Understanding Polarization in Families, Groups, and Nations

group of people on beach with sunset

Understanding Polarization in Families, Groups, and Nations   ©2020 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. There is much talk today about polarization. Ironically, few people put together the fact that the same process is driving three seemingly unrelated problems. By understanding what is really going on, we should be able to significantly reduce this polarization in our families, groups and nations. Child Alienation In many divorcing families (maybe 10-15%), a child is resisting or refusing contact with one of their parents and sees the other parent in ideal terms. This polarization can expand rapidly by the child rejecting grandparents, former family friends and even pets at the rejected parent’s house. Professionals and courts often call this “alienation” and it often grows into what some have called “tribal warfare.” People line up on one side in agreement with the child’s rejection of the other parent (he or she must have done something wrong) and the rejected parent’s people line up on the other side (the favored parent must be alienating the child). They frequently argue with each other, emotions escalate, and some involved start hating each other. Professional Splitting In mental health hospitals and substance abuse treatment programs, a phenomenon has been occurring for years often known as “staff splitting.” This commonly occurs when a treatment team is working with a patient with a personality disorder, such as borderline personality disorder. Generally, half the team lines up on the side of higher expectations, more structure and more consequences for the negative behavior of the patient. The other half tends to argue for lower expectations, more tolerance and more understanding of the patient’s problems. They frequently argue with each other, emotions escalate, and some involved start hating each other. The same phenomenon sometimes occurs in University Departments, legal disputes, religious institutions, and many other work settings. Political Polarization In the United States, England, and several other countries, newscasters and political analysts state almost every day that the country is “deeply polarized.” Almost half of the country supports the president and defends whatever he is doing, in terms of his policies, his personal behavior, and his outrageous comments against the establishment and for his team. And almost half of the country opposes the president and is angry with whatever he is doing, in terms of his policies, his personal behavior, and his outrageous statements. These two sides constantly argue with each other, emotions escalate, and some involved start hating each other. So, what’s going on here? And why are these three seemingly unrelated situations demonstrating the exact same dynamics? Is there a common element or elements? Emotional Repetition in Isolation (ERII) The engine of polarization in each of these settings appears to be emotional repetition in isolation. It’s important to know that polarization is an emotional phenomenon, not a logical phenomenon. Emotions Intense emotions grab our brain (especially the amygdala) in a way that declares an emergency and shuts down our logical thinking. An excess of intense emotions triggers anxiety and an inability to manage our emotions. Unmanaged emotions can quickly become contagious, so that when one person exhibits unmanaged and intense emotions, a whole group can start to exhibit heightened emotions, especially including anxiety and anger. When someone often speaks in terms of conflicts, crises, chaos, fear and anger, all of these high-conflict emotions are highly contagious In divorces, intense emotions are often seen as related to the divorce. But for some, the intensity of their emotions is a symptom of their own problems, not usually someone else’s behavior. “The issue’s not the issue, the personality is the issue.” But many professionals don’t understand this and absolutely believe that something terrible must have been done to an upset child by the other party, especially child abuse, sexual abuse or intentional alienation. The result is that in cases with an anxious child, but no evidence of abusive behavior, professionals become split over the case and more emotional too. The emotional level increases with time and with each court decision that doesn’t address the real problem (the need for self-management skills training for the person(s) with a high-conflict personality). In professional groups, being on two teams can create extreme behavior. An excellent example of emotions taking over was the O.J. Simpson criminal trial in which the lawyers on each side grew to hate each other. Both sides brought ethics complaints against the other side’s lawyers for their “all-bad” behavior, which were all eventually thrown out. There are many other examples, even in sports. Historically, there was the tragic case of two teams of chariot racers in the ancient city of Constantinople in the Roman Empire in the sixth century A.D. One group wore blue outfits and the others wore green. Apparently, emotions got so high (including the exaggeration of political and religious differences) that there was a riot between the teams that resulted in the deaths of 3000 blues and over 30,000 greens. Today’s riots after soccer matches just don’t compare. In politics, we are increasingly seeing candidates for offices at all levels speaking in highly emotional and extreme terms. Candidates with narcissistic personality traits or sociopathic personality traits lack the normal restraints of empathy and remorse, so that they can exaggerate and lie freely. And when political leaders speak in emotionally disparaging terms, there are always some people who will become emotionally hooked and possibly take dangerous actions in response. It’s the hyped-up emotions that seem to drive these events. Repetition The way our brains work, repetition strengthens ideas, behavior, and emotions—especially a sense of danger in our amygdala. It’s for our own protection. Today, we are all exposed to more emotional intensity in all three of the settings described above, legal disputes, family disputes and workplace disputes. The reasons vary by the setting. Our legal system protects extremely emotional statements and behavior when they are part of the legal process. Our workplace standards protect them when it’s part of the innovation process. Our political system protects them when it’s part of the political

