Power of the Middle Ground: A Couple's Guide to Renewing Your Relationship

Power of the Middle Ground: A Couple's Guide to Renewing Your Relationship

by Marty Babits

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The Power of the Middle Ground explains–as no other self-help book does–why and how the inherent difficulties entailed in the change process itself are daunting. Author Marty Babits, a seasoned couples therapist and educator, explains strategies and provides tips for grappling successfully with the challenges that change presents. This key aspect of

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The Power of the Middle Ground explains–as no other self-help book does–why and how the inherent difficulties entailed in the change process itself are daunting. Author Marty Babits, a seasoned couples therapist and educator, explains strategies and provides tips for grappling successfully with the challenges that change presents. This key aspect of working through relationship difficulties has, until now, been given short shrift in the popular and academic literature. Despite the central place of divorce in our culture, he teaches couples how to achieve a much greater impact in solving difficult interpersonal problems than is often thought possible.
Babits helps couples envision a place that brings their potential for love and compassion alive. This place, which neither partner can dominate and in which each learns to approach problems productively, he calls the "middle ground." Through a series of exercises, he equips couples to appreciate and actualize what is positive and possible in their relationship.
This encouraging, yet realistic book empowers partners to negotiate differences, emphasize the positive, see issues from each other’s point of view, defuse anger, and, as a result, rekindle warmth and love.

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According to couples therapist and educator Babits, the "middle ground" is the place where neither partner dominates, each approaches problems productively, and love and compassion come alive. His realistic directions on reaching the middle ground include seeing issues from the other's point of view, emphasizing the positive, and developing patience. It would be most beneficial, he notes, if both partners practiced the steps of "letting go of anger" or "paraphrasing the other's point" together. But even if just one of them uses this book as a tool for introspection, the relationship-whether straight or gay-should greatly improve. Worksheets and exercises are included. Recommended for public libraries.

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Prometheus Books
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A Couple's Guide to Renewing Your Relationship

Prometheus Books
Copyright © 2009

Marty Babits
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59102-662-4


Most couples who seek help feel their difficulties center around communication. Carl and Amanda echo this concern when they consult me. At their first session, I ask, "What brings you to seek help at this time?"

"We don't communicate," Amanda replies.

"That's right," says Carl. "We have problems with communication."

I inquire, "But what brings you in to see me at this time? Why now?"

Amanda takes the lead. "Recently Carl lost his temper. That's been happening a lot lately but this time, the force of his anger frightened me. I said to myself, 'Something is wrong here.' I don't frighten easily. That's when I knew we needed help."

Not all couples complain of explosive anger as a key problem, but it is far from a rarity that I hear this complaint. At this point, Carl slouches back on the deep-purple couch and pulls a fringed pillow against his chest, as if it were a hot-water bottle.

Carl speaks haltingly. "She's right about what she said. There's something wrong, something missing."

"Can you tell me more about what is missing?" I reply. "Can you describe this thing that isn't in your relationship now? This thing that you need."

He nods his head, acknowledging my question; appears deep in thought; but, in the end, simply shrugs. My first hunch is that, like a lot of men, Carl grew up with little awareness that this skill-talking about feelings-would be so critical to his success or failure as a relational partner.

When Carl finally speaks, I learn that he feels like he is failing in his relationship with Amanda. He feels that, as a man, he should be able to maintain and project a stabilizing, reassuring presence. Amanda's growing insecurity confirms just how far short Carl has fallen. He realizes, without being able to stop himself, how hurtful his lashing out at Amanda is. He is unhappy about the relationship and about who he is in it.

Although painful for Carl, his dissatisfaction with himself is a potentially hopeful sign. Embedded within his dissatisfaction is the wish to make more of the relationship than what currently exists. Carl, unknowingly, is poised to discover that he already possesses sufficient motivation to make the positive changes that, as yet, he cannot visualize.

Couples who lack a middle ground, like Amanda and Carl, feel underappreciated and misunderstood. Each feels alone and lonely in the other's presence. Their attempts at communication end up in a power struggle. This situation is so common that it could be designated as the usual starting point for couples' work: Square One.


Imagine a place that brings the potential for love and compassion alive within your relationship. What would you call a place where you and your partner learn to communicate more productively? What would you call a place where understandings can develop from genuine differences? What name would you give a place in which natural capacities for sharing can be unfrozen and an atmosphere of emotional safety can flourish? I call this place the "middle ground."

If you are looking for help in your relationship, it's very likely you can't see this place clearly. Perhaps you've seen it but didn't recognize what you were witnessing. Perhaps you have never-not even within your imagination-had a glimpse of it. This is the middle ground.

This book will help you identify the middle-ground potential in your relationship and guide you in developing it.


