I am a psychiatrist and I would like to say something about politics.
I have no membership of any political party; I view our country’s politics – as most of us do – through our media.
And what I see has me pretty worried about our future.
National politics in recent years has been dramatic enough to have rivalled the most binge-worthy streaming TV drama. It’s had enough plot twists, irony and outrage to keep viewers engrossed.
Yet sadly, so many of the great social problems of our time remain unaddressed.
It’s easy to blame the politicians for this, but I’m not sure it’s fair. They have to make ‘the art of the possible’ under constant scrutiny, and amid constant conflict.
Witnessing modern two-party politics, I can’t help but think of two parents fighting bitterly while their kids are forgotten in the heat of battle.
As I’ve written about before, I regularly provide joint therapy for parents wanting to improve their relationship. It’s my guiding belief that no conflict between two parents is beyond help, provided they see they have more to gain from making peace than war.
The fact of their parenthood can make all the difference. We now know that kids’ mental health depends so much on the way their parents – together or separated – treat one another.
On hearing that, both parents can usually see greater benefit in seeking some resolution for their conflict than in letting it go on disrupting their children’s development.
So I find myself wondering – what if Parliament went to therapy?
Imagine the two ‘parents’ who take turns running this country, side by side on the couple therapy couch. Would they ever be ready to talk and act together for the best interests of their ‘children’ – the people who elected them?
If that seems far-fetched, consider that our politicians have a role with clear similarities to parenthood: to make decisions in the best interests – short and longer term – of people they lead.
But unlike parenthood, our political system expects us to choose one ‘parent’ to be in charge, while the other challenges them at every possible opportunity.
That’s their job. We don’t call the boss of the non-governing party the Cooperation Leader!
And yet asking kids of parents in conflict to take sides is widely acknowledged as unhealthy and unfair.
Perhaps it’s an unfair comparison – but aren’t parliaments as much as parents meant to help humans thrive?
I see that families thrive when they seek healthy conflict, in which relationships are built up to withstand disagreement and motivate resolution of disputes.
Robust opposition is encouraged – but you oppose ideas, not each other. And eventually, if anyone is going to get to bed, you must choose to focus on where your ideas meet, rather than obsess over where they don’t. Families need Cooperation Leaders.
Healthy conflict is self-limiting, and so is my work with parents. I tell them: “I’m here to do myself out of a job, by helping you heal your differences enough to help your kids thrive – then you won’t need me anymore.”
That’s fine by me – I’m a psychiatrist. Pretty much every day somebody half-jokes that I’ll never be short of work.
Politicians have it much tougher. Longer hours, greater distances, with a higher toll of work on personal lives than even doctors are known to suffer. Plus, the job security is terrible.
To keep their jobs in our two-party system politicians have to convince their electors every three years that the other mob is worse.
That’s unhealthy conflict right there, conflict that has become its own reason for existing. For the system as it is to go on, that conflict must be sustained, not resolved, whatever the price on relationships.
Every three years, relationships between politicians and their community are put on the chopping block, depending for their existence on a fight to the death over disputes about pretty much everything. Like those warring parents, it’s all about the ongoing battle.
Meanwhile the children are forgotten, figuratively and literally: so many current unresolved political issues pose a real existential threat to today’s children and the children yet to come.
Kids I talk to agree – The grown-ups in charge now need to resolve their conflicts and work together. Democracy has to get better than this.
How? I’m not sure. But I think parliament (a place to talk) and therapy (a way to heal) are two of our best inventions. They should talk more about how to grow humans.