Thursday, July 31, 2008
The Stockdale Paradox and You
I was struck with the importance of one of his concepts: the Stockdale Paradox. He bases the principle on a conversation with former Prisoner of War, Jim Stockdale. In a conversation between the two, Stockdale notes that those who survived the concentration camps were those that truly believed that, in the end, they would prevail.
So, Collins asked about those who did not survive. In a surprising twist, Stockdale said "Oh, that's easy! The optimists." Collins asked, after some silence, for an explanation. Stockdale noted that optimists were looking for freedom by Christmas, then Easter, then the next Christmas, etc. In other words, their optimism was based on their being free by a certain point in time.
Stockdale said that those who believed that they would ultimately prevail, in this case be free, yet could take a brutally honest assessment of their current situation were the ones that survived.
To repeat, the survivors had two traits. First, they could be brutally honest with themselves about their current situation. At the same time, they truly believed that they would ultimately succeed.
As I read the section of the book, I was struck that this applied so directly to everyone's life, not just a POW. I remember when I was very ill some years back. I did my research on my condition, knew the risks, but truly believed that I would ultimately be OK. When persons around me tried to get me to see that I would be incapacitated (looking at the same information I was), I would respond with "We'll have to wait and see."
Obviously, I did survive (and did recover). The point is not that my thought process saved my life. The point is that I could either give up, or move forward. Sometimes, that is IN SPITE of the current situation. I knew exactly what COULD happen, but I also believed I would be OK, regardless of what happened.
Now, can we apply this to a marriage crisis? Absolutely!
First, the brutal honesty about the current situation certainly applies. Many people are completely blind to the current crisis in their marriage. They are blissfully ignoring the fact that their marriage is in very real trouble, and seem completely caught off-guard when their spouse says that he or she is unhappy (and perhaps has been for years).
Or those who have a spouse that is in an affair for years, ignoring the mounting evidence.
Or those that have a spouse saying there is a problem, but burying their head, hoping that NOT dealing with it will somehow resolve the issue.
That is NOT being honest with the current situation. So, one application of the Stockdale Paradox is becoming clear about the truth of the current situation. Discussing the issues, asking if there is a problem, acknowledging things are not going well, all are applications of this.
Problem is many of us would rather live in denial. Not just in relationships, but in life. There is a myth that knowing is the danger. Not knowing is the danger. I met a person that literally had a tumor distending his stomach! It was visibly pushing out. I asked if he had seen a doctor. He told me that he didn't want to, because he didn't want to know what was wrong; he was scared to know!
I noted that whether he found out or not, something was happening in there. Having the information would not speed up whatever it was. I don't know whether he will see the doctor, but I do know that dying blissfully ignorant is not better than living because something could be done.
Back to marriage: I don't know how many times I think, as I am talking to a couple, "I wish you had come in a month/year/decade ago." Sometimes, denial allows the potential for help erode away until the only solution is the death of the relationship.
The second aspect is equally important. Having a belief that you will ultimately prevail is crucial. You see, if you fall into the optimist's trap of saying that everything will be OK by (fill in the blank), you will become discouraged when that does not come to pass. Marriages do not get into trouble overnight. They are not fixed overnight. Are you willing to see this as a long-term issue? Is this something you are willing to fix your eyes upon, and move relentlessly forward?
Those that maintain this approach are the ones who are successful in saving their marriage. The reason is very simple: when they could become discouraged by a seeming lack of progress, they still keep moving forward. When they get negative messages from a spouse, they do what the politicians do, they "stay on message."
How are you doing on this paradox? If you are reading this, you may be fully aware of the current situation. It may be new to you, or you may have known for some time. Either way, knowing the facts (not the same as emotional conjecture) puts you one step toward resolution.
The second step is a daily discipline: staying positive and believing that you will be ultimately OK. This is a two-step process. One is believing that you will be ultimately successful in saving the marriage. Two is knowing that your spouse can decide differently, and you may not be able to stop the dissolution of the marriage, but in spite of that, you can still be OK.
Make the Stockdale Paradox YOUR paradox in marriage and in your daily life, and you will have a much more fruitful, even a "great" life!
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