Let's say your partner comes home in a bad mood and, rather than taking his mood personally-as an insult, a slight, a power maneuver-you wonder if something is bothering him. This puts you in a position to be an ally. Partners as allies-try to visualize this situation as it might pertain to you. Now consider what you see as a glimpse of the middle ground.

What does it take to support a middle-ground response like this, to be a good ally, a quality that many couples lack? The ability to weigh your responses, to fan out options, and to make choices rather than simply react as if on automatic pilot is crucial. And this requires a degree of patience, a rare commodity these days, but it can be developed. Every step toward the middle ground-including the exercises and activities found in this book-involves developing patience. Simply put, there is no way to sustain an adult partnership that does not require patience.

A second glimpse-Carol desires Kyle, but he is "not in the mood." Stung by his lack of understanding, his lack of generosity, she finds her patience is short. But instead of criticizing him, she decides to think about how to approach him so that they can have a conversation, not a screaming match.

Because she's given herself a moment of hesitation before blasting her partner, she can recall that it wasn't long ago that she had nixed his similar advances. She thinks, How would I have felt if he had approached me angrily and complained about my not being in the mood then? She realizes immediately that she would have been upset and angry; odds are, he would feel the same way if she approached him as if he were being ungenerous or lacking understanding.

This process-slowing down her reactivity and thinking about the situation rather than going with her knee-jerk response-represents a huge accomplishment, a step into the middle ground. Here, Carol gives herself an opportunity to choose what she does. Understand this as a gift Carol bestows on herself and her partner or, maybe even more to the point, an investment, one that pays huge dividends, particularly if the installments are deposited regularly.

In his fascinating 2005 book The Paradox of Choice, author Barry Schwartz cites research that demonstrates that negative emotion can have a detrimental impact on thinking and decision making. As studies show, when people are upset-under the influence of negative emotion-they tend to make poor decisions that do not represent their best interests. When we feel bad, it is almost as if someone else, a person who does not have our best interests at heart, becomes our proxy. Unfortunately, in a troubled relationship, we can be upset much or most of the time. That's not unusual. This means that while we sort out our relationship difficulties, we commit ourselves to a lot of poor decisions-which means a lot of misery-unless we can devise a technique for countering this trend. The middle ground is based on the understanding that people undergoing relational stress are generally at their worst and, for that reason, need to make their decisions with unusual deliberation. The material presented in these pages will help you modify your decision-making process sufficiently so that you can think about how you will proceed, based on the intended outcome you are seeking. You will learn to anchor yourself in this most important consideration. Do not go with your gut. Go with your reflection on what your gut tells you. Do not ignore your feelings, but don't let yourself be ruled by your feelings. Rather than function within the parameters of constantly judging who is right or wrong, most or least worthy, most or least blameworthy-instead of operating within those love-busting parameters, learn how to anchor yourself in the outcome you need for the relationship you want. Aim to extend your partner the benefit of the doubt, to invite him or her to respond to you when you express your feelings. Let your partner know you are interested in understanding their point of view as they understand it. That doesn't mean you accept, at face value, the way they see things. It means that you value their internal experience.

Carol thought about what she was going to do, about what she felt. What informed her thought process was, first and foremost, a process, not a discrete event. One thought led to another, and, somewhere in the chain of associations, she lit upon a very important middle-ground perspective-she thought about how her partner might react if she responded one way (with criticism and anger) as opposed to another way (with remembrance of how she felt when she was in a situation very much like his). Having arrived in the middle ground, Carol included a consideration of Kyle's feelings. As a result, what registers most strongly with him is that Carol is an ally. Their mutual bond grows richer through this sort of action.

This illustrates the sense in which middle ground relating creates a shared perspective. An incident like this can help your relationship a little; a pattern of these incidents can help your relationship a ton.

How can you develop a shared perspective if you do not learn to see your partner's point of view? You can't. But how can you learn to do this if it doesn't come naturally? This book answers that question.


Locate the space between selfishness and selflessness. It results from cultivating what is possible, the inner edge of possibility. Discover the area between the way things are and the way they can be, this segment of possibility lies within the middle ground. Where mystification and despair are shed in the light of perseverance, creativity, humility, concern-this is the heart of the middle ground. Middle ground applies to the understanding that this area of the relationship belongs to neither partner. Neither can claim nor dominate this space; it is between partners, in the middle.

With tending, the middle ground grows sturdy and resilient; it can last a lifetime. Potential for intimacy, pleasure, dialogue comes alive here-though harm, even ruin, can come through neglect, cruelty, and shortsightedness.


Another glimpse of the middle ground.

Patricia and Annie argue about money frequently. Annie insists that Patricia is irresponsible with their money and lays blame for their problems-moderate debt-squarely on her partner. According to Patricia, Annie worries constantly and unnecessarily and cannot enjoy their life together. Patricia accuses Annie of being a killjoy; Annie complains that Patricia's spending is, if anything, increasing her anxiety levels and making it harder for herself.

