Parties at Odds: Conflict in Politics and Divorce

Parties at Odds: Conflict in Politics and Divorce by Lauren BehrmanA new survey conducted by the American Psychological Association as part of their Stress in America study concluded that 52% of Americans report feeling anxiety over the presidential election.

This election cycle has broken numerous records, from the ratings for the debates to the amount of money spent on campaign ads. More so than any election in recent memory, being on different sides of the race is tearing apart friends and families. There is such a heightened level of anxiety that some people are convinced that if their candidate doesn’t win, they’re not going to be safe, or that there’s going to be chaos.

When someone dwells on the worst possible scenario that could result from a situation, it’s called “catastrophizing.” When someone catastrophizes they are going to a very dark place, feeding their own anxiety to the point where they lose perspective and forget that they are not, and cannot, be in control of everything.

I was recently preparing to be interviewed about the stress the election is causing many people on ABC’s Nightline when I realized it’s not all that different from divorces in which there is a high level of conflict between the partners, or “parties,” as it were.

If one party feels passionate about a particular issue, there is a very good chance that another party feels just as strongly in the opposite direction. Oftentimes in divorce, this kind of polarization, coupled with catastrophic thinking and fears one feels about the changes ahead as a result of the divorce, get in the way of reaching an agreement. Each party feels personally attacked when, in reality, the other person may just be articulating how they see things—and it was never meant as an insult or an attack.

The same APA study found that users of social media report more election stress than people who choose not to participate in Facebook, Twitter, etc., at 54% to 45% respectively. This is another example of how entrenched political positions often mirror high-conflict divorces: social media is the perfect platform to say things that one would never say in person, and it is not at all rare to see a divorcing couple trading barbs over Facebook or using that platform to provoke their soon-to-be ex, just like political adversaries do.  

When I got into Manhattan and sat down for my interview, I told Dan Harris that people need to know it’s okay to tune out and consume only the news that they need to be informed. Distractions like watching a movie, taking a walk in the woods, or doing a crossword puzzle (for best anti-anxiety effects, use a pencil) allows one to just be. Taking part in fun activities is a form of mindfulness, as is meditation or simply concentrating on your breath. In terms of divorce recovery, it’s also important not to catastrophize or go too far into the “what ifs.”

In the “fog of divorce,” conflict is an easy trap to fall into, but a difference in opinion does not have to mean all is lost. Take for example the political power couple James Carville and Mary Matalin.  

Carville is a fiercely loyal Democrat and Matalin is a seasoned operative for the Republican party—and yet, they are married. They have been able to agree to disagree, but they came together to create a marriage that baffles many, but earns the respect of even more.

If you’re experiencing a constitutional crisis because of divorce, consider contacting professionals that are experienced in helping people deal with all types of conflict.

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Lauren Behrman, Ph.D.

Jeffrey Zimmerman, Ph.D., ABPP