Ellyn Bader

War Concept Letterpress Leather ThemeAs the Presidential primary races heat up and the November elections approach, I find myself thinking more and more about the role of emotion vs thinking in decision-making.

Our clients – and our politicians – often speak with the limbic brain in charge.  Many essential decisions get made on raw emotion! Sadly, these decisions have repercussions for years and generations to come.

As I watch the presidential debates, I see that the more emotional candidates garner the most attention from the media. And fear and sweeping unrealistic promises dominate so much rhetoric.

In our offices, it is usually the more volatile partner or the more emotionally demanding partner who pulls for and gets the most attention.

I am reminded of some of the lessons from one of my favorite documentaries, The Fog of War.  In it Robert McNamara (at 85 years old) summarized lessons he learned from the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile crisis.

Much of what he said resonated with me. And it is timely for us both as therapists and as responsible voting adults.

So, here are 5 of his lessons:

Get the Data
We humans are too prone to reacting without taking time to get the data. Our limbic systems often interfere with rational thinking. Flooded with intense emotion, we don’t take time to get the facts or determine when clear thinking is distorted by emotion.

How many times have you been in a session with a couple where one partner is unnecessarily hurt or angry about something? If they had spent time getting the facts, the hurt feelings and the sense of personal rejection would not have occurred. And then they would not have attacked their partner.

Empathize with your enemy
Without empathy few power struggles will be resolved successfully. McNamara described the importance of developing a plan that includes putting yourself inside the other person’s skin. At times this can be an enormous stretch.

An Arab-Israeli peace negotiator also said the same thing when he said that the only successful agreements were ever made when the negotiators on each side had empathy for the other side. When asked how he defined empathy he said, “It is when the negotiator realizes what the other can do and can not do to be ethically accountable to their own constituents.” In other words, without empathy, all negotiations will fail.

Be prepared and open to re-examine your reasoning
This is essential to prevent power from being applied unilaterally.  McNamara said any time we can’t persuade our allies who have comparable values to join our decisions, we’d better re-examine our reasoning. Knowing core values can help us stretch to do what is right even when emotionally we feel wronged and might want to attack.

Just think of the many spouses who try to dominate, overpower and push bad decisions onto the other. Many times spouses even comply – and there is always a price to pay later in resentment, depression or affairs. No partner – or country – is going to endure unilateral domination without rising up at some point.

Belief and seeing are often both wrong
McNamara said much later in time he realized that the Vietnamese thought the Americans were like the French and that we would colonize them. “They saw it as a civil war. We saw it as the ‘Cold War.’

Couples develop configurational reflexes. Once they configure reality with a belief about the other, it is difficult to allow in data that changes that belief. Seeing then happens through a very rigid lens.

There is something beyond oneself
McNamara also believed strongly in seeing something beyond oneself. Now, if that doesn’t matter in marriage, I don’t know what does!

What are your thoughts? Do you see other connections and similarities between war and marriage?

Can you use what you see on the political stage to illustrate relationship problems?  How do you help your clients pull back from acting on raw emotion?

I always look forward to reading your comments.

Over the last year I have been supporting a documentary film called “The Boys who said No.” I recently received my first peek at some of the footage. The film is being made by some of the people I worked very closely with in the early 1970’s when I first came to  California to work with Joan Baez and the Institute for Nonviolence.

The film is about courage and about those who believed in something much beyond themselves. It’s shows how a small group of committed people stood up and made a difference.  Click here to see it and feel free to comment below.  



Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy.

Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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  1. This brief clip takes me back to those times and how difficult those times were was for so many people. I am looking forward to the documentary. Before Viet Nam, I felt that most patriotic views were similar, but this era caused a great divide. I remember people whom I may have respected before, but changed my view of even their morality to support such an unjust war. I love picturing Ellyn as a young woman heading for California to join the ranks of Joan Baez. I was still in nursing school in Philadelphia. We couldn’t head for CA, but we bleached peace signs into the denim of our jeans and put flowers in our hair and held all night discussions about what was happening. There were so many factors: the recent murder of ML King, Kent State, questioning and even distrust of our political system, condoning moves to Canada, the publicity about the unfair treatment of the farm workers and then the Ellsberg’s leak– so much fuel for wanting to be an activist, yet also the helplessness of being in a position to only complain.

