July 24, 2020

Dear Drama Observers,

I’ve talked a lot over the years about something I call the conflict trap. It’s a cycle of relational frustration I’ve observed countless times in my work with couples. Here’s how the conflict trap works:

She’ll say or do something that pushes one of his buttons. He reacts to the button push by fight or flight, which goes by other names such as attacking or withdrawing, blowing up or shutting up, spewing or stewing, fussing or festering. His reaction then pushes one of her buttons which elicits a fight or flight reaction on her side. Her reaction then re-pushes his button which elicits his reaction which then re-pushes her button and so forth and so on. You get the picture.

I’ve seen loud versions of the conflict trap which we call “knock-down-drag-outs,” “fighting like cats and dogs,” “blow outs,” or “shouting matches.” I’ve also seen silent versions where nobody yells but you can “cut the tension in the room with a knife.”

The conflict trap is very easy to fall into because it’s driven by human nature. Left to ourselves, the conflict trap is how we relate. And here’s something else about it—it feels awful. I’ve noticed over the years that it feels bad not only to the couples caught in it but also to me the observer. If I’ve been in my office for an hour with a couple embroiled in a knock-down-drag-out argument, I’m exhausted when we’re done. But I’m just as spent if the couple folded their arms and refused to talk. Either way, when that hour is up, I’m left thinking about changing professions.

So, what I’m always trying to do is to stick a metaphorical broom handle in that bicycle tire and break the conflict trap cycle because when people are simply reacting to each other’s reactions, nothing ever gets resolved. The conflict trap is a circular process where people “go round and round and never get anyplace.” Their arguments reach stopping points but never reach resolutions. But if they can exit the trap and adopt a linear process where resolutions are reached, the resulting feelings are wonderful—not only for them but for me as well. When that happens, I’m left thinking, “I love what I do.”

I bring this up because I noticed recently that watching the news or surfing social media sites feels exactly like sitting in an office with a conflict-trapped couple. Team A reacts to everything Team B says or does by attacking them which elicits return fire from Team B, which makes Team A react and so forth and so on. It’s tribal warfare in which no battles are won and no mutually agreeable resolutions are ever reached. It’s exhausting and, while I can’t change countries, maybe I can change channels. But it still exists whether I’m watching or not.

There are things couples do that fuel each other’s reactive tendencies like interrupting, failing to listen, changing the subject, insulting, dogmatizing about the other’s motives, or being sarcastic to name just a few. But there are things occurring in our collective tribal fights that have similar reaction-escalating effects. Attitudes such as the following:

Apocalyptic alarmism: If the other side wins, life as we know it will cease to exist. So, this upcoming election is not about the choice between political parties. It’s about the choice between good and evil.

Winning over integrity: If the other side really is evil and life as we know it will end with their victory, then any means of fighting them becomes justified. This is no time to be overly concerned about such abstractions as decency, humility, niceness, and civility. After all, desperate times call for desperate measures.

Power over persuasion: Waste no time trying to persuade fence-sitters. Instead, trash and demean those whom you oppose. Put less emphasis on the power of persuasion and more on the acquisition of power.

Build straw men and tear them down: Characterize your opponent’s side by highlighting their worst representatives. Pay no attention to the statement of George W. Bush when he said, “Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions.”

Draw conclusions without inquiries: Don’t waste time trying to find about why the other side holds the views they do. Instead, draw conclusions, get upset about the conclusions you’ve drawn, and then justify your outrage. Remember, like COVID-19, outrage is highly contagious.

I wish there was a broom handle to stick into the bicycle tire of political tribal warfare. I think the system set up by our founders, for all its faults, was designed to do just that.

Till next week.

2 replies
  1. Thalia
    Thalia says:

    Sounds like what you are saying is the reactive cycle of which there are many forms needs to be recognized and stopped through limit setting by the system set up by our founders, in the case of political tribal warfare.

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