Reflection 3: Why Can’t You Do the Dishes

Central to Radical Decency’s approach to living – its vital pulse – are habits of mind that allow us, in every interaction, to express our needs in constructive ways and, equally, to hear the needs of others. Because we are innately empathic beings, a sustained cultivation of these skills will allow us to more easily and instinctively move toward more decent choices in all areas of living.

The formulation sounds simple. But as I have discovered in my work as a psychotherapist and coach, and in my own relationships, its application is frustratingly difficult. The reason? Because, when disagreements arise, we are culturally wired to lapse into the fight or flight ways of being that the predominant culture’s “compete and win, dominate and control” mindset have so deeply engrained in our habitual ways of being in the world.

In this Reflection, I work through one very common example of this phenomenon. A husband is about to leave for work and his wife, looking at a sink filled with breakfast dishes, says, “Why can’t you do the dishes?” His response: “Look, I’ve had a really busy morning. I usually do them. Give me a break.”

Even assuming a relatively restrained tone in the “music” of these communications, their fight/flight motivation is unmistakable. Both partners are focused on the recent past and – intent on rehashing what just happened – are locked into judgment mode; a hallmark of fight or flight mindsets.

Thus, the wife’s relatively neutral words are in fact words of judgment and attack: You didn’t do something – something you were supposed to do – and (by reasonable inference) something you all too frequently fail to do.

And how does the husband respond? Equally focused on the past, he counterattacks.  Instead of dealing with the merits of the issue – who should do the dishes and when – a response that would invite further dialogue – he seeks to disqualify his wife’s position: You are wrong on the facts AND emotionally out of line in even raising the issue (“give me a break”).

What very often happens next is – nothing. Each person, being subtly attacked, feels disconnected and sore. But the interaction is, in their minds, too minor to be worthy of further discussion. Better to absorb the pain and move on.

The other likely result is not, unfortunately, an honest, problem solving discussion; that is, mutual and authentic contact. Instead, if the couple chooses to get into it, the far more typical outcome is a cycle of escalating attacks and counter-attacks.

  • Her: “You’re always have an excuse!”
  • Him: “You never stop complaining, get off my back!!”

And round and round it goes, until one or both of them goes cold and withdraws; that is, retreats into the flight part of fight or flight.


When it comes to our romantic partner, most of us have some sense of how to charm and seduce; an unsurprising fact given the endless stream of books, movies, and ads that promote and teach these ways of interacting. And yet, at the same time, we have little guidance in the art of lovingly engaging with our partner at our points of sensitive difference – even though much of the hard work of relationship needs to be done in precisely these small moments.

So why does this strange dichotomy exist? Why do we, as a culture, neglect this vital relational skill even as we celebrate and promote romantic seduction? Because “charm and seduce” – a wonderful gift, when done with judgment and respect – is also entirely consistent with our culture’s predominant values. In this all too typical version, seduction is an effort, through a series of manipulative moves, to get our partner to feel and act in specific ways; ways that very much suit our purposes – but not necessarily theirs.

By contrast, a loving engagement with our partner in tense times is the antithesis of this competitive/manipulative mindset. For this reason, the predominant culture has an unacknowledged but powerful interest in minimizing this skill; an interest unerringly reflected in the marginal attention it receives in popular culture.


Thus, one of the key challenges, implicit in Radical Decency’s approach to living is to learn to fight well, weaning ourselves from our current fight or flight ways, replacing them with more mutual and authentic ways of interacting.

What would that look like in our example?

First, and very importantly, both partners would focus on the near future and not the recent past.

As a child of our fight or flight culture, the wife, ever vigilant to the possibility of attack, sees the dirty dishes as evidence of danger: That her needs are being ignored; that love is being withdrawn. With her fight or flight physiology activated, her words seek to deal with the perceived source of the attack: Her husband, evidenced by his past behaviors including, very particularly, the choices he’s made in the run-up to this current interaction.

On his side, the husband is equally focused on the immediate past; moving into defense mode; judging and criticizing the words that just came out of her mouth. Why? Because in his culturally reinforced, overly vigilant state, he also feels under attack: Unappreciated, devalued, unloved.

What is so sad in all of this is that there is nothing to defend – on either side. As a functioning couple, they have each put enormous amounts of time and energy into the relationship and are vitally invested in seeing it continue. Beneath the bickering is a vast reservoir of trust and love. So, the perceived attacker isn’t a source of danger at all.  He/she is, instead, the other partner’s staunchest ally in life.

