Moral Foundations and Relationship Therapy
THIS IS A GUEST POST BY PATRICK O’MALLEY, PH.D., A PSYCHOTHERAPIST IN FORT WORTH, TEXAS
My lifelong curiosity about human interactions led me to a career as a psychotherapist and consultant. In addition to learning the psychology of individuals, couples and families, I have also maintained the interest in social and moral psychology that I developed as an undergraduate student. Combine that with a longstanding fascination with the psychology of politics and religion and I bought Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind” the minute I finished reading the review.
Haidt’s book delivered what it promised – a thorough and well researched answer to the question of “why good people are divided by politics and religion”. My desire for a new and deeper way of thinking about moral and social psychology in the area of politics and religion was satisfied. What I did not expect to obtain from this book was strategic applications in my clinical practice. If moral foundations theory can explain the behavior in large systems like politics, might it be useful as an explanation of fractures in a smaller but equally powerful systems like a couple? I have experimented with three applications of Moral Foundations Theory, which I describe below.
Application 1: Changing the focus of fighting couples from what they might be fighting about to what they may be fighting for
Beth and Mike were in my office going at it. I am a seasoned (sounds better than senior) therapist so I was in practice in the days when we believed cathartic release was a good thing for couples (any of you old enough to remember couples using bataka bats on each other as a therapeutic strategy?) Now that we know more about how the primitive part of the brain works, feeding anger is not useful as a solution for anger. So, as an up to date marital therapist, I attempted to slow down the interaction of this couple, identify some communication missteps, and teach some self-regulatory skills to manage the primitive fight responses.
As this couple calmed, I flashed back to my recent reading of moral foundations theory. I asked each spouse if it was possible that the energy in this fight might come from a drive to protect something very important and perhaps even very sacred to each of them. I asked them to consider what they were fighting for rather than fighting about. It took some work but each was able identify the important belief that triggered such a primitive fast brain response.
Over the course of our work together Mike had accepted he had a problem with alcohol. Mike eventually agreed with Beth that any amount of alcohol and driving was a great risk to their family’s wellbeing. Mike agreed with Beth’s sacred protection of the moral foundation of Care vs. Harm. The fight in this session was triggered because Mike came home in the afternoon smelling like alcohol after spending the night at their lake house. Mike’s defense was shaky. He admitted he had an uncounted number of beers the night before but he vehemently claimed he did not drive while intoxicated. He stated he had worked on the dock all day in the heat and had not showered. He smelled like he had been drinking because he was sweating out the alcohol. To my surprise, Beth believed his explanation. But also to my surprise, that did not matter. “No responsible adult would not know how much alcohol he had to drink in any circumstance,” said Beth. And, she questioned, “Did he not see the risk in walking around the lake and lake house drunk?” “A man ought to be able to have whatever he wants to drink as long as there is no obvious harm,” replied Mike. “I did not drive or operate any machinery after I drank. I agree driving and drinking is wrong. I cannot live in a relationship in which I do not have some freedom.” Mike had now voiced his moral foundation of Liberty/Oppression that overrode the agreed upon foundation of this topic of Care/Harm because he believed no harm occurred.
The pattern of couples polarizing over the competing needs of safety and freedom is common. The shift in my approach was to identify these beliefs as deep and sacred rather than just “differences of opinion”. This strategy deepened this couple’s level of acceptance of the other by identifying the sacredness of the territory being protected. In the session I actually used the language of moral foundations theory and described the information of Care/Harm and Liberty/Oppression as two of six possible ways people differ that can create conflict. Both agreed the other’s sacred territory had value. They were able to acknowledge they each put extra energy into their position because they believed they were the only one able to see value in their particular moral foundation. At this level of each “getting” the other we could transition to some useful work on the early formation of their positions as it related to their family of origin history. Beth talked in more depth about the terror of living with an alcoholic mother and Mike’s disclosed his historical struggle to gain his freedom from an oppressive controlling father.
Application 2: Helping couples who actually fight about politics and religion deepen their understanding of the cause of the fight
Beth and Mike were aligned in their politics. Their conflict was about a different emphasis on two moral foundations as it impacted their interpersonal dynamics. Ruth and Bill, on the other hand, were like watching a rambunctious cable television show. Ruth contended she thought they were more alike than different politically until recently. She stated that ever since Bill began listening to certain radio programs and watching certain television shows he has acted “crazy” like the people he listens to. Bill could not imagine why any sane person, particularly his wife, is not as outraged as he is about the direction of the country.
