Staying Together For The Voters


People really love a divorce. Folks like to get in there, take sides, hang on tight and not let go. A marriage is usually a quickie when it comes to journalism — a photo spread and an invite list — but the divorce press goes on and on. Jennifer Aniston will reprise her role as the tragic divorcee ad nauseum and Katie Holmes will forever be known as an escaped prisoner of war.

And it doesn’t matter if it was a marriage of convenience either. We don’t seem to care a whit about the quality of the marriage; when things fall apart we still want to get down the front and cheer on our team, seemingly oblivious to what we’re bringing in of our own games.

Take the analysis of the Greens/Labor split. Imagine you’re at the doctor’s office and it’s written up in Who magazine. The only changes needed to fit that format would be a couple of photos of Christine Milne looking forlorn, an inset of Bob Brown and some snaps of Julia looking self righteous. And all this next to a list of who did what to whom; the promises made and honoured and the ones apparently broken; the asset split; and the fear for the country of their children if they can no longer bring themselves to work together.

I’ve had umpteen conversations about the split over the last couple of weeks, and somehow they all drift into the territory of break up language. Milne is being precious. She knew what she was getting into when she signed on the dotted line. She got everything Julia promised her, so how can she leave now? Sour grapes. She’s letting a good thing go. The Greens will go back to powerless protesting when they could have had real clout behind them.

On the other side of this potent linking of political conflict with personal tragedy, are the conversations about how the Greens need to go back to what they stand for. How this marriage has compromised them, watered them down, stolen their fire. How Julia was never a good partner or a true friend. What were they thinking? We’re glad it’s over. Now the Greens can go back to being true to themselves. They’re better off alone.

As for the divorce metaphor itself, it’s been done to death. All we’ve got left is a cliché. What started out as an analogy designed to give us an image of what’s happening has become a kind of thinking straightjacket.

Metaphor is a kind of projection. And a great projection can help us see simultaneously what’s inside ourselves and what’s also in the thing we’re looking at. The problem with metaphor is that because it’s a projection, if we’re not really willing to look at ourselves, then the picture we’re trying to describe gets smaller and smaller as we continue to run away from what we see.

Listen to your friends who feel stuck in unhappy relationships or jobs they hate. I guarantee you the tired old metaphors will be flying. I had a client years ago who used to refer to his wife as "the handbrake". This was not a man who was on the point of leaving or trying to work towards something better with his partner. Just the opposite. It took him a long time to take responsibility for his own life, and the metaphors were a signpost not so much of his discontent but of his desire to resign himself to unhappiness.

By referring to his wife as something that stopped him from getting anywhere, he was unknowingly saying that he blamed her for his lack of freedom. He felt frustrated with his life and not responsible for it at the same time.

As things got better for him, he started to describe his world in more detail, and the metaphors became less hackneyed and more personal. But in the process he kept going back to the image of the handbrake because it was that metaphor that held the heart of his struggle to drive his own life and still be connected to another.

That’s what makes this divorce talk so catchy. We want to understand this bitter separation so we use the closest personal experience we have: divorce. It’s ubiquitous contemporary shorthand for a conflict that ends with division rather than some kind of functional reconciliation. And it gets our attention because it’s one of the great struggles of our lives. How can I stay close to someone I disagree bitterly with when the consequences of ending the relationship will hurt us both?

It’s understandable that we use metaphor here. I’m not asking us to stick to the facts, whatever those are. But here the divorce analogy has lost its way. It’s become a kind of lazy phrase we throw around that tells us a lot more about ourselves than it does about the end of a political alliance. We could be focusing on policy, but instead we’re stuck in rhetoric. We’ve forgotten that this is in fact a metaphor. We’ve mistaken the analogy for the real thing.

So we may as well be reading about Tom and Katie. Whatever part of the political playing field we’re on, I think there is still a kind of hidden innate human sadness when we’re shown the reality of the impossibility of playing together. When issues that are fundamental to our survival are being addressed in a system where working together is either structurally impossible or mere strategy.

We can’t stop the divorce chatter because it’s become a way for us to avoid our own responsibility for a political system that is continually disappointing us. If we could pick the metaphor apart to look at what we’re really saying, we would have to face that for many of us, we feel like the children of badly behaved divorcing parents; simultaneously disgusted and bitterly disappointed that our needs seem to come last.

ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day

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