    Those events did change my thinking in many ways and I realize now that the naivety of my earlier view was a delusion. Fast forward to now and the current political chaos brings on just as much disillusionment. Watching our candidates go at each other like characters in a reality show and now even Bernie and Hilary are going at it. What a zoo! Is there going to be a return to rationality and if so, what is the plan?
    All your discussions remind me of a book by the social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, titled The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. This is a wonderful book that gives some explanation for the divide and attempts to direct us toward a solution. He’s uses the human differences that sway our intellect and emotions to confirm our positions on the left-center-right political continuum. A point that still stands out in my mind is his metaphor of a rider on an elephant. The rider is our intellect, the elephant is our emotions. So picture the mind trying to direct that elephant when the elephant (emotions) feels it is right. I will have to remember to use that in a couples session when I am trying to describe how our limbic system takes over. I think that most of us would like to think that our rational thinking brain is in charge, but the research proves that our thinking actually colludes with irrational, emotional beliefs to try and prove the irrational belief right. Here is a quote from his book that is a good example about what he is trying to convey : “Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.” Jonathan Haidt also appears on a TED talk from March 2008. He is a dynamic speaker and makes a clear point about how we really do need to work together if there is going to be a better future for all of us.

  2. Ellyn, I couldn’t agree more. Here in Australia we seem to have ugly adversarial arguing in politics just for the sake of it! There is no respect. empathy , collaboration for the good of the people. Nor is there an holistic view or understanding. The opposing forces push their story for short term and often personal gain.
    There is no presence just distancing and criticism. So much money is spent on this, if only the funds could be spent on training people in consciousness and awareness and right human relationship. I think we all need to be open to personal work so we can work towards right human relationship with ourselves, partners, families, communities. This includes politicians. It is through self knowledge and the bio psycho social synthesis that we can begin to integrate body, mind and emotion. Through personal work we can learn to manage, soothe and calm the limbic system and ultimately take responsibility for who we are in the world. I have been working on myself for 30 plus years. I truly believe that this has helped me grow and evolve my consciousness. I believe that if I haven’t done the work on me that I cannot take my clients effectively through their pain, whether they be individuals, couples or groups. I have been trained in many approaches and my knowledge and wisdom keeps deepening by integrating it within the Psychosynthesis model. This approach is an inclusive, honouring way to work and offers a pathway to the Self and ways of directing our life through the proper use of the will. It focuses on using mindfulness based techniques which are life giving and life changing. The approach requires you to be in the centre of your life and the centre of your psychological functions. When you are in your centre you have your emotions, thoughts, body, sensations, desires, intuition and will at your fingertips. If you imagine you are a wagon wheel and you are resting in the hub, your view of yourself and the world will be very different from your view if you are on the edge or rim. There is so much amazing wisdom in the world but many politicians and others are unaware of its existence. There are many wise people in the world who could contribute to a new political order and new family, couple and individual order but it seems the majority continues to operate without awareness. All of us who are interested and growing must keep on evolving the work as it will gradually touch others and will keep unfolding.

  3. I must support Annie’s comment. I do not believe in either/or conceptualizations of emotion vs thinking, where rational thought is in some way a pure or disembodied process that governs the unruly, emotional, and derivative chaos in the limbic system. The evidence amassed via cognitivism recycles the same old unexamined assumptions that we use reason to down-regulate our limbic system as a way to make good decisions. Over the last couple of decades, more and more evidence from affective neuroscience points to how reason is an embodied phenomenon, highly supported and informed by affect. We make good decisions through the integration of top-down processes with bottom-up information which together yields a meaningful approach to our environment. Check out McGuilchrist’s “Master and It’s Emissary” to see how affect provides the felt meaning of things which informs reason to make further appraisals and judgments. We’ve gotten it backwards for the most part.

