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Negotiating Love

An Interview with Riki Robbins Jones and Philip Jones

Copyright © 1996 by Bert and Bernetta Hoff

This story appeared in the February, 1996 issue of M.E.N. Magazine


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Riki Robbins Jones has been touring the country promoting her book, Negotiating Love: How Women and Men Can Resolve Their Differences. M.E.N. Magazine editor Bert Hoff and his wife Bernetta met with Riki and her husband Philip at a downtown café to talk.

Bernetta: I think it's more interesting interviewing you two as a couple.

Riki: Exactly, because the book really grew out of our relationship. I myself have had a lot of difficulty with relationships. I have a very strong formal-academic background, but came very ill-prepared for what I see as the most important task in my life. If there's one thing I want to be remembered for, in Negotiating Love, it's one phrase my friend Rod Van Mechelen pulled out of the book, that for him represents the tapestry of it. The phrase, at the end of the book, is that you cannot have world peace until one man and one woman learn to live in peace with each other. That's the essence of my work.

I believe that. I studied political science, about what causes countries to do this or that, but came to realize that the building blocks of what might be a peaceful planet begin at the bottom level. I felt very hypocritical when I talked about peace in school, yet I found tremendous difficulty in creating peace in my relationships. My first two marriages ended in divorce. As I told you, Phil, on my first date, I never intended to marry again. I didn't see how it was possible to find happiness in a relationship. But I fell in love with Philip on the very first date, and I decided that if I didn't accomplish anything else on earth, I wanted there to be a Phil and Riki. That was my greatest goal-and it still is.

Bert: I've heard Malidoma Somé and others say that Americans fall in love and then marry. Africans marry, then fall in love.

Riki: That's very appropriate, because we're all very hung up on this. I'm always asked, "What about romance?" My stock answer is that I believe in romance. That's what brings us together. But we believe that romance is the panacea that's going to solve all the problems in the relationship. It's very consuming. There's nothing more powerful in the world than sexual chemistry. (Chuckling) Why would you put up with anyone else in the first place?

But the truth of the matter is that there comes this moment of reckoning. Phil and I have this thing we do. "I love long walks."

Philip: Yeah, I like that, too!

Riki: I like to sit by the ocean.

Philip: Yeah, I like that, too!

Riki: It's all so simple. We say "yes" and we pretend. But at some point reality sets in. We find all the things we feel differently about. I would say that we disagree about a fair number of things.

Philip: (Chuckling) Most things.

Bernetta: I love it! But that's true in a relationship.

Bert: So how did the bloom first come off, for you, and what did you do about it?

Riki: I had no skills. I had two parents who argued back and forth for 34 years, and I didn't know any other way. But I also knew that I didn't want to lose this guy. We did a lot of finding who we are, didn't we?

Philip: There was a lot of-I don't exactly know what the word is-"shaking out." A lot of conflict during that process.

Riki: As I've told you before, Phil, I was a lot more aware of negotiating love than you were. I don't think you thought about it and wrote it down the way I did. But from time to time, we'd resolve these things. From an intellectual point of view, I was utterly fascinated with how we managed to do this. What was going on? I figured it out and wrote it down. Phil's favorite joke was how I'd write down our fights. I really love that!

Philip: She'd go into the bathroom and scribble, scribble, scribble.

Bernetta: But, really, that's how you learn. It was a very positive thing to do.

Riki: Exactly! I'd write down how we had worked out something, and what the process was.

Bernetta: Then it forced you to see it from a different perspective.

Philip: One of the things we discovered when we looked at it from a dispassionate point of view was that there was a ratchet effect going on, very much like jacking up a car. One person would say something, and the other would react to that. Then I would react again, and she would react again. The next thing you know, the tires are pulling off the pavement. It was like an exchange of energy. I think of it as an "attack energy." When this attack energy is brought into the relationship, it is met by a similar attack energy. The only place to go is to keep ratcheting it up.

Bernetta: Until you collapse from the stress.

Philip: But this ratcheting can be avoided if the attack energy is not met with that, but just accepted as whatever it was.

Bert: That sounds like a great theory. So when Bernetta comes at me with attack energy, my natural response is to attack back, to at least hold my own. So what do I do instead?

