Image courtesy Little, Brown and Company

BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Power of Discord’ names conflict, messiness crucial to personal development

The authors reveal a stunning truth: Conflict and messiness are not only OK, but are crucial to our social and emotional development.

Sheffield — After months spent together in close quarters, families across America are sure to cheer when presented with the simple concept that “discord is not only healthy but essential for growth and change.” This, in a nutshell, is the premise of a new book by Ed Tronick, Ph.D., and Claudia M. Gold, M.D., gleaned during “separate career trajectories over different periods.” In “The Power of Discord: Why the Ups and Downs of Relationships Are the Secret to Building Intimacy, Resilience, and Trust” (Little, Brown Spark), Tronick and Gold put their respective decades of research and clinical work to use. This expertise, coupled with extensive real-life examples, aims to debunk a prevalent myth: namely that perfect harmony is the defining characteristic of healthy relationships. Instead, the authors reveal a stunning truth: Conflict and messiness are not only OK, but are crucial to our social and emotional development.

“The process of [our] writing the book together is kind of what the book is about,” said Gold in a recent phone interview. “Here we are, two completely different people with totally different experiences and perspectives, and we had to kind of get into the messiness of that, and the mismatch and repair process” required for a collaboration of this nature. Gold calls the process that spanned three years “an extraordinary learning experience and growth experience.”

Claudia Gold, M.D. Photo courtesy Little, Brown and Company

Ultimately, “The Power of Discord” reveals the secrets to forming deep, lasting, trusting relationships; developing resilience in times of stress and trauma; and nourishing a solid sense of yourself in the world. The book, which naturally begins with the parent-child relationship, offers the key to unlocking better connections with romantic partners, family, friends and colleagues alike. “The book is a very hopeful book [and] I hope that reading the book is a transformative process,” said Gold, one that in some ways will validate what you are already doing and what you know to be true. It is not a “how-to” book; it’s a book to engage people’s natural intuition. We know that on the other side of discord, there is growth and development. But first, there is the mess.

Hannah Van Sickle: Like many, I understand the words “discord” and “mess” to carry negative connotations. What is the value of diving in and engaging with the mess?
Claudia Gold: That’s the process of reading the book! It is such a fundamentally different way of thinking about ourselves in the world. And the idea is we change the way we think through a process. It’s not lost on me that we are in one of the most incredibly discordant moments in history right now. I have been thinking about how we have had 400 years of smoothing over systemic racism and that kind of smoothing over the mess has really threatened to destroy our country. I wonder if what we are seeing right now is this necessary discord: We have to be in the mess, and that’s the way toward healing and growth on the other side — and creating a sense of belonging. On a large, societal scale, in a situation of unrest, people want there to be an answer. History has told us that can be dangerous. In contrast, when we can get through the messiness of misunderstanding people who inevitably come from different races, ethnic backgrounds, genders, it’s going to be messy. If we realize we don’t really get each other but we are going to try and figure each other out, then that’s where we have the opportunity to grow as a society.

HVS: I thought there was a finite window for establishing attachment. If my kids are grown, and I am grown, is it too late to work on attachment?
CG: Attachment is a very narrow construct. It’s about how secure a particular relationship is. But relationships are so much more than that, so I think that the idea is yes — there are decades of attachment research — but the way in which we change relationships is so multidimensional, and attachment is just one small piece of that. We make meaning in relationships constantly, in our moment-to-moment interactions over our entire lifetime. You may have had varying senses of safety and security early on in development; attachment is kind of categorical thinking: You either have this attachment or that attachment. Really the way we are in the world is made up by multiple, unique relationships with many different people. Two people, in any relationship, have a unique pattern of interaction. We have constant opportunity to change and grow in relationships and make meaning of the world in a whole multitude of different ways.

HVS: Why is play so powerful regardless of one’s age?
CG: One of the people who greatly influenced me was [D.W.] Winnicot who wrote, “It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.” Any kind of play we engage in as adults — the play of starting a new relationship, the play of becoming part of a different family, different ways of playing in culture, and literal games — is a way of being in relation to other people that has an element of uncertainty and unpredictability. It’s a very broad definition of play.

Ed Tronick, Ph.D. Photo courtesy Little, Brown and Company

HVS: Resilience is certainly a buzzword in today’s world. What does resilience look like from your perspective, and how does it connect to healing and growth?
CG: Resilience is something that emerges in moment-to-moment interactions and is kind of woven into the fabric of your being. It’s not that you’re either born with it or acquire it in the face of some terrible trauma; rather, what we know as parents is things go wrong constantly in moment-to-moment interactions in proportion with a child’s ability to deal with it. Imagine you are 3 weeks old and your mother has to stop nursing to go answer the doorbell; that’s a difficult moment, but somehow your body survives the microstress of mismatch and it becomes a moment of resilience. In the same way, you have an all-out fight with your best friend in fifth grade; your parents stay there with you and help you figure out the pain of the moment, and they don’t fix everything, but they stay there and scaffold you: That’s another moment of resilience. For every developmental stage, from birth through the whole lifespan, you can think of these moments in relationship where you build these moments of resilience. When you have an inner, core sense that you can get through a difficult moment and be OK, you have a more hopeful outlook on the world. On the other hand, if you have lots of experience where you didn’t get through to the other side — due to a parent who is depressed or the presence of substance abuse, domestic violence — and the repairs don’t happen, that’s where resilience falters. But again, the way you rebuild it is through relationships with opportunity for repair.

HVS: In many ways, the world feels pretty uncertain right now. What is the inherent value in uncertainty when it comes to promoting growth and change?
CG: Smoothing things out offers an element of certainty. My way into this work was through the world of pediatrics where I saw parents who wanted to know, “What is this and what do I do to fix it?” I saw the complexity of why people are the way they are sort of being squashed in that need to decide, “Is it this? Is it that?” and “Tell me what I need to do to fix it.” When parents don’t have their own set of relationships that make them feel safe and secure, then it’s hard to be in that kind of uncertainty with their kids. So they want to label with certainty: “I don’t know what’s going on with my kid; is it because of what they inherited? What they were like when they were a baby? Is it because of my relationship with my own parent? Is there a bully at school?” All the things that go into the complex story of who we are, that’s where the value of holding space for uncertainty lies: letting the story emerge to find the meaning. We make meaning while allowing us to be in the uncertainty of things. In contrast, [when we rely on certainty], we don’t have space to really listen to the story and let the story emerge.

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NOTE: While previously scheduled book launch events have been postponed, Tronick and Gold will appear on “The Book Show” with Joe Donahue Wednesday, June 10, at 11:10 a.m. on WAMC (90.3 FM).

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About the authors

Ed Tronick, Ph.D., is a developmental and clinical psychologist and University Distinguished Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where he is chief faculty of the Infant-Parent Mental Health Fellowship Program. He is a research associate in the Division of Newborn Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and the author of five books and more than 450 scientific papers.

Claudia M. Gold, M.D., is a pediatrician and writer who has practiced general and behavioral pediatrics for more than 20 years and currently specializes in infant-parent mental health. She is the author of “The Developmental Science of Early Childhood,” “The Silenced Child” and “Keeping Your Child in Mind.”