What Couples in Therapy Can Learn From Jennifer Lawrence

Taking ownership and responsibility in the face of conflict or controversy is unusual and unintuitive. With couples in therapy, both parties are typically eager to elaborate on their partner's faults and shortcomings.
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There's a lot to like about Jennifer Lawrence. She disappears into each role: Ree in Winter's Bone, Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook, Rosalyn in American Hustle, and the beloved dystopian heroine Katniss Everdeen. She uses her range as an actress to create characters with convincing depth and memorable grit.

When she won an Academy Award and face-planted on her way to the podium, she became human and relatable. Even more so when she immediately joked that her standing ovation was probably happening because people felt bad for her for falling down. She is at once beautiful, accessible, gifted and refreshingly candid. Not to mention that she seriously rocks the lyrics to "The Hanging Tree!"

Now, she's speaking out about gender pay inequality. Blowing up the internet is a more suitable description for the impact of Lawrence's essay in Lena Dunham's online magazine Lenny titled "Why Do I Make Less Than My Male Co-Stars?" Like Taylor Swift who singlehandedly inspired Apple to change its music downloading policy last summer, Jennifer Lawrence understands the powerful social media platform that defines her mega-celebrity stature. (She is currently the highest paid woman in Hollywood.) Lawrence's edgy, expletive-infused column highlights an issue that she readily admits is more relevant to the rest of us who are on a budget:

It's hard for me to speak about my experience as a working woman because I can safely say my problems aren't exactly relatable...I didn't want to keep fighting over millions of dollars that, frankly, due to two franchises, I don't need. (I told you it wasn't relatable, don't hate me.)

As a social worker and couples therapist, controversy and conflict between genders fill most of my workdays. From this vantage point, what's most interesting about Lawrence's essay is not how her Hollywood experience with Sony relates to the issue of gender pay gap inequality. It's not her celebrity stature. And it's not her cheeky tone and clever rants about society and the male anatomy.

What's most noteworthy is the emotional maturity Lawrence demonstrates through her willingness to assume blame. She owns her failure to negotiate for a number that reflected her mega star power when signing on to play the part of Rosalyn in American Hustle:

I didn't get mad at Sony, I got mad at myself. I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early... But if I'm honest with myself, I would be lying if I didn't say there was an element of wanting to be liked that influenced my decision to close the deal without a real fight. I didn't want to seem "difficult" or "spoiled." At the time, that seemed like a fine idea, until I saw the payroll on the internet and realized every man I was working with definitely didn't worry about being "difficult" or "spoiled."

An unfortunate misconception is that taking blame equals weakness and losing the fight. From a psychological perspective, a willingness to assume some blame represents emotional maturity and sets the stage for the ultimate win. (Think of it as reverse psychology.) By taking responsibility for her own failure to negotiate with Sony, Lawrence organically highlights the problems of the greater system and opens a more effective dialogue to create a genuine change. It would be more expected and commonplace for Lawrence to bash Sony. She has the grounds and the platform to do so. And yet, she makes a much more effective stand on the issue by critiquing herself. She takes the emotional and psychological high ground and focuses on her own shortcomings. Lawrence's willingness to explore and admit why she failed to negotiate invites a more meaningful dialogue on the gender pay gap.

Taking ownership and responsibility in the face of conflict or controversy is unusual and unintuitive. With couples in therapy, both parties are typically eager to elaborate on their partner's faults and shortcomings. The human impulse to "win" an argument is so powerful, even though it almost never yields positive results. Obviously the gender pay gap controversy and relationship spats are very different spheres. But the principles are essentially the same. If one half of the couple says "You don't value me and you never show respect for my contributions to our relationship" it is highly unlikely that their significant other will respond in a loving, respectful way. Even if the complaint has validity. In contrast, the partner who can say "I haven't spoken up enough about how some of the chores I take on for the two of us make me feel like our relationship is unbalanced" sets the stage for a respectful dialogue.

Lawrence says she's through with being Mrs. Nice Guy:

I'm over trying to find the "adorable" way to state my opinion and still be likable!

Ironically, she is even more likable in her unlikeable incarnation. In part because (perhaps without realizing it) she does the most likable but hardest thing to do -- she admits her mistake!

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