Annie and Patricia have gotten into a destructive secondary pattern; they avoid making plans or spending time together, which reduces the frequency of their arguments but does nothing to solve their differences. They have become isolated from each other and fearful about the future of their relationship. By the time I meet with them, this pattern of avoidance has become more of a threat to their relationship than their original (financial) problems.

By working on communication exercises together, and through working at envisioning a lower anger level in the relationship, Patricia and Annie gradually tipped the communication balance away from avoidance and toward acknowledgment and understanding. Through their work, they recapture the element of tenderness that both had feared, during their angriest moments, would be unrecoverable.

With a modicum of goodwill and trust restored to the relationship, they were able to speak to each other about their respective financial concerns without becoming adversarial. As the work proceeded, Patricia gained new insight into Annie's anxieties about money. Where she had felt resentful that Annie treated her as a child, incapable of making responsible decisions about money, she came to see that Annie-because of a history of financial and emotional instability growing up with two alcoholic parents-felt helpless and childlike herself when faced with having to deal with even moderate debt. In other words, Patricia learned that being anxious about money was not something that Annie willfully inflicted on their life together but was an issue to which Annie was personally vulnerable toward. In fact, Patricia began to understand-once middle-ground connections were forged-that Annie needed Patricia's help in dealing with this issue. Patricia's ability to shift from a challenging to a nurturing stance helped lay the groundwork for a new and deeper level of trust and understanding to emerge between the two. They came to agreements about how to budget more collaboratively. In the end, money ceased to be a central obstacle in their lives together, and having been able to listen to and integrate each other's concerns about this very important issue strengthened their love.

Rage, impatience, self-righteousness will shut down the middle ground. Curiosity and a willingness to work on challenges (rather than avoid them) opens it up. The middle ground is not a measure of whether a couple has challenges to face-it's formed as a function of how couples react to the challenges they face.


Middle-Ground Activity

Take an inventory of what's gone right and what's gone wrong. A balanced assessment will help you to zero in on what is most needed. Allow yourself the freedom to identify and rank what you like most and what bothers you most about time spent together. Encourage your partner to join you in this activity. Comparing notes can be more than informative-it can help you take a first step into the middle ground. To assist you in preparing the inventory, I've provided a checklist to help you think through and identify problem areas, as well as a summary assessment form to help you organize your results.

Identifying Problem Areas

The most pressing problems in our relationship are:

___ The way we talk to each other.

___ We spend too little time together.

___ We spend too much time together.

___ We do not have enough relaxation time together.

___ We aren't romantic enough with each other.

___ We don't plan or cooperate around money well.

___ We do not make decisions together.

___ We socialize too frequently. We rarely have alone time together.

___ We socialize too infrequently. I feel we are an isolated couple.

___ My partner doesn't compliment me enough.

___ My partner is moody.

___ My partner stonewalls me.

___ I stonewall my partner.

___ I feel taken for granted.

___ My partner feels taken for granted.

___ My partner is too critical.

___ My partner talks down to me.

___ My partner says hurtful things to me.

___ I lose my temper too easily and/or too quickly.

___ My partner loses his or her temper too easily and/or too quickly.

___ My partner needs to know me better.

___ I need to know my partner better.

___ My partner's standards for neatness and/or cleanliness differ greatly from my own.

___ My partner does not stimulate me intellectually.

___ We haven't developed recreational activities that we enjoy together.

___ Our sexual appetites differ significantly.

___ We are not affectionate enough with each other.

___ Even when we are together, I often feel alone and lonely.

___ We can talk about problems, but nothing changes.

___ We do not celebrate the good things that happen in our lives.

___ We do not savor each other's accomplishments.

___ We don't talk about our feelings together enough.

___ We don't talk much about anything.

___ Our sexual relationship is less than satisfying.

___ We do not share equitably in household chores.

___ I do most of the social planning.

___ I am more outgoing than my partner.

___ My partner is more outgoing than I am.

___ My partner and I aren't good vacation companions.

For couples with children:

___ I feel like I do a disproportionate amount of work around the house.

___ My partner is a good parent, but I feel like my contributions are unappreciated.

___ My partner and I disagree about many child-rearing issues.

___ My partner and I disagree about religious issues related to our children's upbringing.

___ My partner doesn't do his or her share with the children.

___ My partner is controlling around the children and makes my help feel unnecessary.

___ My partner has a hard time collaborating in general.

___ My partner says hurtful things to me around the kids.

___ I say hurtful things to my partner around the kids.

___ My partner is too rough with the kids.

___ I am too rough with the kids.

___ As parents, we are a much stronger couple than we are when the kids aren't involved.

___ As parents, we are a much less well-coordinated couple than we are in areas where the children aren't involved.


Excerpted from THE POWER OF THE MIDDLE GROUND by MARTY BABITS Copyright © 2009 by Marty Babits. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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