  4. Thank you for that, Annie . . . “Perhaps the client that displays high emotion is the one who is not detached, the one who is damaged by an avoidant or deceitful, manipulative spouse. In fact they may be the healthy one in a relationship, not just the one who wants attention.”

    Anyone remember the animated (Pixor) movie, “Inside Out”? I found it to be
    an extremely sweet and brilliant creative display of how emotions are activated or called upon and then conveyed by the brain’s amazing complex collaboration within. I’d love to see this type of fun and engaging whimsical film as a mandatory teaching tool in all classrooms worldwide and in the business sector as well. I believe it could be a wonderful gateway to the vital need for a basic understanding of our emotions as well as healthier, more peaceful relationships.

  5. I like how empathy described here is about thinking rather than feeling.

    “When asked how he defined empathy he said, “It is when the negotiator realizes what the other can do and can not do to be ethically accountable to their own constituents.””

    It seems to be a good place to start to learn empathy. What the other can or can not do to be true to themselves.

  6. What a crucial vision ! What can we do to influence the people holding power to think more and to invite more thinking from the people ? After all, we also sometimes react to politicians ideas with our emotions and start thinking only later. That’s when we do start thinking…
    Yes, my question is : beyond couples and family therapy, how can we invite te big guys and women to give more energy to clear thinking ?

    • Thank you very much for sharing. I hope, I didn’t make a mistake by sharing it on fb. I like Salomon Nasielskis question: how do involve politicians in an empathic way of decision-making and behaving: is it by example as back then; by masses protesting, like now in Paris; by publicly commenting on every unempathic move, to get the people to understand, what is wrong (it worked in our last vote on contempting foreigners in Switzerland, i.e. it unexpectedly got turned down)….help does who we can help, as much as we can….

  7. I agree also with Annie. I was with a couple today whom I took to a Buddhist guided meditation, where the teacher was asking us to recognize that seeing a reflection of the moon is not seeing the moon, so the person we are looking at is our projection of that person, NOT the person.So this is beyond empathy, to realize that we may not even be seeing the person who is truly there, but a creature of what our defensive ego has created. Then she spoke of the ruffles on the water, which seem to move the moon around, which are our mental instabilities of thoughts and emotions, which keep us from seeing clearly.
    After the meditation, the couple brought up a core issue. He suffered from extreme poverty as a child, so he cannot stand spending money they don’t have. She was brought up US middle class, so she surprised him by taking out $80,000 in debt over the next two years to accomplish a masters program in counseling, and last night, for their 6th yr anniversary of being together, she surprised him with a $1500 trip to Hawaii, + the info that she’d paid off the $7,000 debt on one high-interest credit card. Perhaps needless to say, the anniversary was a complete bust, as he couldn’t appreciate the $7k payoff because he went bull-red over her decision to buy the Hawaii vacation – that she wanted to bring them closer together on the beach relaxing – without discussing it with him beforehand, after she’d agreed never again to spend more than $500 without a mutual agreement.
    So what was happening was simply a succession of mutual blamings, as we walked slowly around the meditation trail, and his loud voice disturbed the other quiet Buddhist wanderers. I mediated. I calmed. I called things out as blaming. I suggested blaming does no good. Finally, I decided to assert that you two simply have different value systems based on your childhood learnings – you, Sir, only want to spend within cash limits, you Ma’am, believe in debt-investing in having fun and going to school. What would happen if you both accepted these fundamental differences and stopped trying to change the other person. (ie. accept the differentiation). She got it, and asked where she would go from there, since she’d threatened to break up twice in the conversation if he couldn’t learn to be less angry and judgmental towards her, so much she never feels heard and loved.
    He too said she never listens.
    I guess I’m just agreeing via my experience that with Annie, it’s a matter of both truly calming emotions so the other doesn’t feel beaten down and truly listening to ideas/thoughts of the other so the other feels they matter. Both emotions and thoughts in love and war.

