Non-Negotiable Issues

Morton Deutsch

E.L. Thorndike Professor and Director Emeritus of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Teachers College, Columbia University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).
A: I did mostly individual therapy, but I also worked, at times, with couples. And the paper, "Negotiating the Non Negotiable," really came out of my experience working with couples. I was asked by a former student of mine, Jeff Reuben, who was co-editing a book on the middle east, to write a commentary. And I read the papers in the book, I used that model of what happened in a marital conflict that seemed non-negotiable, to talk about the Israeli- Palestine conflict.

But the basic idea was there, even when a couple has basically non-negotiable issues, and that's the way they saw it. The issues were about how the child should be disciplined, who should do housework, basically a lot of things that were a constant source of irritation between the two people. Underlying the differences, were some non-negotiable values between the couple. The woman was a feminist. She had a conception of an egalitarian marriage, where everything should be shared, the husband would be sharing the housework, the child care, and she would share in the income producing. He was an old fashion male who believed the husband should be the wage-earner, the wife should be responsible for the household and the child care. Those are really two different conceptions that are really quite at odds. Well, obviously, the fact that they married is kind of strange because they're rather different in basic conceptions. But they had a lot of mutual interests, in art, literature, sexually compatible, they were both intellectual people, but things started getting rather bad between them because of the constant nagging differences and irritation, when they would be attacking one another. They learned how to negotiate the non-negotiable by dealing with, first of all, by recognizing they were in what Bill Zartman from John Hopkins calls a "hurting stalemate." I didn't use that phrase, I simply saw they were hurting. They would continue hurting unless things changed.

The wife had to come to individual therapy with me and brought the husband in. I helped them to see that there was a possibility of a better relationship between them. Then they saw that the better relationship would not come by imposing one side's preference on the other. So, it wasn't a question of the wife imposing her view on the husband, or the husband imposing his view on the wife. If that happened, the other would reject it, would fight it. They had to recognize, whatever emerged from the discussion had to be satisfactory to both of them. That was an important insight.

They also had to learn that the process that they were involved in during this bitterness between them was one, which they were both right in thinking that the other was hostile and negative. That the other couldn't be trusted on certain issues because they were in the kind of malignant relationship, where it is true that you can't trust the other fully. The other is angry with you and feels justified in their anger. So, they're correct in perceiving the other in somewhat villiness terms. But they're incorrect because they make the attribution to the other, as something intrinsic to the other, rather than to the relationship that has developed, this malignant relationship. As a result, this forces them both to have this negative view of the other. So, you have to help them understand something about the process that has created this so they can get above the process. They can start thinking about how they can change the process, and start relating to one another.

Q: It reminds me of a Mexican saying, "It takes two hands to clap."

A: Right, absolutely.