Healing America: What Can Be Done?

© 2012 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. and Don Saposnek, PhD Now that the election is over, many people are asking for our opinion of what should be done to avoid future “high-conflict” elections, since we wrote about this problem in our book, Splitting America. Now is the time to prevent such hostility from occurring in the future, and to avoid the billions of dollars in cost for mostly negative advertising and the unnecessary great division of our country. Here are a few thoughts, which we explain in greater detail in the last chapter of our book. 1.  For politicians: They need to learn how to discuss issues and respond to personal attacks without firing personal attacks back. It can be done. We have seen it work in high conflict family court cases and in workplace and business disputes. You can be assertive about your ideas and about the problems in the proposals of others, without having to make it personal. Politicians repeatedly believe they have only two choices: be passive, or be nasty. However, a third choice gets lots of respect: being assertive about your proposal and explanation of what works and what doesn’t – without being personal. A good example would be Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic Convention; he personally attacked no one but, instead, explained the issues more clearly than any other politician this year – and he received the most respect for doing so. 2. For us as individuals: We need to practice Empathy, Attention and Respect (E.A.R.) with those who disagree with us. We need to practice writing emails, Facebook postings and letters that are Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm (BIFF). In other words, we need to practice more self-restraint than blaming comments. We need to take responsibility for problem-solving and recognize the benefits of multiple points of view and multiple proposals for solving problems. As we explain in our book, we don’t need polarization, we need “polarity management,” which is a process of balancing and integrating opposing points of view, rather than trying to eliminate the “other.”  We need to focus on building long-term relationships, rather than just strive for short-term problem solving. 3. For society: We need to: 1) reinstate reasonable restraints on election behavior – including reversing the Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision, limiting contributions to negative ads, and disclosing who is funding them; and 2) elect people who can collaborate and mediate to solve problems. Maybe it’s time for more collaborative professionals and mediators to run for office.  Any volunteers out there? For the next blog, it is time to move on to other conflict resolution topics! Best wishes, Bill and Don 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. About Don Saposnek Donald T. Saposnek, Ph.D. is a clinical-child psychologist, child custody mediator and family therapist in private practice for over 40 years, and is a national and international trainer of mediation and child development.  For the past 35 years, he has been teaching on the psychology faculty at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and is Adjunct Professor at Pepperdine University School of Law’s Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution.  He is the author of the classic book, Mediating Child Custody Disputes and has published extensively in the professional literature on child custody and child psychology.  He serves on the editorial boards of the Family Court Review and Conflict Resolution Quarterly journals and is the editor of the international Academy of Professional Family Mediators’ The Professional Family Mediator.  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.  For more information about Don Saposnek, please visit: www.mediate.com/dsaposnek

Where are the Collaborative Politicians?

