© 2012 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. and Don Saposnek, Ph.D
In our recent book, Splitting America, we explain the process of “splitting,” which often occurs in high-conflict divorces. After one or both parents 1) repeatedly blames the other entirely for the divorce, 2) repeatedly makes personal attacks (he/she is stupid-evil-and-immoral), and 3) repeatedly uses crisis emotions in explaining this, the child (or children) eventually may absorb all of this and “split” the parents into one “all-bad” parent with absolutely no redeeming qualities, and one “all-good” parent who can do no wrong. The children may grow to hate one or the other parent, and the parents grow to hate each other more and more, as they go to court repeatedly blaming each other for all the problems.
In politics, we see this same “splitting dynamic” occurring increasingly. While many people figure that this will all go away on election day, we have learned from our high-conflict divorce cases that, in fact, the opposite more often occurs. Once the hatred has set in, it is almost impossible for the child to get along with both parents.
Even worse, over months and years, this hatred among the parents and their child becomes further entrenched. Research shows that ten or more years later, approximately 20% of parents still actively hate each other, and the child frequently is left hating or resisting contact with one or both parents into adulthood.
But what does this have to do with violence? We are witnessing an increasing number of cases of domestic violence these days, and what also appears to be an increase in divorce-related murder/suicides, which often include killing the children. This appears to stem from the intense and intolerable emotions that parents come to experience after a long period of repeated hostility towards each other and the “support” from the “negative advocates” for each parent (e.g. their lawyers, therapists, family members) who add to the intensity of the splitting dynamic.
Our concern today is that our political leaders have spent much of the past year engaging in the splitting dynamic by: 1) blaming the other entirely for economic and other problems, 2) personally attacking the other as stupid-evil-and-immoral, and 3) using crisis emotions to convey their messages. They take comments out of context and blow them up until a certain percentage of the population grows to actually hate one of the candidates and those with whom they associate the candidate. This lays the groundwork for violence against those they associate with one political “side” or the other.
In the past year or so, we have seen public shootings aimed at a congresswoman (Gabby Giffords), at movie-goers at a “dark” fantasy with an evil character (theater shooting at Batman movie), at religiously different people (Sikh temple by a white supremacist), and at a former supervisor in a public street (in New York last week) by a disgruntled former employee two years after leaving the job.
Perhaps all of these shooters were mentally ill, but they likely were also encouraged in their actions by the current tone of political targeting of those who you disagree with. Many private citizens and journalists have been commenting on this hostile political tone recently, wondering whether there is a connection with the recent uptick in public violence. Colin Powell, in a recent TV interview, said that, in 40 years of public service, he has never seen such a hostile political climate, and that it is dangerous. We also believe this.
Think about how our brains work when exposed to crisis emotions. As we mentioned in our book, the “mirror neurons” in our brains appear to absorb the behavior we see of others, and we add that to our own repertoire of potential future behavior. Then, the amygdalas in our brains automatically shut down our “higher” thinking, in order to get us to focus on fast, fight or flight responses, when we hear crisis emotions – especially from leaders. This is part of the way we humans are hard-wired to quickly work together to protect ourselves in a crisis.
These brain responses are easily triggered by today’s political attention-getting personal attacks and crisis emotions, which are more prolonged than ever before, and with more repetition than ever before, in the 24/7 news cycle. They are certifiably featured in the relentless Super PAC attack ads. Some mentally ill people who struggle daily with bizarre and violent thoughts which they can barely keep in check cannot handle this intensity.
Yet, news reports indicate that the political conventions now upon us will actually increase the personal attacks, rather than increasing civility and reasoned debate. When our nation’s leaders “target” each other, there is a risk that our most vulnerable people may decide to target someone they have come to hate, as well. We hope our nation’s leaders will think twice about which behavior of theirs they want our nation to mirror– blaming each other, or jointly and rationally discussing our nation’s real problems.
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.