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Lincoln’s ‘True North’: A Guide for Relationships

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

True North

Have you heard about the compass and “true north” analogy used in the movie Lincoln? I don’t know whether this can really be attributed to Lincoln or is the brainchild of someone in Hollywood, but it’s a stroke of genius. The president offers this analogy to U.S. Representative Thaddeus Stevens – one that applies well (if not perfectly) to personal relationships. Stevens, a staunch abolitionist, is put off by Lincoln’s less than firm stance in battling the issue of slavery. Lincoln responds by suggesting that Stevens consider the compass. It unfailingly points to “true north.” However, in doing so, it will direct you straight into swamps and other obstacles along the way. Then you’d be stuck; unable to get to your beloved goal. While Lincoln was referring to Stevens’ moral compass in the emancipation of slaves, a similar case can be made for dealing with personal relationships.

When I treat couples, at least one partner will often be firm and goal-directed in their accusations of the other’s problems. They might even offer direct advice on how solve the problems they see. However, they don’t notice the “swamps” in this direct approach. They don’t realize that relationships thrive on care and nurturing; not a well-constructed and well-articulated position. For instance, a wife might state that her husband is self-centered and doesn’t help much with the kids. And she will detail many examples of this. In doing so, she fails to realize (or care) that her approach to getting her husband to share their parenting duties is bound to elicit a defensive and possibly angry response.

Such animosity is not generally caused by disagreements between people; rather it is the result of the way those disagreements are expressed. Most problems can be worked through by first allying with the other person, seeing their perspective, and connecting with them through this shared vision. This approach helps to soften their rigid defenses, allowing for at least the consideration of your perspective – which you can now share to hopefully good effect. As part of this shift, they might come to agree with you, or look for common ground between you. At the very least, the two of you might find a respectful understanding of your unbridgeable differences. In our example, the wife might express understanding that her husband is tired from work and an ability to relate to wanting to just put his feet up. However, she could then explain that she feels similarly tired; and his relaxing when there is so much to be done makes her feel taken for granted. She might then open up a conversation about how they can both get in some relaxation while meeting the joint responsibility of caring for their children.

Unlike in the movie, I’m not suggesting that you use deceit to accomplish your goal. In fact, if you want to maintain your friendship and emotional intimacy, then deceit is counterproductive. It’s not enough to drag someone to your desired destination. They might give lip service to what you want to hear, but in doing so, they also distance themselves from you (even if just emotionally). So, to maintain a relationship, you must reach the goal as a cooperative venture; if you are going to reach it at all… and this will often include a circuitous, rather than direct, route.

Of course, you don’t need to agree on everything in a relationship. It may be that you don’t hold the same values; and don’t aspire to the same destination. If this is the case, then you need to assess whether sharing that particular goal is essential for your relationship to continue. More often than not, this is not the case. But, if it is, then at least you can agree to go separate ways while maintaining respect and caring for each other.

If you would like to join a general discussion about this topic on the Relationships and Coping Community, click here.

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