  8. Yes, developing the concept that there is something beyond the self is imperative in making lasting shifts with couples. I have been playing with how to develop this thinking and word it for some time now. I tell couples coming into my sessions that my client is their relationship and they are tools to co-create my client . We discuss that the word “marriage” indicates an ideal of “US-ness” that only manifests when consciously tended. But there is so much more. Unless we develop a value system that recognizes our inter-being – we are drop of water in an ocean, a cell in a body – we continue to ping-pong in the ego’s never ending hunger for validation – often at the expense of our partner.

  9. Thinking clearly while feeling fully is hard to do. It’s especially hard to do when the stakes are high and we’re under time pressures. I recently listened to a stimulating interview with Julia Galef on the topic of what we can do to be more rational. She speaks some about the concerns that Anne Ream raises in her post. I recommend the podcast. From their website:

    “On this episode of The Knowledge Project, I talk rationality, changing minds (our own and others), filtering information, and a lot more with Julia Galef.”

    “Galef is the President and co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality, a non-profit organization based in Berkeley, California, devoted to developing, testing and training people in strategies for reasoning and decision making.”

    Google the key names and phrases and you’ll find it if you’re interested.

  10. Living with the presidential debates in a foreign country (Switzerland) makes me sad that the trenches seems to be so deep between those with compassion and those who see compassion as a sign of stupidity or weakness. In essence it seems to be a battle between those who feel entitled to every penny they own – either by inheritance or personal hard work – and those who feel that every penny they own is part of a system known as humanity. Mutual understanding is tough when each side is convinced that the other side is sub-human. Mea culpa.

  11. Ellyn, you raise an interesting point about the use of reason / emotions in conflict resolution. Having spent considerable time working with domestic relations attorneys who are helping their highly emotional clients navigate their way through divorce, I am a big believer that during negotiations, one must very careful about not allowing their emotions to impede good judgment (reason). In the divorce arena, emotions can lead to very expensive divorces.

    I believe the same concept can apply to all disputes, whether they are small interpersonal ones of the kind we all experience in our daily lives or ones like war where the stakes are higher. Ideally, conflict resolution should be a win-win situation. Each party gets some of what they want and gives up some of what they want.

    If we look at how emotions are playing themselves out in the 2016 election, we need only look at Donald Trump as the prototype of a person whose emotions dominate. Simply, he wants power (for himself mostly) and when he doesn’t get it he gets angry and desperate. He is pretty much void of empathy and he is unable to tolerate the idea that others don’t agree with him. We all shudder at the thought of him as Commander in Chief negotiating with foreign leaders about serious geopolitical issues. He is a perfect example of of someone who is fueled by their emotions and unable to use reason effectively.

    It is not that we don’t have feelings during serious negotiations. Of course we do. It is about how effective we are at compartmentalizing them when needed, and being open to our “opponent.”

  12. This is a very well organized and presented discussion of an analogy with deep roots. I remember Westmorland’s body counts and McNamara’s championing of his position both of which led to the more death and destruction than can be counted and ripple effects that continue to shape the dynamics of our political and social discourse. What I miss in the carefully thought out reflection when the fog of war has blown away, is a deeper understanding of the unconscious dynamics that shaped it, and continue to–the projection of dark material on to the other and patterns arising from trauma that require a deeper set of considerations than those of a repentant politician. I also think this is the limitation in a strictly CBT approach to any deep issue, including those that arise in marriage.

