Open Book

Open Book

De-escalating Disputes: How Therapists Can Stop Runaway Conflict

By William Doherty, Shauna Fenske

May/June 2022

High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out
By Amanda Ripley
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021

No one needs a reminder that we live in a world of high conflict, from toxic political polarization to screaming matches at once-boring schoolboard meetings to Academy Award slap-downs to flights redirected because of mask-refusing passengers. Our clients have told us about family cutoffs over politics and vaccine-driven boycotts of Thanksgiving dinners, birthday parties, and weddings. High conflict is everywhere, it seems.

But for author Amanda Ripley, high conflict is not mainly a matter of frequency or degree—lots of conflicts or more intense conflicts—but something qualitatively different. It’s conflict that takes on a life of its own, feeding off itself, sucking its participants into a cyclone that feels beyond their control. It’s often fueled by third parties like media personalities, in the case of political polarization, or like divorce attorneys, in the case of high conflict divorces. Therapists see the effects of it in our clients and their relationships, and we can feed its flames ourselves if we’re not careful. More on that later.

Conflict, to be sure, can be necessary and good. Healthy conflict, Ripley writes, is a way to deal with tension on a specific issue. It creates pressure to create and sustain change. It arises, is dealt with, and then subsides. The participants maintain their relationship…

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