Given this reality, the couple would be better served by focusing, not on illusory dangers from the recent past, but instead on the near future. Why? Because they each want to increase the love flowing back and forth between them, and the best way to do that is to focus on what they do next, rather than picking apart choices already made.

Here’s how it would work.

The wife wants to be loved in a specific way – by coming home to a clean kitchen. So she would ask for what she longs for: “Honey, it makes me feel great when you do the dishes before you leave in the morning.”

Now, he is set up for a positive, loving response (“sure, I’ll do my best to do it”) rather than a defensive counter-attack (“I am not a bad person for forgetting to do the dishes this morning”). Alternatively, he might acknowledge her desire but say, “My mornings are really tight. Taking time to do the dishes is tough.”

Note, importantly, that if this second alternative is his authentic response, the couple is still set up for a positive outcome. With defensiveness eliminated and the needs of both partners on the table – hers, for a completed chore (and concrete expression of love); his, for a routine that accounts for the pressures he feels – creative problem solving can flow from the common goal, shared by both partners: How can I best meet my needs AND the needs of this partner I dearly love?

A similar transaction can also be initiated from the husband’s end of the conversation.  Instead of rising to the bait of her nascent reactivity ( “why can’t you do the dishes”) with a counter-attack, he can thank (yes, thank!) his wife for raising the issue. Why? Because he now has a more vivid roadmap for loving her. And in this frame of mind, he will be able, once again, to move toward a forward-looking outcome that attends, with equal attentiveness, to his needs and hers.


While this different way of treating our intimate partner may seem a little unusual and strange it is only because we are so relentlessly pushed toward very different ways of thinking, feeling and acting. The sad reality is that these more contactful and loving techniques are seldom taught and find precious little reinforcement in our culture.

Hopefully, initiatives such as Radical Decency can act as healing correctives in our intimate relationships – and in all other areas of living as well.

Reflection 2: The Deep Roots of Our Indecent Politics

As an observer of politics for more than 50 years, one persistent and powerfully present theme is this: The steady deterioration of decency’s 7 values – respect, understanding and empathy, acceptance and appreciation, fairness and justice – in both tone and substance.

In these years, the rhetoric of our two major parties has promoted meaningfully different agendas. Republicans’ public position is that, if we allow private, competitive markets to operate without restraint, greater decency will be a natural by-product of the private choices that accumulate under this system. Democrats, on their side, similarly endorse free market principles but seek to maintain and increase decency through governmental corrective initiatives.

Executive power since the 1960s has bounced back and forth between the parties: Kenney/Johnson followed by Nixon/Ford; Reagan/Bush One followed by Clinton; Bush Two followed by Obama. So, if our major parties actually subscribe in practice to their publicly stated goals, you would expect to see some coherent progress toward a more decent world during their years in power in ways that reflect each of their approaches.

But this hasn’t happened. When it comes to decency, the actions of both parties have been strikingly at odds with their official, publicly promoted ideologies:

Republicans have been deafening, in their silence, when it comes to leadership in promoting the private initiatives that are supposed natural by-products of the free market’s “magic,” exemplified by the utter absence of any enduring trace of Bush One’s “thousand points of light,” or Bush’s Two’s “compassionate conservatism.”

And the Democrats have been richly complicit in the erosion of safety net programs including, for example, the Bankruptcy Reform Act, signed into law by Carter, that deeply compromised the sanctity of union contracts; Clinton’s welfare “reform” and repeal of decades old regulations separating lending from investment banking; and Obama’s failure to seek meaningful financial re-regulate in return for $1.59 trillion in bailout funds; and

So what is going on? While disingenuous choices by contemporary politicians are part of the story, the more fundamental cause is deeply rooted in our evolution and history as a species.


Over the course of our 300,000 years as a species, humans have evolved exceedingly effective survival mechanisms; mechanisms that have allowed us to grow, in the last 50 to 100,00 years, from a geographically limited, sub-Saharan group of primates into the planet’s dominant species. And, the best theorists point to sensitivity to one another – and, with it, our ability to cooperate and communicate – as our key evolutionary edge.

While we are weaker and slower, our ability to intuit what others feel meant that a nod of the head or change of expression could be instantly understood by a fellow hunter at 50 yards. Living as hunter/gatherers, — the reality for almost all of years as a distinct species – this ability and the capabilities it fostered were the key to our evolutionary success.

