Polarization: How and why it happens

I watched a TED talk the other day by Noah Feldman on the birth of partisanship in the United States.

When James Madison, the principal architect of the U.S. constitution, crafted the constitution, he envisioned a non-partisan nation.

Alexander Hamilton helped Madison to market the constitution and they created the Federalist papers. But when Hamilton became Treasury Secretary, he wanted to create a central bank and a trade economy. This infuriated Madison, who wanted an agriculture-based economy with minimal trade.

The two went from being partners to being opponents and party politics (in the U.S.) were born.


When Gertrude and Sam got married, they saw their reflections in each other’s eyes. They barely fought. They enjoyed doing the same things and doing everything together. Their differences were dismissed breezily because they were so pumped full of oxytocin that their love was the only thing that mattered.

Delilah was born three years after they got married. They both wanted children. Delilah was a colicky baby. She also had trouble latching on to breastfeed.

Gertrude suffered from postpartum depression. Sam had trouble dealing with the changes in their relationship.

Gertrude and Sam started fighting more and more. The stuff that used to just roll off their backs trigger epic screaming matches.

Sam and Gertrude’s differences all came to the surface simultaneously: she wanted to raise Delilah with religion and Sam didn’t. Sam gave Delilah ice cream and Gertrude wanted to maintain a strict sugar-free diet. Sam wanted to travel and Gertrude wanted to save for Delilah’s college.

The only thing they could consistently agree on was that they loved their daughter.


When couples become polarized like Gertrude and Sam, stuck on opposite ends of the spectrum, unable to see each other’s points of view, refusing to see and hear each other, the only way to remedy the situation is to help them to see what they are doing, own and understand it, and to each move back toward the center.

When couples are polarized, they unconsciously let the other hold views so that they don’t have to deal with them themselves. It is a solution for ambivalence, but it comes at a price.


If one partner takes on the role of the planner and the other partner is carefree and spontaneous, and their roles become polarized so that they planner feels she can never let her hair down because her partner won’t take responsibility, and the carefree partner feels there’s no point in trying to plan because he will never be good enough, they will move further and further apart and blame each other for the situation.

If the planner is able to own her role in keeping her partner the way he is, and is able to work on relinquishing some control and also connecting to her own need to have fun, this will help her to move toward the center.

If the carefree partner sees how his avoidance triggers his partner and own his need to feel more responsible, it will help him move closer to the center.


Republicans and democrats are like an old married couple that have not worked on their relationship in many years.

For example, even though millions of republicans have benefitted from the Affordable Care Act and the elimination of pre-existing conditions, all most republicans in congress talk about is repealing and replacing Obamacare instead of working together to make it better.

Neither side wants to give the other a win. They are both entrenched in their positions, rendering them incapable of compromise and change.

What can we do about a marriage where neither partner is willing to come to the table and own their part?

I fear that only some sort of catastrophe will act as a catalyst, but even that would only temporarily create unity if the underlying issues aren’t addressed.

We need more individuals like Senators Collins, Murkowski and McCain that were willing to stand up for what they believed was best for people in spite of it being in conflict with the stance of their party.

We need congress to sit in on a session with Gertrude and Sam, to see how they are able to work at understanding and owning what they are each bringing to the table, because they have a shared commitment to each other and to their daughter.

When ego gratification and winning overshadow this shared commitment, a culture of polarization and deprivation takes over. When this happens, everyone loses.


David B. Younger, Ph.D is the creator of Love After Kids, for couples that have grown apart since having children. He is a clinical psychologist and couples therapist with a web-based private practice, and lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, 12-year-old son, 3-year-old daughter and 5-year-old toy poodle.

Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on August 4, 2017.

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