Ramon Presson

Sarcasm, insults, mocking, constant interruptions, accusations, eye rolling, raised voices and name calling.  I found it painful to watch portions of the first Trump-Biden debate because it reminded me too much of some of the worst couples therapy sessions I’ve been apart of.  

The general consensus is that the “debate” is ranked as the worst televised Presidential “debate” in history. I put the word debate in quotation marks because it was not in fact a debate. It was the verbal equivalent of how some species of monkey fight—by throwing their own feces at one another. It was akin to the trash talking of two professional wrestlers (and bad actors.)  It provoked memories of the mocking, insulting clown in the carnival dunk tank.  

When debate is not debate 

My deceased father-in-law, Dr. Gregg Phifer, was the coach of the debate team at Florida State University for many years. I can only imagine his scathing review of last Tuesday’s chaotic debacle called a “debate.”  You can affix a label that says filet mignon onto a can of Spam but that doesn’t change the truth or alter what’s inside the can. 

Moderator, Chris Wallace, has taken a lot of heat for not establishing control and not regaining control when cooperation and order went off the rails.  But as a couples therapist for 30 years I felt some sympathy for Wallace because I’ve been in contempt-filled sessions that began spinning out of control early in the hour.  

Debate moderator versus couples therapist 

The fact is that a couples therapist inherently has more authority and control over a counseling session than a moderator has over a “debate.”  For example, many have suggested that Wallace should have muted one or both candidate’s microphones. First of all, that is not an option Wallace or any moderator is given.  This isn’t the Oscars when an award winner giving a speech keeps talking well past the musical cue and is eventually silenced by a muted microphone and a commercial break.  

Secondly, if Wallace actually had the muted mic option and used it, he would have assuredly been condemned, not merely criticized, for how, when, how often, and on whom he used it.  Furthermore, Trump and/or Biden themselves would have escalated into arguing with Wallace about the muting of microphones.  I can’t give Wallace a good grade on his moderator pop-quiz, but he was ultimately in a no-win situation.  

Wallace did not have an option that couples therapists have. While I thankfully rarely have to employ these guidelines, I will give a couple, and in some cases one spouse in particular, a second chance, maybe even a third chance, to bring their unhinged behavior under control before I declare the session over and I stand up, walk toward the door, open it and politely motion for them to leave.  Once when a belligerent husband didn’t budge, which I knew meant I was being tested, I said, “Well, you can stay, but I’m not,” and I walked out. As a therapist I have to set boundaries for appropriate communication and acceptable behavior, because if I don’t establish and model healthy boundaries, the couple certainly isn’t going to set and keep them.  

A no-win situation 

Chris Wallace was not in a position to end the “debate” early by sending Trump and Biden off-stage. It also would’ve been a very risky career move for Wallace to throw up his hands and say, “I’m done here.”  Many a televised interview has been ended by either the reporter or the subject pulling the plug in disgust and with drama.  That’s rather low-risk compared to walking off the set for a nationally televised Presidential “debate” with millions of viewers watching and sponsors paying huge sums of ad money in “debate” coverage before and after the debate” itself.    

Again, I certainly think Chris Wallace could have been bolder, but it would’ve been unprofessional for Wallace to lose his cool and out-shout the candidates. While I’m sure Wallace felt like an exasperated parent trying to get two toddlers to behave, one of the problems with Presidential candidates acting like bratty boys is that you can neither spank them nor put them in time out.  

I plan to use excerpts of last Tuesday’s “debate” footage as a mirror to hold up to some couples who have difficulty recognizing and ceasing their dysfunctional communication habits.  The first Presidential “debate” was a visual aid, an example that I’ll be brining to Show and Tell of what NOT to do in a marriage.  

Due to Trump’s recent positive Covid test, hospitalization, recovery, and quarantine, and with the election less than a month away, it is unclear whether the first “debate” will also be the last.  If another “debate” is squeezed in before Election Day, in a different location with a different moderator, will the dynamics and the outcome be significantly different? That’s debatable.

Ramon Presson, PhD, is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Franklin (www.ramonpressontherapy.com) and the author of several books. Reach him at [email protected].