© 2012 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. and Don Saposnek PhD Today’s politicians have been forced to polarize; they must see themselves as being (or having to be) viewed as “all-good,” while their opponents have to be viewed as “all-bad.” The recent presidential debates seem to have strengthened this perception. But this problem isn’t just in the Presidential race. When Don Saposnek and I wrote our recent book, Splitting America: How Politicians, Super PACs and the News Media Mirror High Conflict Divorce, we pointed out that today’s Senators no longer eat lunch together in the Senate dining room. Instead, they eat with their own party members in a separate caucus, mostly talking about how they are going to deal with members of the other party. Without eating and engaging in other social activities together, today’s politicians are unlikely to see, understand or even care about each other’s point of view. As one political staffer said two years ago: “Why would they want to have lunch together when they hate each other?” (Packer, G. The Empty Chamber: Just how broken is the Senate, The New Yorker, August 9, 2010.) The middle ground is disappearing from politics in the United States. This has been a growing trend in the last few years, but it seems to have picked up speed in the most recent election cycle. Yet, without the middle, or moderates, there is no one to assist in making the compromises that makes politics work. A recent analysis showed that the most liberal Republican in Congress is more conservative than the most conservative Democrat. That means that there is no overlap between the parties anymore. This may mean that there will be no more joint Democrat and Republican bills that will be submitted to the Senate or House of Representatives. In years past, we have seen successful joint efforts, like the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, more commonly known as the McCain-Feingold law (jointly sponsored by Republican John McCain and Democrat Russ Feingold), which temporarily limited campaign funding, until the U.S. Supreme Court lifted those restrictions in the Citizens United case in 2010. In the past, we also saw collaborations – and even friendships – between Senators, such as Ted Kennedy (Democrat of Massachusetts) and Orrin Hatch (Republican of Utah). Are those days completely gone? Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania said that he believes moderates can still bring people together, but it’s not going to happen naturally or by accident…we have to work at it…each individual member of congress has to take on personal responsibility…he has to keep the poison out of the water to avoid the kind of demonization that happens when people debate issues (Associated Press, October 15, 2012). Last week, a New York Times article explained that many moderates are leaving Congress by not running for re-election this year – both Republican moderates and Democratic moderates. This will eliminate many of the “consensus builders” ( In Congress, a Shrinking Pool of Moderates, The New York Times , by Jennifer Steinhauer, published October 8, 2012).  The article cites political scientists who report that the House of Representatives is “more polarized than at any time in the last century.” For the past 30 years, we have been professional family mediators, and we know that high-conflict divorce cases have a devastating impact on the children, as well as on both parents and many other family members and friends. Over the past ten years, there has been an increasing interest in collaborative practice for family law professionals, including lawyers, counselors, mediators and others. Because we have seen what “high-conflict” relationships turn into over time, we know about the clear need for collaboration in all relationships. Yet, it appears that our politicians and others involved in influencing elections are missing this larger reality: You can’t really win when you can’t work together. Instead, everybody (especially the voters) lose. In today’s politics, there is the fantasy of victory for those who believe they are the sole owners of the truth and own the one right way to the future. This is a narcissistic view of the world that is not real and does not work. For anyone to have success in politics – or any other organizational effort – they must be able to listen to the viewpoints of others, respect different points of view, and successfully incorporate them into their proposals and plans. The view of many of today’s politicians is victory without compromise or collaboration. This is simply a fantasy that cannot succeed. Just look at the children of today’s high-conflict divorces, if you’re not sure. They are alienated, depressed and exposed to never-ending conflict – even ten and twenty years past their parents’ divorce. The solution to high-conflict is not to have big winners and big losers. The solution is to learn how to collaborate to solve problems, so that conflicts are actually resolved, and a community and the long-term relationships within it survive when the conflict is over. Think twice before you vote. Avoid voting for the politicians with “all the right answers,” and look instead for the politicians that can play well with others – that can collaborate for the benefit of our nation, not just for themselves, their own egos and a small group of friends. It’s up to us, because, on their own, high-conflict politicians can’t seem to stop themselves. 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. About Don Saposnek Donald T. Saposnek, Ph.D. is a clinical-child psychologist, child custody mediator and family therapist in private practice for over 40 years, and is a national and international trainer of mediation and child development.  For the past 35 years, he has been teaching on the psychology faculty at the University of California at