them to understand where in their nest the snakes were hidden.

Psychologist Gary Klein, who specializes in intuition (which he defines as your sense of what will probably happen next based on your experience of what’s happened in the past) calls the “What can possibly go wrong” exercise a “pre-mortum.”

Pre-mortem. Post-mortem. You know what a post-mortem is. That’s the inquiry you do after something has died. It’s an inquiry that asks, “What went wrong?” and “What, if anything, could we have done to stop it?” It’s the sort of thing you want doctors, military people, and anyone with a position of responsibility to know how to do. A pre-mortem is like a post-mortem, except it relies on your intuition and asks you to imagine it’s several years from now and you are looking back at a failure, searching for lessons and early warning signs. Then you set yourself up to notice those early signs. It’s a form of prevention. And that’s what I did for this couple. I took them through the procedure.

When we were almost finished I wasn’t sure I’d done them a favor. She was, as I’d said, “seething.” She’d tapped a deep vein of resentment. How many times in her life had she given and given and given and yet what she got in return was so little compared to what she’d given. And here it was again. She’d been there. She could see it coming. She retreated into attacking sarcasm. “Go ahead. Treat me like shit again. You’re good at it.”

Her response was intuitive, from the gut, something she didn’t have to think about. She’d had her natural generosity exploited so many times in her life that she was on high alert for yet another rip off. He had an equivalent resentment. Partners in a stable partnership usually do. “Look at you rolling your eyes at me. There’s no way to make you happy. It’s never enough. You always fear the worst so what the hell, if I’m going to be blamed anyway, I might as well be guilty.” He expected to be misjudged. That’s where he was quick on the trigger.

All I could say at that point was, “I guess the counseling was a success. You wanted to know what could possibly go wrong and I showed you. It’s there lurking for you all the time. If you want your relationship to last, you’ll have to plan on dealing with just this particular kind of trouble. This is how your relationship tends to get nasty.”

We all sat in the stew for a bit. Then he said, “Okay. All right. We can deal with this. I’ll take care of you. We can talk about this.” They’d managed to get outside their own little game, to get a little perspective, to develop a little patience and forgiveness toward each other, to see the danger coming before it really got dangerous.

Here is a story from another relationship. They have a cartoon on the refrigerator: two birds on a sidewalk having an argument. The cartoon is from the New Yorker and done by Bruce Eric Kaplan. The black bird says to the white dove: “I can’t believe you symbolize peace when you’re such a bitch.” They’ve made the cartoon a private joke because she tends to have a temper. She always apologizes later. He always tells her she doesn’t have to apologize because he accepts that she gets very irritated with him and sometimes he deserves it. But they both know that her apologies really do matter. They’ve taken the “what can possibly go wrong?” issue and established a way of dealing with the inevitable.

Relationship problems are like weeds. You can’t prevent them. You have to manage them. To manage them well, you have to anticipate them. “Manage” is a kind of housekeeping. It’s related to the word, “manual,” and it means, you have to put your hands on it. It’s like hygiene, just something you have to do from time to time. It’s also the sort of thing where a little early attention to the trouble spots can save a lot of work later.

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