The relationship between Israel and Palestine is frequently referred to symbolically as a marriage, albeit a dysfunctional one at best, and at worst, a downright abusive one. If Middle East political commentators could be likened to daytime talk show hosts, then the cycle of accusation and counter-recrimination would be more reminiscent of Jerry Springer or Maury Povich, then the composed, if somewhat staid fare provided by, say, Phil Donahue or the second coming of Oprah.

“You are NOT the landholder!”

As fun as it may be to have ringside seats when the pundit’s answer to Geraldo starts trading punches with the Israeli and Palestinian extremists (and to avoid any charges of slander, I’m not insinuating which side represents Geraldo in this equation), a public forum is rarely the best place to air grievances, especially if the guise of seeking a true resolution.

I had this friend once who went through marriage counseling, and the therapist told me… er, I mean the therapist told *her* that a psychologist named John Gottman discovered several markers for determining when a relationship is in serious trouble, and which actions can be taken to make a partnership work if both individuals wish for this to happen.

This got me thinking: What would happen if Israel and Palestine decided to enter into a form of national couple’s therapy? The goal wouldn’t necessarily be to keep the two entities tied together, but rather to determine how to behave responsibly towards each other when, as every divorced parent knows, their futures are inextricably linked for the foreseeable future, and any pain that one party inflicts on the other is likely to cause at least a small amount of self-harm.

In Dr. Gottman’s research, the most common signs of a troubled relationship are the presence of the “four horsemen”: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. There are obvious signs of all of these things reoccurring throughout the decades long negotiation process between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

For example, calling the most liberal democracy in the region an “apartheid state” is not merely meant as an honest complaint, but is obviously intended to be hurtful. Stating the Palestinian Arabs are backwards, and that their poverty is entirely their own fault, due to incompetence, corruption, or laziness is clearly an expression of contempt.

What if we could get beyond merely exchanging charges and demands, in order to gain a better understanding of each side’s position? Dr. Gottman mentions that 69% of issues which cause conflict in a marriage are perpetual. These reflect problems in which the parties have such fundamental differences in opinion or approach, that there is no way to compromise and have each partner come away feeling good about the solution. After multiple attempts to come to an agreement, eventually the situation will result in a stalemate, or gridlock, in which any interchange degenerates quickly and no progress is ever made.

According to Dr. Gottman, the key towards maintaining a happy relationship, despite any perpetual problems that may come up, is to move away from gridlock through a dialogue which gets to the root about why each side feels so strongly, and aims for the other side to understand the deeper motivations and dreams that can remain hidden at the heart of the disagreement.

Admittedly, it can be hard to listen to someone with whom you disagree completely. Am I willing to hear the story of a family who lost everything during the fight after Israel proclaimed its independence? I personally don’t consider the state of Israel a tragedy, but losing one’s home and belongings certainly is. Similarly, is a Palestinian willing to hear the stories of European refugees fleeing the horrors of the holocaust who were kept starving on boats by the British, in an effort to stop Jewish immigration into the region? Is that something that any individual would be able to see as humane?

One of the keys to successfully getting out of gridlock is for each side to be aware of what their dreams are, and what is non-negotiable in the pursuit of those dreams. Speaking for myself, I dream of an Israel where I don’t have to constantly fear attacks by my neighbors, and where border crossings and commerce are plentiful and mutually beneficial. I would guess that the Palestinians want a state where they are able to practice self-determination, and where Israel’s relationship in terms of security concerns is the same as with other sovereign countries.

On Israel’s part, it’s non-negotiable that we should not face state-sponsored terrorism (either explicit or implicit, through lack of enforcement against groups that are not technically part of the Palestinian government), and that the purpose of Israel as a safe haven for the Jewish people, while being fair to all of its citizenry, be respected. While I can’t speak for the Palestinian people very well, I posit that their non-negotiables include the unrestricted pursuit of those activities commonly held to be the purview of an independent nation, including establishing an electoral process, land and water rights, and an acknowledgement both emotionally and economically of the suffering of Palestinians whose families originally held land within the borders of the land now recognized as Israel.

It’s time to stop the demonizing and violence. And that takes both sides relating to each other as human beings. Personal attacks, either from within Israel and Palestine, or hurled at either camp by outside parties are not going to accomplish the goal of co-existence. While our two peoples most likely will still end up divorced, I’d much rather it be an amicable one where we can still get together and share a meal on the holidays. I mean, we’ll always agree on hummus, right?!