Updated: Apr 27
Why Couples Fight says that if you want to keep your marriage and your love alive and make it a place where you both get your needs met, you should avoid making power moves like the plague. As you’ll see in a moment, I should hate my own advice. So what’s going on here? In the end, it turns out it’s all about tomatoes.
I never liked Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, now twenty-five years old. I should have. It offered a vision of people aware of their feelings, aware of their effects on others, aware of other people’s feelings, and able to navigate all this to the common good. What’s not to like?
Well, for me it was a lie. First of all, it said that emotional intelligence was a skill instead of a trait. Regular intelligence is a trait—we can all do better but some of us were always good in math and some of us will never be very good in math. But somehow—to the benefit of an industry of consultants who made a fortune teaching this stuff to corporations—this emotional intelligence was not a trait. We could supposedly all acquire it and society would be better. And then we could all look down on the oafs who didn’t have it.
Second, it seemed to me to bring a bunch of things together under a heading that weren’t necessarily connected. Like the people who want to call the ability to write terrific poems, solve difficult math problems, and be a whiz at being a shortstop forms of intelligence. It’s one thing to want to respect other people’s abilities, especially when they’re different from ours. That’s a good thing. But why do we have to call all those varying abilities forms of intelligence? Is there, then a connection among being able to identify how you feel, being able to discern how someone else feels, and being able to contain your own feelings? Or are these not, perhaps, very different abilities?
And that brings us to today. In a piece in the April 19th New Yorker, Merve Emre lays out her problems with Emotional Intelligence—the book, the movement, and the concept, and they jibe with my third problem with it.
Here are some quotes:
Gradually, one sees why the concept of emotional intelligence won such wide acceptance. It is not a quality or even an attribute but a regimen of restraint.
Or, to quote the old line, “Shut up!” he explained.
As we see in Carol and Peter Stearns’ wonderful Anger: The Struggle for Emotional Control in America’s History, as work in America has moved out of isolated farms and workshops and into offices and retail establishments, the forces for anger control have been hard at work and have been startlingly successful. Raging, blowing up, losing it are seen as being for losers. As Emre puts it,
Emotional Intelligence imagines a world constituted of little more than a series of civil interactions between employer and employee, husband and wife, friend and neighbor. People are linked by nothing more than, as Foucault summarized, the “instinct, sentiment, and sympathy” that underwrite their mutual success and their shared “repugnance for the misfortune of individuals” who cannot get a grip on their inner lives.
So there you have it! Blaming the victim!! Taking a trait, pretending it’s a skill, and then blaming the people whose lives are ruined by not having this trait.
Emre ends her piece by asking us to imagine a play in which those of us who can manage to keep our shit together watch a performance by and about people who can’t and who, as a result, have crappy lives.
When the curtain falls, the audience members turn to one another to talk softly about how to teach their children to avoid such a fate, how to live happily in a world where one is bound to be inconvenienced by the violent impulses of others.
But in fact, the play hides the fact that the audience members are no freer than the characters in the play. If they could see that
...it might allow the audience and the cast to rise together, becoming angry to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way, toward the right people, who have, for the past twenty-five years, sold them some of the most alluring and quietly repressive ideas in recent history.
Those are the key concepts. Repression, restraint, and, underlying it all, hypocrisy. All of which I hate.
And then I tell people in a relationship to stop making power moves.
So should I hate myself for being a repressive, constrictive hypocrite?
I can certainly tell you I never, never, never liked it when my husband would try to get me to “tone things down” when we were working out a conflict. “This is who I am!!!” I’d proclaim to the heavens and to him. “I never want to be some phony-baloney pseudo-polite couple like your parents!!”
So DO I hate myself for writing what I’ve written?
Well, here’s an analogy. My mother, old school from the old country, used to bake stuff without the slightest attempt at measuring. As she’d put it, “A glass of this, a handful of that...” Her results were good but uneven. The fact is, bakers measure. Carefully. Baking is not a forgiving enterprise. Especially not if you want to reproduce something that turns out well.
So it’s all about what works. I do NOT tell you my readers what to do. Hey, use all the power moves you want! Say whatever you want, however you want. Just the way you might bake by putting whatever you want in the mixing bowl in whatever proportions, whatever you feel like.
It all depends on whether you care more about process or about outcome. If you want to have messy fights full of self-expression, go for it. But it’s a fact, like gravity, that even if you like that process, the outcome is likely to be anger, resentment, disaffection, and unmet needs. I wouldn’t hate myself for saying that if you throw a ball up in the air it will come down again.
People who find a way to edit out the power moves from their attempts to get their needs met find...that they get their needs met! It’s a fact. I don’t hate myself for saying that.
It’s true that I miss the feeling that I can say whatever I wanted in whatever way I want. But where’s the constraint or repression? It’s just me being free to make a choice: between a full self-expression that’s ultimately damaging to the life I want—a life of sustainable love—OR finding a way to be with my partner that gives me that life. It’s my free choice.
Hey, I’m also free to take care of my tomato plants in whatever way I want. But I need to be free, also, to take care of them in a way that will give me tomatoes. If I want tomatoes, my path forward is clear.
For tons of guidance on how to grow these tomatoes...I mean, how to create this kind of sustainable love, check out Why Couples Fight.