Riki: What you just said is magnificent, because that's what Negotiating Love is all about. Stage 1, before negotiating love, is dealing with this attack energy, this anger. Many people never get beyond that, which is what I was despairing. How would we get beyond that?

What we figured out was that one person has the power to stop it, because it takes two people to keep ratcheting it up. One person can stop it by simply refusing to come back at it.

When they ask me this on the radio, I say I know how you can stop the fight. Two ways. Number one, physically remove yourself from the scene of the crime. Get out. Leave the room. Go into your room. Is that what you do sometimes, Phil, go down to the basement and shut the door behind you? I'll go into my room and shut the door, sometimes slam it.

What I further maintain is that if you know in advance what your partner is going to do, it makes it a lot simpler. If, for example, your idea of removing yourself is to get into the car and drive away, and your partner doesn't know this, he is going to go bananas. It's important to have some degree of understanding, verbalized or not, worked out about how you're going to have some rules of the game for breaking this attack energy.

Bernetta: Without hurting the other person, without the person feeling completely rejected and abandoned.

Riki: That's right. You say that if you're going out, you're not going down to the lawyer, you're just going out and will be back in an hour or so.

The other thing that you've become the master of, Phil, and that you've taught me, is verbal distancing. The way you look at me and say, "Are you finished?"

Bernetta: I love it! I'd probably kill him if he said that. "No! I'm not finished! And next…"

Bert: That's a real frustration that comes up, because if Bernetta and I are talking about something, she elaborates her point, then she elaborates her point, then she elaborates it again, and I don't have anything to say back. I have this feeling that this conversation will go on forever, unless I agree to what she wants, fix the problem, or say that everything will be all right.

Bernetta: No, just acknowledge that I said something. I don't feel heard.

Riki: The other thing that Phil will do is say, "OK, enough arguing." Detaching yourself from the argument and saying, "Haven't we had about enough of this?" It's a kind of emotional distancing, saying that it's time to end the argument and go on to have dinner. Or saying, "Let's figure out what's going on, and then move on."

This kind of distancing, physical or emotional, breaks the attack energy.

Bernetta: But how do you get to the deeper level? At the heart of it, there's usually something going on with one or both of you.

Riki: That's stage 2. That's when you're going to work it out. My point is that if you're attacking me and I'm attacking you, we're never going to get beyond that. Breaking the attack energy is the most difficult part.

Bernetta: And the part most of us get stuck in, just going over and over things, so we never get to the heart of what's hurting.

Riki: Yes. We've both had incredibly long cycles of attacking each other.

Philip: There are some interesting parallels between this and some of the recent research in negotiations. The research shows that the most successful negotiations occur when you have two cooperative people working together to resolve the dispute between them. But what can happen, as they discovered in the Harvard negotiation project, is that sometimes one of the parties can misinterpret something that the other has done as being aggressive. They were generally taught that if the other party has been aggressive, you have to make your own aggressive move to counter it. Otherwise, you would be taken advantage of. So what would happen was that one party would do something which they didn't see as aggressive, but the other one did, and the other party would do a countermeasure. At this point, they both saw themselves as innocent parties, saying, "You started it!" At this point, they would both end up screaming at each other, and the problem would escalate. The worst negotiations would occur when one party was accused of being aggressive, when they didn't think they were.

Riki: This happens a lot. It's another thing we discovered by trial and error. We would make assumptions about each other, that if I felt a certain way, then you did, too. It still happens occasionally. It never occurred to us at first, that maybe the other one was thinking about the subject from a whole other place.

Bernetta: But men and women do think from completely different places.

Riki: Exactly! My ego would think, "I think that way, you must think that way, too!" I realized that I say that you were attributing motives to me that I never had, and I was doing the same thing. Once I saw that, I stopped assuming things about you, and started asking you more, and gave you a chance to explain yourself.

Bert: What you're saying reminds me of a videotape by Danaan Parry, Essential Peacemaking, which we reviewed in a recent issue.

Riki: Yes, he's doing some very wonderful work on male-female conflict resolution. I'd like to meet him some day.

Bert: His videotape ends with an exercise on active listening. If I feel I'm being attacked, and give feedback to the other person on what I think happened, this could prevent misunderstanding the other person's actions as aggressive behavior.

