Family conflict and violence at Christmas time

Blog Post No.150

By Dr Jim Byrne

Posted on 27th December 2016 (Originally posted on 6th December 2015)

Dr Jim’s Counselling Blog:

Principles of couples counselling: The importance of negotiation and fairness between marriage and cohabiting partners

Copyright (c) Jim Byrne, 2015-2016



domestic-violence-at-christmasEvery Christmas, the incidence of domestic violence increases significantly, because of the stresses and strains of the Christmas and Winter Holiday madness, whipped up by marketing gurus, to promote sales of unnecessary ‘stuff’. But also because of the lack of commitment to equality in relationships (which most often involves male domination, except when it involves female domination!)

But the underlying weaknesses, which allows domestic violence to emerge, is cultural conditioning, or the lack thereof.  A fully functioning democratic and humanistic culture would outlaw any form of the use of violence to settle our differences, at home, at work or in international relations.

In this blog post, I set out to review two principles that are important to happy and healthy couple relationships.

Those two principles come from the Duluth Domestic Abuse Intervention Project[1].

However, because of pressure of time and space, I had to settle for reviewing just one principle this time. (I’ll review the second one next week!)

duluth-model-and-fairnessThe principle that I am reviewing is one of eight from the Equality ‘wheel’, and this is it: The importance of negotiation and fairness between marriage and co-habiting partners.

I review this principle in the context of the fact that Dr Michael Edelstein, a former colleague from the world of Rational therapy (REBT) refuses to discuss fairness issues with his couples therapy clients because (he says) he cannot identify any objective criteria for judging what is fair and what is unfair. 

However, in the process of reviewing the principle of negotiation and fairness, below, I will outline some very obvious criteria for assessing the presence or absence of fairness in couple disputes.


Just over a year ago, I introduced the Duluth Domestic Abuse Intervention Project, and I said I would return to that subject, and explore the two wheels which they use to teach the distinction between unhelpful and unjustifiable ‘Power and control’ approaches to couple relationships, on the one hand, and civilized and indispensable ‘Equality’ approaches, on the other hand.

equal-status-within-couplesEach wheel contains eight principles, and the Duluth project advocates the use of the eight ‘equality principles’, and rejects the use of any of the eight principles of ‘power and control’.  In brief, this means that the appropriate way for a couple to relate to each other is from a basis of equal status, and an immoral and illegal way to relate is through the abuse of power to control the other person.

It seemed to make most sense for me to tackle this distinction by reviewing pairs of principles, one from each wheel.  However, in practice I have found that, because of space constraints, I cannot review two principles in one blog post – so I will review one ‘equality’ principle this week, and one ‘power and control’ principle next week.


Equality 1: The principle of negotiation and fairness

This week I want to begin by reviewing the ‘equality principle’ of ‘negotiation and fairness’.

michael-edelsteinMy way of going about this, to begin with, is to refer back to the debate I had, in 2010, with Dr Michael Edelstein, a former colleague of mine in the world of Rational therapy (REBT).  Michael is a clinical psychologist who lives in San Francisco, practices REBT, was born in Brooklyn, NY, completed his academic psychology training in New York City, attended the REBT Institute from its physical inception in 1965, associated with Albert Ellis beginning in 1963, authored three books on REBT, trains therapists in REBT, and so can be assumed to know his REBT very well.  (Michael is also known as ‘The 3 Minute Therapist’, whose website can be found at:


On the importance of fairness, justice and morality

At the time when I was preparing to post my paper on ‘Fairness, Justice and Morality’[2] (back in 2010), Michael wrote to me to say that:

“Everyone has their own subjective view about what is fair. My preferences and hedonic calculi differ from that of others. Since there’s no cosmic or absolute criterion for evaluating fairness, I have not come up with a useful way to view it. Consequently, I advise my clients to jettison the entire concept”.

I was pretty sure Michael was overlooking something here about fairness.  So I argued the point with him, but I could not persuade him to take the concept of fairness seriously.

Today I would argue my case differently.  This is what I would say:

the-golden-ruleThere is a huge objective criterion of fairness which has been around since ancient Chinese civilization: the Golden Rule.  The Golden rule can be expressed like this: You morally must not treat another person less well than you would like them to treat you, if your roles were reversed.

And you must treat your marriage partner at least as well as you would like them to treat you in identical circumstances!

Contrary to Michael’s viewpoint, this principle is very easy to apply in situations of conflict with couples in therapy.  Each member of a couple either is, or is not, willing to treat their partner at least as well as they expect to be treated.

This couldn’t be clearer, and (in my opinion) the most likely potential explanations for Michael Edelstein’s inability to see this point, back in 2010, were: (1) that he was influenced by the amoral philosophy of Albert Ellis[3]; and/or (2) the nonsensical philosophy of Logical Positivism; and/or (3) the useless system of Act Utilitarianism (which is much less usable than Rule Utilitarianism); and/or (4) the ubiquitous philosophies of neo-liberalism and post-modern moral relativity! (Because of lack of space, I will have to defer further clarification of the distinction between Act and Rule Utilitarianism until next week).

