Updated: Mar 31, 2022
There’s something about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine that provides a powerful lesson about how things go wrong in our relationships, yours and mine, and we’d better pay attention.
Right now most of us are outraged and heartbroken by the suffering of the people of Ukraine, as a result of the completely unjust and unnecessary invasion of their land by Russia’s Putin. And most of us are doing what we can do to help.
But with your permission, I’d like to look at this situation from a completely different angle.
Marriage. What does war have to do with marriage? you might ask. Everything! the comedians out there might say. But right now I’m deadly serious. And I’m focusing in on the issue of how things in relationships go from simple disagreements to power struggles to divorce.
Let’s start with how this works in war. In his classic book The Causes of War, Geoffrey Blainey looks at every war ever fought, every kind of war, and zeros in on one factor that shows up every single time. Country A starts a war against country B because country A overestimates its own power and underestimates country B’s power. Other factors show up frequently; this factor shows up all the time.
Just look at World War Two. Both Germany and Japan overestimated their own power. Once the United States came into the war, it was all over.
That seems to be how things are playing out in Ukraine (though with events with so many complicated dynamics at work you never know for sure what’s going to happen). Putin thought Russian forces would roll through Ukraine and that the West would be its usual passive, dithering self. But no. There was massive resistance in Ukraine. But that should have been predictable: people always fight like hell for their homelands. And massive, coordinated resistance from the West and much of the rest of the world. Surprising, but not impossibly so: people hate Putin.
As for marriage, the only way to say this is to be blunt. A relationship is like a Russia/Ukraine situation in that both people respond to their feeling of being hurt and deprived by acting like Putin. Don’t be insulted! I’m talking about myself too. And I’m not saying you and I are like Putin. God forbid!! I’m just saying that the situation we find ourselves in makes us feel we have to act like Putin. We feel frustrated. Disempowered. We can’t get our needs met. In some ways we feel threatened. Whether you think Putin’s a monster or not, he did feel that way too.
And so feeling disempowered, we attack. We get mad and act mad. We insult and threaten. We even act to take away our partner’s power. “You’re completely irresponsible. I don’t know how much longer I can take it. From now on, I’ll tell you this: I’m gonna just do what I want.”
And so, BOOM!, my Russia invades your Ukraine. Hoping for a knock-out blow. Does it succeed? Rarely!! On the contrary. It just provokes power moves on the other side. If you call me irresponsible, I’ll call you something worse. If you threaten divorce, I’ll threaten taking the kids away from you. If you threaten to do whatever you want, I’ll...well, I don’t know what I’ll do yet, but you won’t like it, not one bit!!
And of course you’ll have your response to that.
And guess what happens when both sides overestimate their own power and underestimate their partner’s power in a marriage? World War One. Trench warfare. The grinding, endless war of attrition, with countless casualties on both sides and nothing to show for it but pain and loss. And both sides believing the whole time that they’re one knock-out blow away from winning.
There’s another aspect of the war in Ukraine that applies to your relationship. Conflict is inherently unstable. Now it’s hugely unstable in the Russian/Ukrainian conflict. Nuclear weapons. A fanatical Putin. The enigma of China. Oil. Countless other factors. When you have a dynamic system with so many factors, things can suddenly tip over in bad ways no one suspected.
And it’s the same with conflict-haunted relationships. When everyone’s angry with everyone else, who knows when one person is going to push the other way too far, and who knows what that person is going to do. People can go from angry to crazy very fast. And so things can go from bad to catastrophic very fast too.
So look. The good news is you guys aren’t like Russia and Ukraine, with an unbreakable geographical tie. If you just don’t like each other, then fucking break up already. If you think the other person is just no good, or just no good for you, then hit the eject button. You’ll be better off.
But stop fighting a war no one can ever, ever win. In spite of each of you overestimating your power, neither of you will ever have enough power to “win” the marriage. Whatever that means.
And if you’re not going to get a divorce, then have a healthy relationship. There IS an alternative to go-nowhere, relationship-destroying power struggles. And it’s all there in our new book Why Couples Fight. A clear outline for how the two of you, two good people, can have peace in your time, and love too, and all the happiness you deserve.
And for what you can do to help the people of Ukraine now, here's a place that'll hook you up with a lot of organizations that'll put your money to very good use.