The implication, confirmed by contemporary neuroscientists such as Dan Seigel, is that we are fundamentally affiliative beings. Our natural state is to be in intimate connection with, and to care for, one another. As Seigel says, it makes no sense to think of a single brain in isolation. From birth, and throughout life, our brain is molded and evolves by interacting with other brains. That is how we are neurologically wired.

But this is not the full story. Like other mammals, we have a second emergency system: Fight or flight. And because it is designed to deal with mortal danger it has a number of unique characteristics.

First, it is fast, 10 times faster than our thinking brain. A car cuts across your lane without warning and what happens? You swerve superfast – your fight or flight brain in action. Only then do you realize that a car cut in front of you – your thinking brain.

In addition, since failing to remember the mortal risk of a crouching tiger 6 months or 20 years later would be a truly lousy idea, evolutionarily speaking, that part of your brain never forgets.

Finally, once activated, your fight or flight brain takes control of your mind and body. To support immediate counter-measures, it rushes hyper-alert chemicals (cortisol and adrenaline) into the system and blood to the large muscle groups. And it shrinks the activity of the thinking brain, thereby minimizing the risk of having complex considerations interfere with the fast action required to insure survival.


So what does all this evolutionary and neurobiological theory have to do with our indecent politics? That gets back to our species’ history over the last 10,000 and 200 years.

As hunter/gatherers we spent long days quietly cooperating with one another in the mundane tasks of survival, with only occasional episodes of terror: A confrontation with an animal or neighboring group, a natural disaster. But then, about 10,000 years ago, as Jared Diamond describes in Gun, Germs, and Steel, we learned how to domesticate crops and animals.

The effect on humanity was seismic. Now, for the first time in our history, one group of people – through control of the food supply – could forcibly exercise control and dominion over others, and do so on a vast scale. The result: Our history as a species moved decisively and dramatically in that direction. We ceased to exist as small, isolated groups of hunter/gatherers. City/states, nations and empires became the norm.

But with this new, very different way of living, the people in control needed to develop new, ever more complex techniques for maintaining and expanding their power. When we remember the powerful physiological effects of fight or flight, it is not surprising that strategies that activated that part of the brain became key tools.

Demonization of the “other” became, and has remained, a mainstay of our governance. Why? Because when people are in a fight or flight state – out of fear of annihilation by an enemy – their willingness to follow, and to be controlled by, a leader greatly increases.

Thus, cultivating our auxiliary fight and flight mechanisms for political purposes has a long history.

But a key, crucially important additional piece of the puzzle is this:

Technological developments in the last 200 years have vastly upped the ante. Why? Because so many of life’s taken for granted down times – the times that allow us to be in our base-line affiliative state for a great majority of our hours and days – no longer exist. And, as an unintended but enormously important consequence, there has been an exponential increase in the times during which fight or flight states of mind are predominant.

Thus, for all of our time on earth – until 200 years ago – nighttime automatically resulted in a cessation of work, while summer’s heat and winter’s cold naturally and inevitably modulated the intensity of our activities. In addition, work rhythms were modulated by the weeks, and sometimes months, it took for communications to be sent and received.

But all that has now changed. We eliminated winter 150 years ago (with central heating), night time 120 years ago (with the electric light), and summer 60 years ago (with air conditioning). And, beginning in the mid-19th century, physical distance has been progressively obliterated as a limiting factor – with trains, cars, and planes; the telegraph telephone; and, in the last 20 years, cell phones, emails, texts and the Internet.

Now, thanks to technology, we can work all the time; a tendency that the culture powerfully reinforces with its emphasis on compete and win, dominant and control mindsets – whatever the cost. The result? Our fight or flight physiology is, more and more, in a state of constant activation. We are literally at risk of having this emergency auxiliary system become our new, base line mental state.


So why is our politics so indecent? Because, without regard to party or ideology, our mainstream politicians unerringly – and unnervingly – reflect the fight/flight mindsets that, increasingly and at an accelerating rate, have taken center stage in our lives.

The result? Though they may believe their own rhetoric, the great majority of our political leaders are not motivated by a desire to create a more humane, equitable and just world. To the contrary, the day-by-day choices that, over time, mold and reflect their priorities operationalize these deeply engrained flight or flight states of mind. In their deeds, if not their words, their priority is to “compete and win” and then, once in power, to maintain their position through “domination and control.”