Riki: Yes. This gets back to something you were talking about earlier. The antidote to what you were saying earlier, Bernetta, about not being heard, is technically active listening. I say "technically," because I'm not sure active listening isn't stereotypical. Take, for example, the Karl Rogers technique I studied. I repeat back to you what I heard you say, so you understand that I heard you. But what's required is more than that. It's a matter of feeling that you really understood what it's like to think what I think or feel what I feel. This takes a lot of effort. I believe what I heard Robert Moore talking about at the Chicago Men's Conference, about King, Warrior, Magician, Lover. Men are hard-wired. What I see as the only thing that works in bridging this enormous communication gap between men and women is, to use Robert Moore's terms, that I develop my masculine and you develop your feminine. We get into each other's energy, each other's mind-set. That's hard to do.

If I'm just doing "active listening" by rote, and you say to Bert, "I'm unhappy because I don't have enough room in the house," and Bert repeats back to you, "I hear you saying you're unhappy," do you feel you've been understood?

Bernetta: No, because he can say anything back.

Riki: He's not giving you feedback that your energy, your feeling, your whole sense of being is appreciated. It's extremely difficult to do that. I feel it helps a lot if we switch roles some-if I understand a little what it feels like to make a living. I've become a lot more empathetic now that I've been out there trying to sell my book. I think it also helps if you read. All these things help to try to get a sense of how the other person works.

Another aspect I think it's extremely important to bring up is that women say that men don't communicate. I believe that men are fundamentally excellent communicators, but they just do it differently. Remember, Phil, how you used to criticize me when you would talk and I would cut you off? Am I any better at that now?

Philip: Somewhat, somewhat.

Riki: I'm working on it. It's very hard, because you have a very different rhythm to your communication than I do.

Bernetta: When I'm with girlfriends, I hardly need to finish a sentence because they know what I'm saying. Men really resent that, but you get into a habit, and you both talk at the same time and it works. It's hard to change your style between one person and another. And it's probably hard for them, too.

Riki: It's very hard to do, but it's the only thing that works. Going back to my own personal experience here, I remember when we would stay up late to have those long conversations that went on through the night, with my agenda of things I had to get off my chest when you had to get up and go to work the next morning. I learned that these conversations need to happen in short, little bites, not whole meals. Men, in particular, get really turned off by a barrage of words.

Philip: You get a little bit apprehensive when your wife says you need to have a little relationship talk. You cringe.

Bert: You've described dealing with the attack energy and setting rules for negotiating, as an important first step. The book then outlines specific negotiating techniques. But you tapped into something else I want to get back to-men and women being hard-wired. There's a lot that says these differences are all socially and culturally conditioned roles, and all I have to do is to take on a different role. But other work suggests that men and women are different.

Riki: It's more than just anatomy. I will take issue with any radical feminist who says that the differences we have "down there" are the only differences we have.

Bernetta: We're different hormonally, and in moods. If I'm in a certain time of month, I could just kill him for some of the stuff he does.

Riki: And if he had done it four days earlier, you wouldn't have given it a second thought.

Bernetta: That's one of the hardest things about being a woman-you aren't the same. Especially with mid-life coming on. It's not a cycle anymore, it's a constant hormonal shift.

Riki: It's horrible! There were times when I would scream at you and I'd hear a voice in my head telling me that this was PMS or that this was mid-life. The voice would be screaming at me, but I was powerless to stop.

Bernetta: It's an energy that just comes flying out of you. Sometimes I'm shocked at the things I've said to him. I'd hear this voice saying, "Did you really say that to him? Oh, my God!" Then I would say, "It's all his fault. It has to be." You just feel so out of control!

Riki: Control is the right word. You feel you don't have any control over your emotions or your life.

Bernetta: And my short-term memory is gone, too. You get tired out trying to remember what steps you're supposed to take next.

Riki: All kinds of things like that happen.

Bert: Dave Ault told me that one of the differences he sees between your book and other self-help books is that so many of them are written by women, and will take a woman's problem, just substituting "he" for "she." You, on the other hand, spent a lot of time talking to men around the country, to listen to their problems and perspectives.

