Hostile Election Talk Risks Permanent “Splitting”

© 2012 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. and Don Saposnek, Ph.D

The glut of on-going hostile comments in national, state and local elections these days has reached a new low. Let’s not argue over whose fault it is – it’s everyone’s fault who participates. But, what’s the harm? After all, won’t it be over in a few months?  Besides, what’s the alternative? Don’t people have to defend themselves from attacks by attacking back?

We believe that such on-going expressions of hostility may permanently damage our community relationships – and it’s totally unnecessary. You can defend yourself another way, and we know that to be a fact. Since each of us has worked with high-conflict divorcing families for over 30 years, we have seen what works and what doesn’t.

What’s the Harm?

Today’s election behavior has the same five characteristics as high-conflict divorce. This behavior causes “splitting,” a state of mind in which you treat the “other” person or group of people as “all bad” and yourself and your own group as “all good,” and then justify a long-term refusal to communicate, as well as hatred, and sometimes even violence. These five characteristics are:

  • Personal attacks (calling the other person crazy, stupid, immoral or evil – not really about issues at all).

  • Crisis emotions (which trigger fear and hatred of the “other” when repeated endlessly)

  • All-or-nothing solutions (which call for the elimination or exclusion of the “other”).

  • Narcissistic behavior (claiming to be superior, while being unconcerned about others).

  • Negative advocates (constantly recruiting others to join in this hostility toward the “other”).

Enough repetition of this sort of behavior can generate irreversible hatred. We have become acutely aware of how the current rhetoric in the election campaigns mirror the vicious dynamics of high-conflict divorces.  In these divorces, the parents gather up negative advocates that include the children, relatives, friends, and even professionals, such as their lawyers and therapists, to vilify and continually badmouth the “other” parent.  In many cases, this never ends.

Divorce researchers find that about 20% of divorced parents remain mired in high conflict and splitting behavior 10-20 years after the divorce. In many of these cases, children remain “alienated” from one or both parents, as the parents forever blame each other for an endless list of ills. Even as adults, some of these children refuse to invite one or both parents to their own weddings, and rarely see them. In some extreme cases, all contact is broken off – sometime for decades—sometimes forever. In a small but perhaps growing number of cases, we see murders and suicides, because of the intensity of the hatred that parents develop for each other – after experiencing an extended period of hostile interactions.

What’s the Alternative?

Many politicians and their advocates are reluctantly joining in this high-conflict, splitting behavior, because they feel they have to. They come to believe that they have to be aggressive (attacking back) rather than passive (just ignoring absurd statements).

However, there is a third alternative available – an “assertive approach.” This is a method that has been used successfully many times in high-conflict divorce. An assertive approach does not try to destroy the other party, but rather treats that person with respect while also speaking up, educating others about the facts of the case and making proposals, whether in an election campaign or in a divorce case. Such an approach includes what we call BIFF Responses to hostile statements (See BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People). These are usually written statements that are Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm. Hundreds of professionals and parents in divorce have been taught this method over the past five years, and the feedback is overwhelmingly positive.

The Issue’s Not the Issue

Most surprisingly, splitting in divorce, or in politics, has nothing to do with the actual issue at stake. Rather, it is about how people communicate with each other and the degree to which they engage in the five high-conflict behaviors described above. Anyone at any time can switch from using high-conflict behaviors to simply educating others and making proposals on the real issues.  Imagine the respect and problem-solving potential of communicating with BIFF Responses and other non-splitting approaches.

It seems to be the only way that high-conflict behavior stops – where one of the parties stops it on their own, regardless of how the other party behaves. In some cases, when one parent, or politician, uses BIFF Responses enough, the other parent, or opponent, may start to use them as well. Some courts have ordered this approach in bad divorces, and it would be desirable for politicians to enact it, as well.

It may take two to fight, but it just takes one to stop. If you are facing a high-conflict person, you can assertively provide information and make proposals to that person and others just as energetically and frequently as the high-conflict person engages in splitting behavior – and you will look really good to everyone else around you while you do it!

Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.

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