The writers of Parenthood, the popular NBC family drama, use an interesting device to dramatize conflict. When two characters have a difference of opinion their exchange begins in measured, even tones. One person talks, while the other listens. Then the second person talks, while the first one listens. But as their disagreement heats up, the exchange gets faster and faster until no one is listening and both characters are talking over each other so loud and fast that it’s difficult to understand exactly what they are saying. This clip is typical. It’s an argument between Sarah and her boyfriend, Mark, over whether or not she will be able to keep her promise to attend a weekend getaway with him.
This way of dramatizing the escalation of conflict illustrates a key concept of mimetic theory – that violence can only be properly understood as a loss of difference. At the beginning of the clip, Sarah and Mark’s positions are recognizable to each other as different, even opposite. Sarah wants Mark to let her go to LA and Mark wants Sarah to stay. Their positions seem as different as night and day and that difference is dramatized by the difference between sound and silence, talking and listening. But as their positions grow farther and farther apart, the time between the sound and the silence gets less and less distinct. Differences between sound and silence break down just as their differences appear insurmountable. Is this a failure of metaphor or are the writers on to something true about conflict?
René Girard ’s theory of conflict and desire explains how the loss of difference between sound and silence is an accurate and apt metaphor for what is happening to Mark and Sarah. Though they are loudly proclaiming their differences, their desires are actually converging onto the same object. What is it that they want, really, beneath all the drama about the weekend? What they both want is for the other one to sacrifice their desire so they won’t have to. Each wants to get their own way, and the more the one insists on their way, the more the other refuses to back down. The overlapping language is a sign that, despite their claims to the contrary, they have become mirror images of each other’s desire to win.
As their desires converge, the differences between them melt away. They mirror each other’s indignation and anger. In the language of mimetic theory, they have imitated each other’s desires in an escalating exchange until their differences have disappeared. The strange truth about conflict is that we do not fight because we want different things. If we want different things, what is there to fight about? And wanting the same thing does not necessarily lead to conflict. Friendships and love relationships are grounded in shared interests, hobbies, likes, and dislikes. But when our desires converge on something we refuse to share, that’s when conflict erupts. If you find you and your partner arguing past each other like you are in a scene from Parenthood, fuming, pouting, and resenting each other a lot of the time, it may be because of the dynamics of mimetic rivalries. You may be imitating each other’s desire to win in conflict after conflict, clinging to false differences rather than acknowledge that you both want the same thing.
What would it look like for Sarah and Mark to re-establish some honest differences and return to a willingness to share rather than win? That’s easy! Sarah or Mark could desire that the other win. If either one were able to shift towards a willingness to lose, there would be no conflict. I know, I know. It goes against every bit of advice we hear nowadays about standing up for yourself in relationships. But let me just ask, how’s that working for you? To love someone means being able to put their desires ahead of your own. And we are only worthy of such love as we are able to do that in return. In his article, "Giving and Loving, or What’s the Most Important Thing?," mimetic anthropologist Mark Anspach points out that even true love will founder if the giving is overly one-sided. Is there a way out of this dilemma?
The solution lies in recognizing the transcendent status of the couple itself as an independent entity. A couple is greater than the sum of its parts. It is greater than what each person puts into it. Indeed, that is perhaps the deepest reason everyone wants to form a couple: the most important thing in anyone’s life is to be part of something greater than themselves. To be part of a successful couple is one of the most rewarding things that exist. So rewarding, in fact, that if we keep giving to keep the couple going, we are sure to receive even more in return – more than we could ever tally up on a balance sheet.
When you are dedicated to what you are creating together, losing can be a winning strategy. Hey, it’s worth a shot, isn’t it? Because to paraphrase the lyric from “The Second Greatest Thing,” a song by my friend, Michael McLean, no matter what other amazing things you accomplish in your life, loving someone is the greatest thing we’ll ever do.