Riki: I feel that's so important. It's a matter of getting into that person's energy, not just repeating back the words. I have found men to be tremendously articulate. The message I got over and over again, not just from the well-known authors and workshop facilitators, but from average men, is that, "Yes, I would talk to my wife. I'm dying to talk to my wife. I want to express myself. Either I can't get in a word edgewise, or if I do talk, she is not going to want to hear what I have to say." That's a big one between Phil and me. Remember when you came home from the New Warrior training? That was a very painful realization that I came face-to-face with. I, too, was guilty of not wanting to hear what you had to say. Some of the things you wanted to say to me, I was terrified to hear. I wanted to hide or run away.

This is one area where women have to assume 50 percent of the responsibility for what's going on. To say that men don't want to talk is totally unfair. It took me a while to open up. Remember you said you had all these things you wanted to tell me, and how I resisted at first? Eventually, I was open to most of them, but it took me awhile. But at least I was willing to look at myself in the mirror and say, "Hey, you have to be brave about this. If he wants to talk, you have to listen to whatever it is." But that's risky business.

It's a conspiracy, I feel. Women say, "He doesn't talk to me," but it's a convenient cop-out which, when translated, says, "I'd really rather not hear what he wants to say, so if I don't give him a forum or opportunity, I never have to hear it."

Bert: Another thing we keep hearing is that men are out of touch with their emotions and feelings. They're dead from the neck down. Some of that may be true, but how much of this perception is due to men having different ways of accessing and expressing their emotions and feelings?

Riki: Phil, you can probably speak about that better than I can.

Philip: I think if you look at the emotions expressed during sports events, where it's sanctioned to have strong emotions expressed about non-emotional subjects, you see that it's socially acceptable to express emotions. I think it's the subject matter that makes expression of emotion not socially sanctioned. And certainly in relationships, love relationships, it's not so socially acceptable.

Maybe what it really comes down to is that it's not socially acceptable for a man to appear weak or vulnerable, rather than maintaining an image of strength.

Bert: Or I'm afraid to show Bernetta how angry or resentful I am, because she won't want to hear that.

Riki: Or how weak or frightened you are, which are emotions women are even more afraid to see in a man. I'd sooner see an angry man than a scared man. That terrifies me. When you express fear to me, that's what I have the hardest time dealing with.

Bernetta: That's interesting, because I'm more afraid of anger than I am of fear. I almost think that if I saw Bert cry, I would feel more comfortable with him.

Riki: I would say that it's different for each one of us. I think it's a very courageous thing that both of us just said, when we admitted our fears about our spouses' emotions. Most women would not have admitted that. They would have just said, "Well, you know George. George never talks." Well, George hears that, and says to himself, "That's what I'm expected to do, just shut up and bring home the money."

I have found that most men are very communicative. In fact, sometimes I would interview a couple together, and the man would say relatively little. The woman would then excuse herself and invite me to talk to the man alone. When she was out of the room, he would talk like a bandit! But as soon as she came back into the room, he would zip up his mouth. He had been trained, by her and by himself. It seemed like an agreement they had, that his job was to be strong and silent, and her job was to do the talking and emoting.

When people ask me who has the power in a relationship, my stock response is that each one of us has 50 percent of it, because any time I want to break the conspiracy, I can say to you, "Whatever you say, I'll hear it." Did I used to do that?

Philip: No, I got a message that it wasn't all right.

Riki: After you took the New Warrior training you asked me, "Why is it OK for you to say what you want to bring up, but not for me?"

Bernetta: How did you as a couple break into this in a way that wasn't so overwhelming?

Riki: What I have found is that it's important to start small. If you try to think about the whole thing, you could lose your mind. You start with one area. In my book I talk about the "hot spots." For you, it might be space and silence. Within that one area, pick one issue. At some given point, when you choose to, you have the power to work out some kind of an agreement, some wild and crazy, unorthodox, ridiculous agreement.

The question I've been asking myself is, Can I grow a little bit? Is this the lesson that God has sent to me, that maybe the house doesn't have to be a morgue? We're getting into emotional issues here. When I was growing up, my parents fought back and forth for 34 years, and I was in the house for 21 of them. Silence was my security. Am I now a big enough girl so that I can welcome some noise, some disruption into my life? You both have to grow towards each other, and give a little bit.