  13. I love this post, Ellyn! Thank you! I can see many of my hostile-dependent couples having a lot of trouble doing these things. And as I have watched the political debates I have been struck by the lack of emotional intelligence and control of many of the candidates.
    One thing that has resonated with me about empathy recently is how it is cultivated through curiosity about another’s experience, instead of just hearing another’s values or beliefs. My favorite writer, Mark Nepo talks about this. When people are just describing their values or belief system, it really doesn’t tell us much at all about them or their decisions to believe what they do or the values they choose to adopt. Often people argue over differing values or core beliefs, without any deep understanding at all of the inner life and the experiences of another, that inspire these beliefs. It is only when people begin talking about their experiences or stories that the listener then can understand them on a deeper level. If politicians and our couples can listen deeply to each other’s experience, I do believe that would make a difference!

  14. Hello Ellyn: In a world of unilateral decision making I very much like
    the concept of empathetic thinking. Many times we make decisions
    without considering the other individuals feelings or even asking for
    their opinion.

    Thank you.

  15. Hmmm, why is it emotion vs. thinking? It is when reason and emotion work together that we make our best decisions, it is not an either/or. Either/or creates unbalance and leads to poor decision making. Trust me, when you are watching an emotional politician there has been reasoning behind their display of emotion. They are very aware of how to manipulate the masses. Perhaps the client that displays high emotion is the one who is not detached, the one who is damaged by an avoidant or deceitful, manipulative spouse. In fact they may be the healthy one in a relationship, not just the one who wants attention. This statement infuriates me when one thinks of those living with sociopathic or narcissistic spouses. “Descartes Error” is a very good read.

    • Empathy is an example of reason and emotion working together—thinking, to imagine being in another’s shoes, and emotion to know what that might feel like.

      This article doesn’t say that thinking should always trump (really shouldn’t use that word anymore) emotion. This article points out how operating purely from the limbic brain, without integrating emotions into thoughtful responding, does more harm than good—from the kitchen table to the oval office.

      • Thanks Meg-You are right.
        I certainly never meant to apply that logic should always trump emotion.
        As therapists we know that when clients successfully integrate emotion and feeling, they usually make the best decisions.

  16. Your connections are terrific! What a great post!

    Along the same lines, I am often struggling with how our political system encourages debate-style conflict over movement toward shared understanding, and how much our bipartisan system could benefit from some “couples’ therapy” of its own! When this style of communication and thought is modeled by our most powerful leaders, how hopeful can we be on the societal and family levels?

    Thanks for writing this!

  17. Hi Ellen, I agree wholeheartedly with all of this. My concern is that a lot of people who do not want (for various reasons) to understand emotions will use it to validate their perception that intellect is more important than emotion. My experience and education have led me to understand that both emotion and intellect are important. I agree with Marsha Linehan who points out that when we can combine the intellectual brain with the emotional brain we can come to “wise mind”. Perhaps it would be a good idea, when talking about empathy to include the point that we cannot be empathic unless we know and understand our own emotions. It is only through personal emotional awareness that we can genuinely, deeply empathize with others. And when we have that depth of personal knowledge we are able to manage our emotions better and combine them with the intellect to present our perceptions using wise mind.

    • I understand completely and also agree that empathy requires a degree of emotional intelligence that pure reasoning does not always afford. Intuition counts for something as well. People often have deep feelings that signal something is wrong even if they don’t have the language (or the assertiveness) to express it in a way that resounds in the heart of their mate. The problem for me arose when triangulation was present. Empathy becomes impossible is your spouse always has their family as ‘counsellors’ and ‘confidantes’ and sees no problem with this. It feels impossible to gain traction to recommence dialogue with my spouse because he continues (and apparently has done so all through our marriage) to view our issues through the lens of his family’s expectations and his own ambitions. This is so very hard because any attempt to engage in a rational debate (which I am very capable of) is shut down and seen as an ‘attack’ and I am stonewalled. I am hoping now that I’ve embarked on my own studies in mental health and that my own recovery from depression and anxiety have brought me to a happier and more stable emotional place, that I might gain insights that will give me the courage and the patience to wade through these triangles and extricate not only myself from being bound by them, but also my husband from using them as his crutch, for the sake of my family. Thank you for these thought-provoking posts, Ellyn. I am very grateful for anything I can grasp for learning.

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