Healing a Split Nation

© By Bill Eddy and Don Saposnek

[Before the election of 2012, we wrote a book about high-conflict politics, titled Splitting America. In it we explained how high-conflict politicians, enhanced by the media, were pushing us apart, similar to a high-conflict parent in a divorce. This was several years ago! Here are some lightly-edited excerpts from Chapter 8: Healing a Split Nation, plus an update. This applies today more than ever, after the election of 2016.]

Throughout our book, Splitting America, we made an effort to be neutral and to respect the natural differences between Democrats and Republicans, and liberals and conservatives. We believe that the country needs both, and even more points of view.

We both are family mediators and recognize the success that families can have in dealing with very difficult and very personal issues – by listening well, respecting each other’s points of view, and avoiding turning “issues” into personal attacks. Surely, politicians should be able to do this, as well.

The “splitting” dynamic (i.e. the tendency to divide people into all good or all bad, all right or all wrong, etc.) is highly destructive to families – and to nations. It unnecessarily turns peace into war. In most high-conflict divorces, this dynamic appears to be driven by high-conflict individuals with borderline or narcissistic personality traits.

In politics, the splitting dynamic appears to be driven by narcissistic HCPs [people with high-conflict personalities] and their negative advocates who are driving a wedge into the heart of America. While our book was written before the 2012 presidential election, we believe that its insights will apply for many years into the future.

High-conflict behavior is very present in state and local elections, as well. If it continues to mirror high-conflict divorce, then this behavior will continue to rage on between elections – as though they never really happened – and campaigns will be endless and increasingly like tribal warfare.

Relationship Conflict Resolution

There are two types of conflict resolution: One type is purely adversarial and isn’t concerned with future relationships; courts operate within this model, as do armies in wartime. The goal is to eliminate the opposition and to prevail. The second type is more cooperative and collaborative and has as its goal to preserve an on-going relationship into the future, beyond the particular dispute that brings the parties together.

In sports and in political elections (at least until recently), there has been the realization that playing the game is more important than winning any particular contest. Winners will lose sometimes, and losers will win sometimes. Good sportsmanship often involves shaking hands and giving credit to the other’s good playing and teamwork, regardless of who won.

A Balanced Approach to Politics

Today’s high-conflict politicians (and those reasonable politicians who are mirroring high-conflict behavior) seem to have forgotten the importance of relationships.

The Senate seems to be mirroring this shift from past collaborative relationship-building to an adversarial stance with regard to relationships. It wasn’t so adversarial until fairly recently:

When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the Senate, in 1832, he was deeply impressed by the quality of its members: “They represent only the lofty thoughts [of the nation] and the generous instincts animating it, not the petty passions.” But he also recognized that “a minority of the nation dominating the Senate could completely paralyze the will of the majority represented in the other house, and that is contrary to the spirit of constitutional government.” As long as the Senate continued to be composed of America’s most talented statesmen, Tocqueville implied, it would restrain its own anti-democratic potential.

Packer, George, The Empty Chamber: Just how broken is the Senate? The New Yorker, August 9, 2010.

The current lack of relationships between the parties in the Senate coincides directly with the overall lack of self-restraint. As de Tocqueville suggested, without a concern for relationships with others in the nation, a minority can paralyze the majority if it wants to – and self-restraint seems in short supply among today’s narcissistic high-conflict politicians.

If you believe that you, exclusively, hold all the right answers, why even deal with the “other side?” Certainly, this relationship-ignoring approach has been a failure when it comes to co-parenting after divorce. Conflict just keeps escalating, because no one is eager to be a loser in a relationship in which only one person can be right.

Mental Health Treatment for Splitting

The treatment for “splitting” is to establish balance and integration. This has been well-researched in the field of mental health and has been applied for years in business, as we will show below. Borderline personality disorder, which is reported as affecting approximately 6% of the general population, is particularly known as a disorder in which splitting is common. One of the most effective treatments has been developed by Marsha Linehan, Ph. D., a psychologist at the University of Washington in Seattle. At the core of this method, called Dialectical Behavior Therapy or “DBT,” there is an emphasis on counseling clients to recognize and integrate the opposite poles that seem to exist throughout their lives. Recently, the success of this method hit the national news.

Dialectical behavior therapy is so named because at its heart lies the requirement that both patients and therapists find synthesis in various contradictions, or dialectics. For instance, therapists must accept patients just as they are (angry, confrontational, hurting) within the context of trying to teach them how to change. Patients must end the borderline propensity for black-and-white thinking, while realizing that some behaviors are right and some are simply wrong.

