What Trump and Xi can Teach us About Relationships: Or He Said, Xi Said...

The Trump-Xi bromance can providing us insight into the world of feuding couples and teach us about the nature of relationships. Are Xi and Trump a marriage made in heaven, or are they doomed for the divorce courts.

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This weekend President Xi and Trump met in Osaka. It was a highly charged meeting.  Nobody knew if there would be a big bust up, or flowers!  Behind the scenes, Trump has been bad-mouthing China, accusing it of dubious trade practices, applying pressure against its leading technology company Huawei, and mulling ever-increasing punitive tariff arrangements on imports.  

However, he has been careful not to say anything against Mr Xi himself.  In fact, he often gushes about the "beautiful letters" he gets from Xi, and the deep and meaningful "phone calls" he has with Xi.  At the same time Xi has said that "Trump is his friend", even whilst the Chinese apparatus digs in for a long and protracted trade war.  

Observers of the Chinese media note how its tone has markedly changed in the last few months and how it is unlikely to make any concessions to the US, even if it will have a negative painful impact on the Chinese economy. The Chinese political machine will not tolerate any slur or insult against its self-image, even if this means financial pain.  

It's really very hard for pundits to predict what will happen next. Like any long term marriage, Xi and Trump have a great deal invested in their relationship. In this case US and Chinese companies are intertwined in very elaborate and deep global supply chains that have taken decades to build up  and are now fraying at the edges.  They are deeply dependent on one another.  For instance, the US consumer depends on low cost Chinese goods to keep the economy going.  US companies depend on China mining and exporting rare metals to power its technological goods.  The US government depends on the Chinese buying its debts on the bond market.   The Chinese depend on the US market to buy it's good and keep it's economy going.  The list goes on and on.  Like all relationships, once you dig under the surface, there is much more mutual dependence than their appears at first sight.

Trump has set out to change the power dynamics of the US-China relationship, but China is now digging in it's heels.  No-one gives up power in a relationship easily!  There is usually a fight, or some form of sabotage.  It seems that this is where we are with Xi and Trump.  They have meetings, but each of them comes away with a different impression and their courtiers are left to make order out of the chaos.  Each side claims victory.  Trumps hollers, "they are going to buy goods from our farmers, lots of them, tomorrow!", Xi says, "Restrictions lifted against Huawei!".   They have certainly entered an uneasy truce. Trump has made a calculation that raising more tariffs, and the impact on US consumer, stock market and companies could be seriously volatile, and undermine his re-election campaing.  

But his mind is mercurial and he may do a U-turn at any moment!  Xi and Trump have an interesting relationship.  It's hard to say where it will go. It seems as if they have enough mutual interest not to totally destroy what they have.  However, it remains highly precarious and unclear what will happen next.  There is no framework or timeline.  The two countries could quickly slip back into mutual hostility and suspicion.  How can either man be trusted?

As couples therapist, I can't see how they are going to get out of this situation.  Trump's tariff's hurt the US consumer as much as the Chinese exporter.  Everyone is going to lose in this game.  Just like when couples try and find each other's weak spots and attach one another, but end up hurting themselves.  

There doesn't seem to be much good faith in the negotations.  Behind the scenes highly-charged political machinations continue.  Trump and Xi say one thing but do another. Neither side is being truthful or honest.  Each is ready to relatiate and escalate matters if it feels it has been slighted.  If they were serious about sorting matters out they would need to spend more than a snatched hour together.  They would really need to lay their cards on the table and agree that they would need to spend a lot more time together talking about their difficulties and how to overcome them.

Still like all couples, they are unpredictable and mysterious.  In some ways, Trump and Xi actually embody an aspect of long-term relationships, when, for example, the existing order is upended, or a tussle ensues between partners who no longer find satisfaction in the status quo.  Are Trump and Xi going to be faithful and committed to the process of finding a new order, was the G-20 summit simply an interlude to a messy and costly divorce?  The world's investors are doing everything the can to keep the "parents" on track, and to get them to make up.  The rejoice at any hint about the on-going "chemistry" between Xi and Trump.  However, at this point, it doesn't seem like "chemistry" is going to be enough, unless it's followed up by the mutual sacrifices and graft involved in keeping any real relationship on the road.  

No doubt the ongoing saga of He Said, Xi Said, will continue, like a daily soap opera, as we try and decipher every gesture and utterance of this unlikely couple sitting at the heads of the world' largest economies.  They will keep us guessing about what is really going on.  Will the individual relationship between the two men enable them to forge a way forward; or will their increasingly hawkish home audiences capture their minds and push them into a full-on fight?  I find with couples, there is often a period of constructive activity, then destructive activity; ups and down; as soon as one thing is settled another becomes unravels.  Opposites fly around.  Arguments are followed by making-up.  New doors open.  But there is a difference between a real committed relationship expereincing difficulties; and a pseudo-relationship.  It's hard to see whether Trump and Xi have a real relationship, or a make believe one.  Based on the evidence to date, it seems like the later, and that is where the real difficulty lies.

Ajay Khandelwal PhD

Ajay Khandelwal is an experienced psychotherapist and consultant. He welcomes contact and enquiries and is accepting new clients via zoom during the shut down.