Bert: Aaron Kipnis and Liz Herron say in Gender War, Gender Peace (republished in paperback as What Men and Women Really Want) that the problems don't stem from differences between men and women, but from our failure to honor those differences.

Riki: That's true, but it's easier said than done. It's very easy to generalize and proselytize. That's why I say that world peace begins with one man and one woman learning how to work this out on a daily basis. Every single day brings a new challenge. With the wiring differences, with the socialization differences, we've got to work it out.

Bernetta: Something can happen like what happened to us when Bert lost his job, that changes everything around. Something you weren't expecting-if you had some warning, you might be a little better prepared.

Riki: And that's the challenge. Working this out, day to day. As you said, Phil, it's partly emotional and partly practical. If it were all just practical, we'd just come up with a chart or a to-do list, and it would all be done. I maintain that working through this is the greatest challenge we face in our lifetimes. I know zillions of people who tell me that they are successful in their job, they live in a good house and drive a good car, but they can't get along with their boyfriend.

What this means is that if you have children in your life, and you can't get along, you give them a heritage of not getting along.

Bert: Where do you see this work going, for the individuals who are taking this challenge on in their own lives and for you and the work that you're doing?

Riki: I think it's infinite. I think if I, and everybody who wanted to, worked on this nonstop 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, we couldn't make a dent in it. It's at the heart of our social problems. Look at domestic violence, date rape, or sexual harassment. These are all failures of communication between men and women-there are just different forums for it. Look at the divorce rate. The young people's crime rate is a reflection of parents who couldn't get along. We have massive social dislocation that stems from this problem.

I prefer to look at it from the ground up, from the one-on-one perspective. Other people who are far more knowledgeable than I can give you the statistics.

If we think about how difficult it is, how many people have to do different things, we could lose our minds. I prefer to look at it in these terms: if the earth is a garden, I can only till my own little patch. Maybe I can encourage other people to till their patches a little bit better. Maybe they can, in turn, encourage others. Maybe after all this is done, there will be a big green space.

Right now, there are very few people doing this very well. I know this because I know how difficult it was for me and Phil, and we're relatively intelligent and emotionally sophisticated people who have done a lot of workshops, read a lot of books, and done a lot of work on ourselves.

Very few couples are doing this work. This is a key issue: with women's equality, it becomes a lot more difficult. Bernetta feels she has as much right to have her needs met as you do, and that's the challenge. What I envision happening is that the patch of green I was talking about will grow larger and larger. The balance is going to shift. I believe that as more and more people learn to negotiate with each other, at home and in business, there will be a larger and larger critical mass of people who do this. And clearly, it's easier to teach this to people who read, and who are willing to work on themselves. This, by the way, is critical, because people who work on themselves first find it easier to engage in this kind of work with somebody else.

The most important thing, which I write about in Chapter 1 of my book, is trust. Trust is the one thing that's missing from the equation right now. Why don't more people negotiate love? Because they don't trust each other. That sums up so much of what's going on between couples right now.

Bernetta: Because they've been hurt by the opposite sex.

Riki: The difference between negotiating and negotiating love is trust. If I'm negotiating with you, I don't trust you. I'm trying to rip you off, and you're trying to rip me off. If you're going to have conversation where you're actually going to work something out that works for both of you, the trust has to be there. It starts, again, small. I don't say to trust men. Start off by trying to trust one man. Don't trust women. Work on trying to establish trust with the woman you're with. So much of what is written is the opposite-don't trust them. We literally have to stop reading, put our fingers in our ears, and ignore a lot of what's being said by the media in order to establish that trust.

Bernetta: There's a lot of truth in what you say. The media seem to want to keep the war between the sexes going, because it's sensational.

Riki: It kind of perpetuates the status quo. What would happen if couples started trusting each other? We don't know. It would be different from what we have now. That would be scary. I want to tell you that that's the biggest obstacle to my work right now. I've had people come up to me and say, "If we really started getting along together, things would be different. I'm not sure I'm ready for that." A lot of people are so entrenched in mistrust, pain, and hatred that they seem to want to stay that way.

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