Splitting America

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

[The following is an excerpt from the new book “SPLITTING AMERICA: How Today’s Politicians, Super PACs and the News Media Mirror High Conflict Divorce” by Bill Eddy and Don Saposnek (HCI Press, 2012).

Something nasty is happening in America. Have you noticed the trend? There’s more bullying, more incivility, more disrespect and even more relationship violence between us at home, at work, in our communities and in the news. And, it seems to be increasing rather than decreasing.

We have noticed a pattern to this behavior that is all too familiar. It generally includes:

  • Personal Attacks (calling the other person crazy, stupid, immoral or evil)

  • Crisis Emotions (which trigger fear and hatred of each other)

  • All-or-Nothing Solutions (which call for the elimination or exclusion of the “other”)

  • Narcissistic Behavior (acting superior and not caring about anyone else)

  • Negative Advocates (constantly recruiting others to join in this hostility)

We are well-acquainted with this pattern in high-conflict divorces, and it’s not good. This behavior is called “high-conflict” because it increases the conflict, rather than reducing or resolving it. Worst of all, it’s contagious – it spreads when people are exposed to it, like a virus.

This behavior results in a state of mind called “splitting” – the psychological term for truly believing that certain people are absolutely all-bad and others are absolutely all-good, with no gray areas in between (Millon, 1996). This might not seem like a serious problem, except for the fact that the spread of splitting leads people to stop speaking to each other, to hate each other and, sometimes, to be violent with each other. It also distracts us from solving real problems. We are now concerned that this behavior is spreading into politics at all levels.

Today’s Leaders Recently, political leaders in both parties appear to be adopting and escalating high-conflict behavior, and perhaps, even leading it. Millionaires and billionaires are funding expensive ads as key elements in high-conflict election campaigns. And, the news promotes high-conflict behavior in every broadcast – to children as well as to adults – by relentlessly showing, and thereby teaching, the most dramatic bad behavior of the day.

We believe that the politicians, donors to Super PACs and the news media don’t seem to realize how destructive and self-destructive this escalation of high-conflict behavior can be. We would like to warn them and the rest of the nation about the dead-end nature of this unrestrained behavior that knows no limits.

We have seen splitting destroy too many families, and we don’t want to see it destroy the American family. We want to avoid a Democrat-Republican high-conflict divorce. In approaching these problems, it’s not about pointing fingers and deciding who is more at fault. It’s about everyone taking responsibility for his or her own behavior, and managing collaborative relationships, even when we disagree.

Who Are We, and Why Did We Write This Book? We are a psychologist and a family law attorney, each who has worked with divorcing families for over 30 years. And, we both are family mediators – we meet with divorcing couples and help them calm down and work together for the sake of their children and their own futures. We are not politicians or political scientists, but we have learned ways of calming high-conflict families and helping them work together peacefully, for the sake of the children and their parents’ future lives.

At a recent conference on high-conflict divorce, we discussed how much the dynamics of the current elections mirror high-conflict divorce. The closer we looked, the more similar these dynamics appeared. In fact, to both of us, the parallels are striking, and the solutions may be too.

We thought it would be worth a try to analyze this and come up with some suggestions for how to change the destructive direction in which we seem to be headed. This book is our small effort to calm this conflict.

How Similar Are High-Conflict Divorce and High-Conflict Politics? Reports from The Wall Street Journal (Thernstrom, 2003) and from family court judges (Brownstone, 2009) indicate that high-conflict divorce is on the rise. But, some of the most powerful reports come from children who grew up in high-conflict divorce situations and who are now adults. Constance Ahrons (2004) interviewed over one hundred children during the divorce, and 20 years later. The following are typical comments reported:

Travis, fourteen and the middle child of three, lived with his mother weekdays and spent several weekends a month with his father.

It’s the old thing – they were playing the kids against each other. You would hear a story from one and then get another story from the other, and you would never know for sure who is closer to the truth than the other. Now, as an adult I have learned to take everything with a grain of salt, and see where it is planted here and there.

His younger sister also felt caught in the cross fire:

It made me really mad. I would have to try to keep my mouth shut to not upset the other. I had to really watch what I said when I was with either one of them, because—for example, if I would mention my father while I was with my mother, that would really set her off.

Unfortunately this resulted in her distancing herself from both parents. “I don’t remember ever having this feeling like, oh, I can’t wait to see my dad or mom now. I really miss them! Instead, it was always a relief to get away from the other (p. 80).

Notice how the children were turned off to both parents, because of their high-conflict behavior. But of course, politicians wouldn’t act this way, would they? More recently it seems that they are acting in very similar ways.

