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Conflict Addiction – Barriers To Settling

I was moved to write this article because of my experience of a conflict in my own life. After I had managed to “move on,” I began to think about how compelling this very small dispute had become to me; how much of my thought and psychic energy had been consumed by it. I began to wonder if there is not something especially engrossing about conflict; why we can get hooked into a conflict, and keep the arguments going and going and going, even when the person with whom we are in conflict is not in the room; and whether conflict in and of itself has an addictive quality, that causes us to keep returning to it, arguing our case again and again.

Is the conflict more exciting and interesting, more colorful than the rest of our lives? One scholar has theorized that there are new pathways formed in our brains, when we enter a conflict. These conflict pathways become new grooves which we veer back into again and again, to relive, and keep arguing about the conflict. [1]

This is consistent with my personal experience, as well as my observation of my mediation clients. A few days before the Spring 2006, New York State Council on Divorce Mediation conference in Niagara Falls, Canada, a colleague called to ask if I would transport some Continuing Education forms to the conference. I said I would – but then realized that I would not arrive at the conference until the second day.

So I called UPS to see if I could ship the package, overnight, up to the hotel. They said certainly, and asked me if I had certain forms, the right box, etc. I told them I had nothing, and they said, “Fine, the driver will bring you the forms you need.”

To cut to the chase – the documents never made it to the conference. Sadly, I did not bring them with me on the second day, having relied on UPS’s reputation and assurances that the documents would be delivered on time.

After the conference, I made several phone calls to find out what had happened. The first person I spoke to was defensive and angry. After I hung up I was steamed! I had been accused of incompetence, received no sympathy for my embarrassment for not having provided documents, for the difficulties experienced by the conference organizers because of the lack of these forms, and heard no acceptance of responsibility for failure to deliver the package.

Over the next few days I had seven telephone conversations with different level customer service people at UPS, with varying levels of satisfaction. I found myself constantly thinking about this conflict – formulating arguments in my head as I emptied the dishwasher, practicing the way I would tell them off, while waiting for clients to arrive. [2]

What finally led me to feel enough satisfaction to decide not to pursue the matter further, was a conversation with an international supervisor. After hearing my tale, she was immediately apologetic, identified the form which had been missing, said that she thought UPS should have supplied it to me, and told me that she thought I was entitled to a refund (although I had to call another department to get it). What led me to be able to move on with my life, and drop this matter, even after calling the other department and being denied the refund, was the fact that one UPS employee heard my story and understood it, from my point of view.

I had some friends who met in high school, later married, and had a terrible divorce. [3] This couple’s divorce litigation took seven years, and about four years into it, during an afternoon with the wife and her future second husband, I saw that the conflict had eclipsed all else. She couldn’t focus on anything but the battle with her ex. The vivid contours of the conflict had sapped away her ability to listen to anyone; depleted her social skills; turned her into a broken record, repeating the gloriously gory details of how wronged she had been, overshadowing other areas of life which seem pale in contrast.

A few years ago, on Mediation Settlement Day, I volunteered at the local trial court and worked for five hours, in mediation with a couple who had already been divorced for three years. During this mediation session, I learned that the couple had had a 3-year divorce trial, and had continued to bring post-divorce parenting conflicts before the court. But the parents and extended family members of each of these ex-spouses were intensely involved – spying on each other, presenting evidence at hearings – keeping the whole family entertained. I thought, “if they were to let go of this dispute, their lives would feel so pale and empty, and their parents, uncles and aunts would be mad at them for going in a settling. [4] The battle of the families had become a lifestyle choice.

The Costs of Conflict:

If there are high costs to conflict then, if people are rational beings, they must believe that the potential return on pursuing the conflict exceeds the cost. There are certainly high costs. Putting aside the monetary cost of pursuing litigation – there is a cost to having so much of your energy drained, for years, by an ongoing personal conflict. The effect on children has been well documented. If my high school friend couldn’t talk about anything else to me, during one afternoon, I’m sure she also had trouble fully focusing on her children, during those years. But what are the returns?

One goal of the battle is to be declared the victor. Another resides in the fantasy that, when your adversary confronts his/her loss, he/she will learn a lesson. A client told me that she fears that walking away will allow her husband to get away scot-free. She can see this as a (flawed) pattern in his life – that when things get tough he runs away, just as he ran away from their marriage. She is aggravated with him, and thinks she should let him “get away with it, but should instead teach him a lesson.” But would he learn any lesson if she were to decide that she would hire an attorney and seek more assets?

As a party to a conflict, I can see the momentum created. The longer it goes on, the more persuasive one must finds one’s own arguments; because if I don’t have a good case, why am I still fighting? There is more tendency to polarize, and vilify the other, because it would not be rational to keep fighting this person unless they are really bad – the momentum in the head creates the stronger feelings that you are fighting evil. [5]

Does anyone change their behavior (or personality) because they lost in court? Do parties come away from a litigation saying, “Oh, now I understand, I was wrong all of these years, and my spouse was right. I have learned from this conflict.” We all like to see ourselves as avengers, as the heroes in our own movies. Even (those we might see as) the worst terrorists believe that they are doing the right thing, fighting for honor and truth.

I am working with a couple (Bill and Lucy) in mediation who told me that for 2 years, they have been living in their home without speaking to each other. Bill and Lucy are lucky, in that either of them could afford to buy out the other from the marital home. But they are unlucky, because they have both become swept into fighting over who will stay and who will go. Perhaps their “higher selves” could find a way to say, “hey, s/he cannot let go of this right now, so maybe s/he needs the house more than I do.” If there is financial compensation – can one of them move forward to another home without feeling that she has “lost,” and the other has “won?” Can the dispute be reframed so that it appears to Bill and Lucy that there are other ways to see the dispute than that one of them will win (stay in the house) and the other will lose (leave the house)? For example, there is an opportunity for one of them to move to a new place, buy new things (with a compensatory stipend, if necessary) and start over fresh; to go down in the family history (and in their child’s mind) as the hero, who has sacrificed him/herself to give all of them peace; the chance to make a new home, freed of the memories which reside in the old.

