Newspaper article International New York Times

Of Dating and Diplomacy

Newspaper article International New York Times

Of Dating and Diplomacy

Article excerpt

In ways big or small, it's naive to think that leaving a relationship or signing a peace treaty will result in a fresh start.

Not long ago, while I was boarding a plane to Europe, a close friend called to tell me she had just walked out on her life partner of more than 25 years. My heart dropped. I was headed to a secluded location to conduct a negotiation training for Israeli and Palestinian diplomats, and I didn't have much time to talk.

My friend is the sort of person who always puts others before herself. Even when her partner would criticize and berate her, she would ritually forgive him. It was a painful cycle of abuse and victimization. Despite being highly intelligent, she seemed blind to the dynamic that was emotionally entrapping her.

Now, after decades of living like this, she had abruptly broken the pattern and walked out. I suppose I should have felt relief, but I was concerned. My work in conflict resolution has taught me that disputes are not so easily reconciled, and relationships are not so easily settled.

In the weeks that followed, my friend experienced profound grief and anxiety. She became consumed with whether to return to her partner, despite understanding the severity of the abuse she had suffered. Day and night she mulled over what to do, talked about it incessantly with loved ones and friends -- myself included, even while I was in the midst of my workshop abroad.

Friends and family begged her not to go back. Though it was tempting to join this chorus, I refrained from offering advice, and focused instead on helping her recognize the nature of the emotional forces that seemed to be pulling her back.

My friend kept returning to the belief that it was time for her to go home -- a dynamic that Freud called the repetition compulsion.

This is our drive to cling to an identity with which we are familiar, even if it is dysfunctional and personally damaging.

In ways big and small, we all experience this cycle in our own lives, repeating time and again the same damaging patterns of interaction with friends, loved ones and colleagues.

Ethnopolitical groups fall victim to this dynamic, too, as they pray for reconciliation but find they cannot stop fighting.

The repetition compulsion is strikingly resistant to change. To try to escape it, we may read self-help books or enlist in a communications course, but these actions often have little long- term impact, for the compulsion lures us back to our place of comfort, to the dysfunctional relations we know so well.

The challenge of how to build a better life confronted my friend, as it did for the Israelis and Palestinians who attended my negotiation workshop. They, too, were haunted by well-earned fear and mistrust, borne of seemingly endless cycles of retributive cruelty. They were as disoriented by the prospects of peace as they were hopeful. …

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