On the first floor of the Capitol, there is a private dining room for senators, the “inner sanctum,” where Republicans and Democrats used to have lunch (at separate tables, but in the same room). In the seventies, old bulls such as James Eastland, Hubert Humphrey, and Jacob Javits held court there; later, Daniel Patrick Moynihan did. “You learned, and also you found out what was going on,” Dodd said, adding, “It’s awfully difficult to say crappy things about someone that you just had lunch with.

These days, the inner sanctum is nearly always empty. Senators eat lunch in their respective caucus rooms with members of their party, or else “downtown,” which means asking donors for money over steak and potatoes at the Monocle or Charlie Palmer. The tradition of the “caucus lunch” was instituted by Republicans in the fifties, when they lost their majority; Democrats, after losing theirs in 1980, followed suit. Caucus lunches work members on both sides into a state of pep-rally fervor. During one recent Republican lunch, Jim Bunning referred to Harry Reid as an idiot. “At least he had the courtesy to do it behind closed doors,” Alexander joked, adding, “We spend most of our time in team meetings deciding what we’re going to do to each other.”

In 2007, Alexander and Lieberman started a series of bipartisan Tuesday breakfasts. “They kind of dwindled off during the health-care debate,” Alexander said. Udall has tried to revive the Wednesday inner-sanctum lunch. For the first few months, only Democrats attended. Then, one Wednesday in May, Susan Collins, the Maine Republican, showed up, joking nervously about being a turncoat; to protect her reputation, her presence was kept secret.

These efforts at resurrecting dead customs are as self-conscious and, probably, as doomed as the get-togethers of lovers who try to stay friends after a breakup. Ira Shapiro, a Washington lawyer and a former aide to Senator Gaylord Nelson, of Wisconsin, put it this way: “Why would they want to have lunch together when they hate each other?” (Packer, 2010)

Who’s in charge here when children, and Senators, feel that they have to keep secrets to protect themselves from their high-conflict families? And, as the boy above said: “You would never know for sure who is closer to the truth than the other.” Doesn’t this fit many of today’s politicians?

Endless Polarization It used to be that politicians said whatever it took to get elected. Then, after the elections were over, they became reasonable and worked together for the good of the nation. Today, we are seeing splitting continue after the election, in our 24/7 news cycle.

As a result of this continued polarization, some of the reasonable politicians – the people who could work together – are no longer trying to stay in office, but are divorcing themselves from their professional partners.

Olympia Snowe, Maine’s retiring US senator, announced Friday that her reelection campaign committee has transferred $1.2 million of its remaining funds to an effort to encourage young women to participate in public service. Snowe, who cited partisan polarization in her decision earlier this year not to seek reelection, said the money will go to the Maine Community Foundation to support the Olympia Snowe Women’s Leadership Institute. Snowe, a Republican, will establish that institute after she completes her third term in the Senate. Of the remaining balance, about $800,000 is being used for outstanding campaign obligations and to establish a multicandidate committee whose goals are to diminish what Snowe sees as polarization in today’s political environment. (AP) –Boston Globe, July 14, 2012 (bold added)

With reasonable people dropping out of politics, will high-conflict politicians be all that remain?

About this Book The next two chapters focus on what we have learned about the key dynamics of high-conflict divorce – from those of the Fiery Foes to the negative advocates, to the splitting dynamic, and more. Then, the following four chapters examine how politicians, Super PACs and the News are increasingly appearing just like high-conflict parents– with the same alienating effect it is having on voters as on the children. The last chapter looks at how we might heal, rather than split, our nation. As a little extra, we included a High-Conflict Politician Scorecard in the Appendix. You can use it to analyze your favorite leaders and decide for yourself.

We hope you take this book seriously – but also enjoy the humor, to make sense of the nonsense of those personalities we discuss who seem intent on splitting our American family.

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.

DONALD T. SAPOSNEK, Ph.D. is a clinical-child psychologist, child custody mediator, and family therapist in private practice for over 40 years. He is the author of the classic 1983 book, Mediating Child Custody Disputes (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass; revised in 1998). As director of Family Mediation Service of Santa Cruz, he managed the family court services for 17 years and has mediated nearly 5,000 child custody disputes in both the public and private sectors since 1977. He is the past editor of the international Academy of Family Mediators’ Mediation News, the international Association for Conflict Resolution’s Family Mediation News, and is the current editor of the international Academy of Professional Family Mediators’ The Professional Family Mediator.  He has published extensively in the professional literature on child custody and child psychology and serves on the editorial boards of the Family Court Review and Conflict Resolution Quarterly journals. He is a national and international trainer of mediation and teacher of child development, Adjunct Professor at Pepperdine University School of Law’s Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution and, for the past 35 years, has been teaching on the psychology faculty at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

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