The debate in 2010

Back to what I wrote to Michael in 2010:

drjim-counsellor9“I’m pretty sure most people would agree on this principle of fairness, no matter how subjective the concept of fairness might seem to be in some other cases.  In other words, although we humans sometimes have problems defining what we mean by fairness, from case to case, we (reasonable people) nevertheless find the concept of fairness indispensable, and we more often than not do find ways to define it which are ‘socially agreed’ (by some group or community, some society or country, some continent, or some strata of some culture, etc.).  In negotiations between individuals, we often find that the idea of what is fair is ‘inter-subjective’ (meaning, shared between several individuals; or common to a whole group of people), and not just ‘merely subjective’ (meaning – when used pejoratively – locked in the mind of one isolated, unrepresentative individual).


At one point, Dr Edelstein got back to me to clarify that his problem with the principle of fairness was a practical one:  How can it be used in couples therapy with squabbling couples?  Surely this is not possible since there do not seem to be any objective criteria by which to define fairness.

Today, I want to test Michael’s perspective against one of the two wheels of the Duluth Domestic Abuse Intervention Project[4].

Objective criteria in couple conflict

non-violent-partnershipThe equality wheel: The equality wheel is segmented into eight subdivisions, each containing one principle.  All eight principles are subsumed under two headings: either ‘Equality’ or ‘Power and control’.

In the remainder of this blog post, I will take a look at just one of the equality/non-violence principles: Negotiation and fairness.

Under this principle (which emphasizes the importance of negotiating outcomes, and doing so fairly), there are three ‘guidelines’, or ‘key points’, as follows:

# Seeking mutually satisfying resolutions to conflict;

# Accepting change; and:

# Being willing to compromise.

My response to Michael would be that, in my relationship with my partner, I can demonstrate fairness by (1) negotiating satisfying resolutions to conflicts; (2) accepting that changes are inevitable, and showing that I am willing to change when (reasonably) necessary; and (3) being willing to compromise when we have conflicting goals or desires.

To apply the ‘principle of generosity’ to Michael Edelstein’s argument, let us focus on his alternative to using the concept of fairness.

“As far as I can tell in working with squabbling couples, both justifying their own position with what’s ‘fair’, I have not arrived at any objective criteria to settle the fairness argument. I tell them, ‘Discussing what is fair is a dead end and often toxic to relationships. Discuss what works for both of you, instead’.”

What could this mean to a couple: (‘What works for both of you’)?

Here are my attempted answers:

  1. If they have a ‘mutual problem’, as defined by Helen Hall Clinard[5], then nothing works for both of them; because what Partner 1 wants is the very opposite of what Partner 2 wants and vice versa; or, at the very least, the two goals are mutually exclusive! (So Michael could study Chapter 4 of Helen’s book, and introduce his couple clients to the process of ‘turning conflict into cooperation’. That would provide him with some practical approaches to building fairness in practice, based on objective criteria.

But there is an immediate, and, I suspect, an insurmountable problem here for Michael, because of his rigid conformity to Albert Ellis’s belief system.  Let me explain:

In the opening paragraph of Chapter 4, Helen Clinard writes this: “Sometimes it is not easy for a person who is causing you a problem to change in the way that you want.  People who work or live together often have conflicting needs”. (Page 109).

But according to (Extreme) REBT theory, people do not have any needs at all (in the interpersonal area)![6]  Apart from air, water and basic food, everything else is treated as a ‘want’ or a ‘desire’ in Extreme REBT.[7] In other words, for Albert Ellis and his extreme stoical followers, ‘need’ is a synonym for the dreaded words – ‘should’ and/or ‘must’ – which “have to be” totally outlawed (and replaced with mere preferences)!

  1. If any of Michael’s couples lack clarity about how to compromise, Michael could teach them how to do that. For example, he could teach them the example used in Getting to Yes, by Fisher and Ury[8] – about sharing an orange – not by arbitrarily cutting it down the middle, but by finding out ‘the reason’ each partner wants the orange, and (perhaps) discovering that one mainly wants the peel (to put in a cake mix) and the other mainly wants the fruit (to squeeze as juice). But, to go down this route, Michael would have to believe that people have rights and needs, and that does not seem to be part of his belief system.
  2. If Michael studied Fisher and Ury, he could then teach his couple clients their basis system, which is:

(a) Separate the people from the problem. (Michael is officially good at this, since REBT theory teaches clients to distinguish between their partner, on the one hand, and their partner’s behaviours on the other).

(b) Talk in terms of interests rather than positions. (This is harder for Michael, because he has been trained to fit the whole phenomenal world into just two boxes – [1] Reality [which Must exist exactly as it is], and [2] Your Preferences [which do not have to exist at all!] Can he make the challenging shift towards considering that clients have real-life interests, {arising out of felt needs} which harden into positions?])

(c) Generate a variety of possibilities before deciding what to do. (This approach fits better into the Egan Model[9] than it would into Michael’s simple ABC model).