Ultimately, isn’t it a choice to remain locked into the struggle, or the choose to move forward with your life? I struggle to understand what makes people choose to pursue conflict, and even to behave irrationally to do so. Is it the loss of face? The fear that leaving will be like admitting guilt? When each feels so intensely that s/he has been wronged, that s/he is the victim, it’s a challenge to be the one to take the first step to resolve it.

The Desire to Be Heard

People become locked in to their positions, with escalating repetition, because they feel they are not being heard. This was my experience with UPS; and when I felt heard, I felt relieved enough to drop the conflict. If Dr. Nicholas Bartha’s [6] wife had heard and understood him – somehow – if he could have been capable of understanding her, of standing in her shoes to see how she felt, what made her leave him – then perhaps he would not have had to blow up their townhouse, rather than let her have it.

Or perhaps – if she had truly understood how passionately he felt about that building, that he was ready to destroy it rather than leave it – perhaps with that understanding, other ideas for resolution would have emerged. (That is, if the parties and their lawyers sat down to talk with the goal of actually finding a resolution to the conflict, and of wanting to listen to hear what the other side needed in order to resolve things.) When someone is heard and understood, s/he begins to relax, and to be able to hear and understand the other. Often, a person in conflict fantasizes that when the other side understand, then s/he will see his position in a different light, and will learn a lesson! Dr. Bartha was most likely trying to teach his wife a lesson and to communicate to her that he was very angry at her for leaving him!

The Momentum of the Conflict

Conflicts also take on their own momentum, and it becomes difficult to step off the carousel once it is spinning so quickly. Part of that momentum arises out of the difficulty of hearing the other, while you are busy formulating a defense for yourself. “Research shows that while people think of their own actions as the consequences of what came before, they think of other people’s actions as the causes of what came later.” [7]

A couple abandoned their litigation, because it had gained a momentum which did not make sense to them. They didn’t need or want EBTs, because they had no conflicts regarding discovery. They were in agreement regarding the assets which existed in the marital estate, and their value, but could not find the way to communicate that to the judge. Sanctions were pending if the EBTs were not completed by the judge’s deadline, but the EBTs would cost them thousands of dollars, so they abandoned their case and came to mediation. They told me that when they attempted to speak to their lawyers about settling, they were told that, “the judge assumes that if you’re here, then you can’t settle the case, and doesn’t want to hear about it.”

I had a difficult couple come in one day, requesting mediation. They told me they had arrived at an agreement; but the terms were patently unfair and unbalanced. We met for one hour, and they told me the proposed terms of their settlement. Later that afternoon the disempowered spouse (who in this case was the husband) called to tell me that he had reconsidered settling during our mediation session.

I thought, “That was a better result,” and thought that the matter closed. But ten days later, the wife called me, furious, and demanding a refund of the fee they had paid to me for the one hour I had spent with them. She threatened me with a malpractice claim if I did not refund my fee.

Over the next few days, I became sucked into the conflict. I felt angry for being accused of malpractice, and defended my right to my fee. I had discussions with her in my head, vigorously defending myself. During the ensuing days, I had a conversation with a colleague, who suggested that I use what he called the “principle of contribution,” to find a way out of the conflict; which was to communicate to her that I understood that, from her perspective, I failed to do what she had asked me to do – write up the agreement as they had decided it – and further that, since our discussion had led her husband to reconsider his agreement to the terms, she believed that I had failed to be a neutral mediator.

I realized in a flash that I had been spinning around and around in this conflict in my brain, going around so fast that I could not see a way off the carousel, but my colleague lit up the exit ramp. I gratefully leapt off the carousel of conflict. I wrote the wife a letter apologizing for not having been able to help them to quickly settle their case, and sent her a check for one-third of my fee. Sometimes clients themselves would like to end even the most entrenched conflict, and settle the case. A true dispute resolver will help to show them the way.

End Notes

1 See, Weinstein & Weinstein, “I Know Better Than That:” The Role of Emotions and the Brain in Family Disputes, 7 J.L. & Fam. Stud. 351 (2005), the conflict, and especially family and divorce conflicts, can trigger the fight-or-flight response based on the reptilian brain perceiving the conflict as a biological threat to its survival, so the conflict then becomes compelling.

2 UPS ultimately refused to accept any part of the responsibility for failing to tell me about or provide me with a missing customs form. $86.43 down the drain.

3 This divorce had all of the (extreme) trimmings – he had an affair with the obstetrician who had delivered her first child, and told her during her pregnancy with their second child; during the child’s birth and first year, his best friend took up the role as the wife’s supporter and comforter and later married her. These circumstances are the stuff of soap opera (or opera).

4 See Walter Salles Behind the Sun.

5 Id., 7 J.L. & Fam. Stud at 383.

6 The doctor who blew up himself and his E. 62nd Street townhouse, rather than let his wife get the house as part of the divorce settlement.

7 Daniel Gilbert, NYT July 26, 2006


Rachel Fishman Green

Rachel Fishman Green, Esq. is an attorney who runs ReSolutions Mediation Services, based in Park Slope, Brooklyn, since 1995.  Rachel is the Chair of the Joint Ethics Committee of the New York State Council on Divorce Mediation and the Family & Divorce Mediation Council of Greater New York, which accepts and… MORE >

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