“The patient’s first dilemma,” Linehan wrote in her 558-page masterwork, 1993’s Cognitive Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder, “has to do with whom to blame for her predicament. Is she evil, the cause of her own troubles? Or, are other people in the environment or fate to blame? … Is the patient really vulnerable and unable to control her own behavior …? Or is she bad, able to control her reactions but unwilling to do so …? What the borderline individual seems unable to do is to hold both of these contradictory positions in mind.”

Linehan’s achievement was to realize that borderlines are, in fact, on the border between various dualities—dualities that they have to learn to accept and reconcile in order to change their lives. That’s easy to say but seems impossible to do—until you see it work.

Cloud, John. The Mystery of Borderline Personality Disorder, Time Magazine, January 8, 2009.

While high-conflict politicians tend to have more traits of narcissistic personality disorder than of borderline personality disorder, in terms of the splitting dynamic, the problem is the same: seeing one side as evil and the other side as perfect. Perhaps we should put all of the members of congress in group therapy and see if DBT would work on them!

Polarity Management

In the 1970’s, Barry Johnson, Ph.D. developed a business conflict resolution method called “Polarity Management.” Since then, he has conducted a wide range of corporate training and management consulting. His approach has been particularly useful in handling change in large businesses, and in diversity training by helping people of diverse backgrounds get along at work. He has also applied it to polarities in faith-based communities.

His method promotes an approach which can (and should) be applied to situations like splitting in today’s politics. The basic idea of Polarity Management is that many conflicts are not problems to “solve,” but polarities to “manage,” without trying to eliminate one pole or the other.

Johnson goes on to explain that each pole has an “upside” and a “downside.” He predicts exactly the kinds of problems we have when one political group or party gets too much power over another. Each side is blind to its own “upside” and “downside,” so it don’t seek cooperation and balance, but instead, dominance and elimination of the other. The polarities need to be managed, not resolved in the long-term favor of one group or the other.

How would this apply to Democrats and Republicans? Each tries very hard to control all three branches of the federal government: the Presidency, Congress (both the House and the Senate), and the Supreme Court. Yet, whenever this has happened, it has soon created a downside that has driven the other party to finally overcome the imbalance and prevail. This cycle will repeat itself endlessly; unless and until both sides see the benefits of working together. Then we will have periods of much more stability.

2016 Update

The candidacy of Donald Trump has been an extreme example of a politician who has engaged in splitting America on a much larger scale than ever before in our lifetimes. Yet it’s important to recognize the valid concerns of his followers, and to not think of them as stupid, evil or deplorable. It’s also important to think of them as separate from who Trump is.

Many of his followers have been hurt by the economy since 2008. Trump, with the help of an emotional and repetitive media, has given them mythical answers, blaming their pain and losses on Mexican immigrants, Muslim immigrants, other countries taking manufacturing jobs, a war on coal, and many other targets of blame. Instead, we need to talk about and do something about the realities. The biggest source of job losses has been automation (about 9 out of 10 manufacturing jobs), and the biggest economic winners since 2008 have been the top 1% of Americans (not foreign immigrants). We cannot go back to the jobs of the 1950’s (they don’t exist anymore), and other nations (such as China and Mexico) are losing jobs to automation, too.

We need to understand that many of Trump’s core supporters would benefit if we invested in college education and vocational retraining for the 21st century. Many people in rural areas have fewer educational and job opportunities and are subjected to narrow viewpoints of political media moguls, such as Roger Ailes’ with Fox News. Let’s hope Fox broadens its coverage, now that Ailes is gone.

The engines of economic growth are in the big cities, which have the most diverse populations and where people are the least threatened by people from different races and cultures. It’s not surprising that the more rural regions of England were the ones that voted for the “Brexit” from the European Union. They were the most afraid, with the least actual knowledge of the larger benefits of the EU. Rural people need more opportunities in today’s economy.

In sum, exposure to a wider range of viewpoints, education, and retraining are what’s needed for us to move forward constructively as a country. What isn’t needed is more blame and more splitting. The more that people understand the dangers of splitting, the less vulnerable to future demagogues we all will be. It’s time to repair the American family with more empathy, attention, and respect; and easy access to education and retraining.

BILL EDDY, LCSW, ESQ. is the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as the leading expert on managing disputes involving people with high conflict personalities. He has written more than twenty books on the topic and has taught professionals in the U.S. and more than ten countries.

Don Saposnek, Ph.D., is the author of Mediating Child Custody Disputes: A Strategic Approach and a psychologist on the faculty at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Both Don and Bill were founding board members of the Academy of Professional Family Mediation.

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