(d) Insist that the results be based on some objective standard. (Like the Golden Rule; or mutual influence.  But, would Michael be willing to use the Golden Rule?)


  1. Michael could also teach his couple clients the three ‘key points’ I extracted from the Equality wheel of the Duluth project, as follows:

# 1 Seek mutually satisfying resolutions to conflict;

# 2 Accept change; and:

# 3 Be willing to compromise.

He could cover #1 above with either the Golden Rule, or Helen Clinard’s Mutual Problem Solving process.  Point #3 is covered by Fisher and Ury’s negotiation process; and, again, by the Golden Rule. And point #2 is an expression of the Buddhist principle that “change is the law of life” (and the [moderate] Stoic principle of ‘accepting the things you cannot change’).  Point 2 is also subject to the principle (from Professor John Gottman) that we should “let our partner influence us” – and my refinement, which is this: “Let your partner influence you, up to, but not beyond, the degree to which they are willing to allow you to influence them”!


Moving on…

justice-and-fairnessIf a couple comes to see me, and Partner 1 says that Partner 2 is acting unfairly, I will explore that complaint in terms of how it fits within my understanding of how the Golden Rule – (of treating other people the way we would ideally like to be treated in our turn) – would apply to their situation. I would encourage the partners to compromise, and to seek mutually satisfying resolution to their conflict.

I will try to teach Partner 2 the costs (in the medium to longer term) of acting unfairly; of not compromising; and of not seeking mutually acceptable outcomes (on average). (The cost to the oppressive partner is the ultimate loss of the relationship. The second cost is gaining a reputation for oppressive behaviour and immoral and often illegal action against their partner).

I will teach each partner the absolute necessity to allow their partner to influence them (up to, but not exceeding approximately 50% of the time, on average), and to expect to be able to influence their partner (up to, but not exceeding, about 50% of the time, on average).

If the partners insist on bickering about the precise percentages that each of them gives, or takes, I will conclude one of two things:

  1. Either, one (or both) of them is stuck in exploitation mode; and they are not trusted by their partner; or:
  2. This is a ‘presenting problem’, and the ‘real problem’ is hidden; perhaps a deep, emerging incompatibility, or a serious lack of satisfaction with the love or sex or romance in the relationship. (When a couple is deeply satisfied with the level of love and passion and romance and comfort in their relationship, they both seem to be able to ‘cut their partner some slack’ in their partner’s areas of deficiency!)

My experience

jim-renata-counsellors-hebden-bridgeBut eight or nine times out of ten, when I work with unfairness issues in couples’ therapy, I can help the couple to resolve their problems, by teaching them to operate from The Golden Rule. And by allowing their partner to influence them, on a completely egalitarian basis – give and take.  (“If I do this for you [today], what will you do for me [tomorrow]?”)

I teach them that playing ‘Top-Dog/Under-Dog’ will lead to the dissolution of their marriage or relationship, normally after a protracted period of completely avoidable misery! Or, sometimes, all of a sudden, and without any possibility of fixing it after the fact! (“You had your chance, mate!”)


That’s all for this week.

Part 2 will look at a power and control issue!

Best wishes,


Dr Jim Byrne – Doctor of Counselling

ABC Coaching and Counselling Services



[1] Source:

[2] Byrne, J. (2010b) Fairness, Justice and Morality Issues in REBT and E-CENT. E-CENT Paper No.2(b).  Hebden Bridge: The Institute for E-CENT Studies. Available online:

[3] Byrne, J. (2013) A Wounded Psychotherapist: Albert Ellis’s childhood, and the strengths and limitations of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT). Hebden Bridge: CreateSpace/I-CENT Publications.  For more information on this book, please go to

[4] See pages 244-245 of Manhood: An action plan for changing men’s lives, by Steve Biddulph: the 1994/98 edition.

[5] Clinard, H.H. (1985) Winning Ways to Succeed With people.  Houston, Texas: Gulf Publishing.

[6] Miller, T. (1993) Self-Discipline and Emotional Control: How to stay calm and productive under pressure.  A CareerTrack audio program.

[7] Miller, T. (1983) So, You Secretly Suspect You’re Worthless, Well You’re Not A Shit and I Can Prove It.  New York: Lakeside Printing.

[8] Fisher and Ury (1990) Getting to Yes: negotiating agreement without giving in. London, Hutchinson Business.

[9] The Egan Model, developed by Gerard Egan, asks three core questions: (1) Where are you now?  (2) Where do you want to get to? And (3) What actions could you take to build a bridge from (1) to (2)?  For more information on this model, go here:

The ABC model asks only (or mainly) this: “What are you telling yourself to make yourself so upset at point C (Consequence) about point A (the noxious stimulus, or Activating Event)?” For more on the ABC model, please go to (In other words, for a classic REBT therapist, the client is NOT upset (by definition) by their partner’s unfairness (or any other feature of their partner’s way of being), but rather by their (the client’s) own beliefs about their partner’s behaviour! This is an expression of the extremist stoicism of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. (Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius also developed more moderate positions, such as the principle that its best to accept the things you cannot change, and only try to change the things you can).


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