Belfast Telegraph

Friday 28 November 2014

How nationalist and unionist MLAs bicker just like old married couples

Firm but fair: William Hay
Firm but fair: William Hay

New research shows that arguments are less likely between seasoned spouses who've learned the art of conflict avoidance. You can see a parallel here with Stormont, and indeed all parliaments. Day to day proximity and getting used to each other lessens explosive outbursts, which just become embarrassing and unwanted by both sides.

That's in a mature relationship anyway. In the old days, when marriage was more stable and, often, something to be endured, explosive outbursts – usually from the man, but sometimes also from scolding women – were maybe the norm over several decades.

But there are signs that humans are becoming more peaceable generally as we get further from our caveman roots. Conflict is seen as something to avoid not embrace.

A study by non-belligerent boffins at San Francisco State University found that settled couples were more likely to adopt strategies such as changing the subject or keeping silent.

I was going to say these are not really an option at Stormont but, yes, you could steer the subject away to pleasanter pastures (though the firm but fair Speaker, William Hay, will just as gently guide you back to the matter under advisement) and you could stay silent in the face of someone ranting.

Ranters need a noisy reaction but, faced with silence, will start to hear only the echo of their own voice – and realise how absurd it sounds. Moral: don't rise to the bait of provocative people. Let them choke on it themselves.

It's quite fashionable, having said that, to contend that bottling things up isn't a good idea. But you don't have to bottle it up. You can throw it away.

Of course, I suppose it depends on the issue. I don't want to sound controversial but failing to replace the loo roll is less potentially contentious than having an affair. Even though both are likely to involve being torn off a strip.

I've noted before that controlled bickering seems to be the basis of many happy marriages. Indeed, controlled bickering is as good a definition of parliamentary democracy as you're likely to find.

I have to say, too, that in Northern Ireland's politics one detects a certain femininity on the nationalist and neutral sides, and a masculinity on the unionist side, both in the worst sense of their respective genders.

The nationalists wait like worried wives to see how volatile their unionist husbands are going to be when they get home/turn up at the debating chamber. So old-fashioned. So wrong too.

Femininity need not be weak and fearful. Masculinity has nothing to do with out-of-control rages.

According to San Franciscan boffin Dr Sarah Holley, "demand-withdraw" communication can be especially destructive in marriage. That's where one partner blames or pressurises the other.

If you're on the receiving end, you probably can't avoid the confrontation altogether, so the key is to meet it half-way.

Listen, explain, apologise where necessary. Then move on. Polarisation takes a toll on everyone.

There's a bigoted, sectarian, racist fellow I come across sometimes. And I think I'm slowly changing him. How? I don't react to his rants.

I smile a little and nod. Then I change the subject. And he's the one who goes away thinking he didn't come across quite right.

It's slow and painstaking, this sort of thing. But it's better than throwing punches and shouting the odds.

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