On the Republican side, the route from rhetoric to reality is fairly straightforward. In their expressed ideology, decent outcomes occur automatically. If we are all free to pursue our private interests, the invisible hand of the free market will take care of the rest. And the absence of increased decency is explained, not through possible flaws in the theory – and, thus, in their policy choices – but through Democratic policies that prevent full implementation of the free market.

On the Democratic side, the journey to what is substantially the same outcome is more circuitous and, thus, more difficult to come to grips with. And this is an important point since, on balance, more people with an expressed passion for social justice identify as Democrats (me, included).

For this reason, their more hidden path away from decency, and toward compete and win values, means that the very people who are most motivated to blow the whistle on mainstream politics’ indecent ways are also more likely to remain mired in their side’s official story; concluding, for that reason, that the fundamental problem is with the other side – the Republicans – and not with the system itself.

Here’s how mainstream Democrats arrive at this place of indeecency.

They begin, it is true, with a series of programs that, if implemented, would promote decency: Jobs training, housing and education subsidies, an increased and expanded minimum wage, and so on. But then, the system grinds them up. And so, as the years go by, the great majority of these initiatives either do not become law or, if they do, are watered down to a point where their impact is more symbolic than real.

In the mainstream Democratic version of our politics, however, the failure of these “good” Democratic initiatives is attributed to the machinations of “bad” Republicans. And so, comforted by the belief that the Republican’s are the real problem, they gloss over their thorough complicity in what I see as the real story of our politics: A long series of bi-partisan, “under the radar screen” policies choices that favor the rich; that is, the funders of the very compete and win, dominate and control agenda that is so central to purposes of all our politicians, both Democrat and Republican.

Once you start to look, examples of this unacknowledged, largely invisible agenda show up everywhere. In addition to the policy choices cited at the beginning of this Reflection, here are a just few more examples:

  • Rules changes that have allowed senior corporate executives to receive massive payments in the form of stock options, with their favorable capital gains tax rates;
  • A massive expansion of our patent and intellectual property rights that give pharmaceutical, hi-tech and other industries expanded monopoly power over a vast array of products;
  • Emasculation of insider stock trading rules;
  • A massive expansion arbitration clauses that cut off consumer recourse to the courts;
  • Exclusion of mortgage debt and student loans from bankruptcy relief;
  • A steady increase in the inheritance tax exemption – from $675,00 in 2001 to $5.45 million in 2016.

For a fuller explanation of this phenomenon, I highly recommend Robert Reich’s concise and insightful book, Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few (2015). And see, my discussion of his book in Reflection #87, Economic Inequality, Part 1 – How We Got Here.

A final note: Despite their defining importance to our political fate, these choices (and the overall policy trend they represent) are almost never a part of the political debate that shows up in the mainstream media. And that is no accident.

Even if we put aside the mainstream media’s complicity with the mainstream culture’s “compete and win” values, the promoters of this agenda more far typically embed these initiatives in highly technical language hidden, within the dense fog of legal language that is a part of even the simplest bill or proposed rule. Alternatively, they are the result of (not at all benign) inattention and, thus, legislative/executive inaction in the face of private choices that, as they accumulate, deeply and negatively impact the public.


In saying all this, I want to emphasize that I am not a complete pessimist. Politicians who do transcend these fight or flight mindsets – and they do exist – enjoy an inherent advantage since their policies are more congruent with our true nature as affiliative beings.

Moreover, there are inherent problems with policies and tactics that push us toward chronic states of arousal since they are manipulative, exploitative, and physically and emotionally draining – all qualities that limit their continuing appeal. In the end, politicians with a more humane approach have, I believe, the better of the argument.

But we need to recognize that we live in a culture that is deeply out of synch with our biology and has been, to an increasing degree, over the last 200 years. Thus, while mainstream politicians can simply exploit current trends, politicians and political activists who are seeking a better way have the much more difficult task: To mount a challenge to the status quo that persuasively presents a more decent alternative.

Understanding the problem we face is, of course, vitally important. But diagnosis only has lasting value if it is a prelude to corrective action. In other Reflections, I seek to address some aspects of this all-important “what to do about it” question. See, for example, Reflection #49 Politics – Systems Analysis, Values Solutions; Reflection #73, Making Broadcast News More Decent; Reflections ##75 and 76, Toward a More Civil Political Conversation, Parts 1 and 2; and Reflection #88, Economic Inequality – Making Things Different.

