The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

Polarization: What Happened to the Continuum?

Authored by John Bell, M.Div.

The ideas presented in this blog are taken from a new training module that is available to congregations and community stakeholders who are interested in addressing polarization in their communities.  If you’d like more information about the training, contact John Bell at Reverend Bell also presented these concepts on May 6, 2017 at the 34th Midwest Symposium Theory and Therapy.

Polarization takes a toll on communities and creates additional problems for institutions.  Compromise, collaboration, and cooperation are replaced with confrontation, obstinacy, and resistance.  Each side escalates their rhetoric and behavior towards the opposition.  Police departments, governments, not-for-profits, and religious institutions may become the target of controversy as they provide routine services to their constituents.  Community leaders may feel hopeless and stuck when working with a fearful public.

What opportunities are available to community leaders at such a time as this?  How can organizations and institutions develop policies and procedures that better address polarization?  What are ways to address the challenge without perpetuating the problem?

What is polarization?

“Polarization is the alignment of individuals moving in opposition to each other” (Dr. Dan Papero).  It can only be understood correctly as a relationship phenomenon.  It includes behaviors on each side to control the thinking, feeling, and actions of people on the other side.  At the same time, each side avoids opportunities to engage the challenges they face with the other side.  Those who attempt to have a nuanced and complex view of the issue are pressured to pick a side.  Polarization is an automatic, reactive way to address an increase in tension.

The importance of understanding the triangle

Dr. Murray Bowen observed the natural occurrence of triangles in relationship systems, particularly the family.  A two-person relationship is not steady.  As anxiety rises in the relationship, it is natural for a third person to be drawn in to stabilize the relationship.

Through the triangle, we can observe our natural tendencies to move towards others, what Bowen called the force for togetherness, or avoid others, which can result from too much togetherness.  Two people form a close connection, and a third person is in the uncomfortable outside position.  In a state of calm, the outside person will make an effort to push out one of the two insiders.  However, when tension increases, one of the two insiders will either form a new twosome with the other outside person or move to the outside position leaving the other two together.

When someone is forced into the outside position during times of heightened anxiety, that person will seek out someone else to form a new twosome.  This is the foundation of polarization, two pairs now in opposition to each other.  If the intensity between the original twosome is great, these interlocking triangles will spread quickly into larger groups.  Before long, people will herd into polarized groups.

The importance of Differentiation of Self

When two people or two parties have become polarized, it is possible for a third, emotionally neutral person to enter the relationship system and reduce the polarization.  If one person is able to relate to the individuals or groups on both sides of the issue in a mature, responsible way, there is a good chance the conflict will end.  This is part of what Dr. Bowen called Differentiation of Self.  Here is an example of what can go into this effort:

  1. Pay attention and observe your own level of anxiety as you relate to important people in your life.
  2. Work at intentionally reducing your anxiety through things like breathing, walking, etc.
  3. Pay attention to how important people in your life raise your level of anxiety and how you raise their level of anxiety.
  4. Learn the difference between your feelings and your thinking.
  5. Develop ways to think about and then communicate important issues without a long-term disruption of the relationship system.
  6. Repeat the process.


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