I have seen so many similar couples in the last 5-6 years that this dynamic is beginning to look like a syndrome. Typically one spouse is an avid radio listener or television watcher of conservative commentary. The conflict is obvious if the other spouse leans a different way politically. Some couples like Ruth and Bill do not differ much politically. The problem is the intensity of the presentation of the partner who is outraged.
Prior to coming to therapy, the closest Ruth and Bill had come to fixing this frustration was Bill getting a headset so Ruth did not have to listen to what he listened to each afternoon. That solution was limited because Bill continued to yell in agreement with his afternoon show hosts creating what Ruth experienced as an unsafe environment.
Again, I encouraged this couple to dig vertically to discover the roots of the conflict using Moral Foundations Theory. Interestingly, in this conflict one moral foundation seemed to be at play in two different ways. Bill was a retired physician who had been beat up financially by managed care. His original motivation of caring for patients became overshadowed by his rage at insurance companies and forced pro bono work. He primarily tuned in to political commentary that would fire up his rage about lack of fairness as proportionality. Ruth was mad about his lack of fairness in the area of equality. She did not believe it was fair that she had to hide in her own home to escape his tirades at the radio and television. She also experienced him as not attuned to her need for a psychologically safe environment (Care/Harm). When this conflict was defined as the two different aspects of the moral foundation of Fairness and Bill’s lack of sensitivity to Care, Bill and Ruth could make a connection. She could understand that the anger he displayed was related to how hurt he was that his dream of practicing medicine was impacted by the changes in his profession. He could understand that she was not just against him, but that his aggressive presentation was unfair because it made their home less safe. Bill agreed to turn down his volume and Ruth agreed to have political discussions with him if the discussions were calm and thoughtful.
Application 3: Helping single patients assess potential partners.
Jeff was single with full custody of his three young children. Our early work in therapy focused on the expected adjustment to his new life as a single parent as well as his deep sadness about the end of his marriage. After a few years, Jeff decided he was ready to date. The children were more independent and Jeff was lonely. Jeff wanted a long-term partner.
As Jeff described his dating experience to me, I noticed an emerging pattern. If Jeff was asked to describe how his political beliefs, he would quickly respond that he was a true blue conservative. Jeff was clear with his friends who wanted to set him up that he wanted a partner who was compatible with his politics. However, Jeff would often let his elephantine sexual drive override his discerning rider only to later discover the woman he had been intimate with had liberal leanings. He came to understand how his strong drive sexually impaired his judgment. Once this fact was clear, he would more quickly dismiss relationship candidates who were “bleeding hearts” before the relationship escalated to sexual intimacy. The surprise for Jeff was even after he slowed down and made sure the women he dated shared his party affiliation, he still experienced a breakdown in their shared beliefs that he could not adequately understand.
I suggested to Jeff that he read a couple of short articles by Haidt to help him develop a deeper understanding of his political preferences and how he assessed the preferences of the women he dated. Jeff determined he was actually a political hybrid rather than his previous summary of himself as “conservative”. His moral foundations matrix was high on Care, high on Liberty, very high on Fairness, moderate on Loyalty, moderate on Authority, and low on Sanctity. One strong belief in his Fairness foundation included the idea that partners in a relationship should share the financial responsibility (distributive fairness). Several significant dating relationships ended when Jeff saw in the woman an expectation that the male should be the financial provider in a relationship.
Jeff concluded that he should not assume all Republican women he dated were a fit. His ideal partner would care for children and the disadvantaged who absolutely could not help themselves. She should value liberty and not desire a hierarchical relationship with him. She should be personally self-sufficient and with a strong belief that almost everyone else in the country should be self-sufficient as well. She should have some important group alliances and a moderate, not legalistic appreciation for authority. Finally, she should not be engaged in causes related to sanctity such as abortion or sexual abstinence outside of marriage.
I have other groups of related individuals with whom I am using moral foundations theory. I currently have several consulting cases with family businesses that are benefiting from understanding their conflict based on the theory. If you are a clinician or consultant and found Jonathan Haidt’s work on moral foundations intriguing, keep a look out for applications with your patients and clients. You will be pleased how useful Moral Foundations theory is in your practice.
Patrick O’Malley, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist and consultant in Fort Worth, Texas. He is the past chair of the American Association For Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) Ethics Committee and the past chair of the AAMFT Judicial Committee. He also served on the Ethics Code Revision Task force for the AAMFT 2001 Code of Ethics. He has written several articles on ethical practice in marriage and family therapy. Patrick can be reached at pomalley AT swbell.net.