My hope, needless to say, is that by focusing on the deep values-based roots of our current political situation, the many decent, well-intentioned people that exist, across the political spectrum, can come together in a unified effort to create a more just, fair, and humane world.

Reflection 1: Our Propaganda Saturated Culture

This Reflection series began with a movie I saw, while on vacation in Maine, several years ago: Extraordinary Measures, starring Brendan Fraser, Keri Russell and Harrison Ford.

At the end I had a sudden sense of clarity about what had just happened to me. I would sum it up as being seduced – and appalled at my own easy seduction.

The movie is about a father of two children both suffering from a debilitating disease certain to kill them by the time they are 10. He is our hero. A Harvard MBA, a rising executive at Bristol-Meyers, AND a patient and devoted husband and father who makes it to every recital.

Just for starters, how is that for a glib, unrealistic role model? The implication of this – and many other popular culture models like it – is that this is the standard for which we must strive: A hard charging professional who, by necessary implication, invests the enormous psychic energy and long hours needed to be a “winner” in that arena and, at the same time, is a devoted family person.

Since this ideal is so difficult to achieve, and even more difficult to maintain over time, it is not the positive, inspirational ideal it purports to be. Instead, in the real lives of real people, it is a prescription for frustration, shame, and a sense of failure. We are constantly measuring ourselves against impossible to achieve standards and – surprise, surprise – coming up short. Or, for the “lucky” minority that can maintain this juggling act, we exhaust ourselves and neglect more “optional” endeavors, such as community, leisure, study, speculative reflection, and simple down time.

But for me, the real kicker of the movie was its more specific messages. And again, they are messages that saturate our culture.

The first is that you can do anything if you try hard enough.

Our hero finds THE scientist who is on to a cure for his children’s “incurable” illness. He then quits his high paying corporate job, forms a start up to perfect this groundbreaking new medicine, sells the start up to corporate America to keep the project going, and then defies the corporation in order to give the miraculous cure to his two kids.  And, of course, the cure works!

Wow, what a message! Notwithstanding the enormous number of stories that permeate our culture, glorifying the heroic individual who defies impossible odds to “make it happen,” this is in fact a pernicious distortion of real life. In all but a statistically minute number of cases, terminal ill children die. Also, most startups fail. And most executives who heroically and emotionally stand up to their bosses get fired – never to be heard from again.

Which brings me to the second pernicious message of the movie: While corporate bosses may seem to be heartless and bottom-line oriented, in the end, they have hearts of gold. So, in this case, when faced with the father’s heroism and passion, the CEO’s essential humanity breaks through. Ignoring corporate rules and procedures, he allows our hero’s children to be part of the initial test for the new wonder drug.

The problem with this message? The great majority of corporations are not run by “good” people who, when faced with real life moral choices, are willing to sacrifice their profit-driven bottom line to “do the right thing.” To the contrary, the overwhelming majority of corporations fire people a without remorse and, far more often than we care to admit, condone environmental and employment practices, and public policy choices, that lead to injury, disease, and death.

The final message that jumped out at me is that disease, disability and, injustice all come dressed up in pretty little, socially acceptable, packages.

The dying children in this movie are adorable, feisty, funny, and charming.  And so is the dad, the agent of change. When I worked as a consultant for the Variety Club, years ago, I was struck by the staff member who complained bitterly about donors that wanted “pretty little white girls in wheel chairs.”

The reality: Disability and injustice are inflicted on real people and, disproportionately on the poor and uneducated. Often anger, ugliness, emotional imbalance, selfishness, etc., etc. are part of the package. And except in the rarest of cases, the people who seek real change are not saints either. So do we ignore “ugly” injustice and stop listening to obnoxious agents of change? That is, I submit, one of the implicit messages of this movie and so many other pieces of popular culture like it.

One final thought. In the moment, as I watched this movie, I was totally seduced:

  • By our hero;
  • By his family;
  • By the curmudgeon-y, unemotional, but ultimately soft hearted CEO; and
  • By the story itself.

In other words, this is not just propaganda. It is, if my instinctual reaction is typical (and I think it is) highly effective propaganda, with important consequences at both an individual and societal level.

It is humbling to think that it has taken it has taken me six plus decades of living to work through the obscuring and dense haze of this feel good propaganda to a deeper understanding of its pernicious effects. The work before us, if we hope to understand the many subtle forces that mold our lives – and to take effective steps to counteract them – is immense.

That is the challenge that Radical Decency seeks to address.