Polarization is a Dirty Word

Polarization is a dirty word. Why? Because when people get themselves on the far edge of an issue or topic, there is no room for middle ground, compromise or working together. Polarization results in us seeing our partner in an extreme light. We perceive and expect extreme ideas, attitudes or behavior from them. Polarization is a dangerous form of disconnect in any relationship and especially so in romantic relationships.

How does polarization happen? Well, it doesn’t happen overnight. It is gradual. It is a drift that happens in relationships when we perceive our partner has extreme attitudes or behaviors. Our values aren’t validated by our partner, so we double-down to make the case for our value. In the process, we discount or dismiss our partner’s values. Take the example of a dad who wants to be adventurous and active with the kids. Mom, on the other hand, worries about safety and risk.

What happens over time is that one partner focuses on one value (dad-adventure), the other partner, on another value (mom-safety), and the more each partner doubles down on their value, the more they dismiss, discount or ignore the other partner’s concerns. This is where the lecturing, eye-rolling, insulting characterizations, blaming, shaming and all sundry of hurtful behaviors show up in our conversations. This is when our partner stops being our partner and becomes our enemy. We stop listening because they sound like a broken record: “Blah-blah-blah”.

Problem solving is impossible at this point. Solutions follow values and if my partner won’t acknowledge or validate my values, we can’t possibly agree on anything. We begin to fight the same fight over and over. We case build, seek validation from others, judge our partner and slowly close off to them. 

So what to do? Let’s start with values. If we can identify our values and why they are important to us, chances are, our partner shares our values. After all, we fell in love with them for a reason, right? In our example, of course mom cares about having fun and adventure and dad definitely wants everyone to be safe. Once we can agree on our values, then problem solving becomes a whole lot easier and a lot less charged. 

If you find yourself in a polarized position with your partner, see if you can both identify your values and share them with each other in a respectful way. Can you validate one another’s values? Do you share the value? If so, begin to problem solve holding both values in mind. “Hey! I want to take the kids hiking. How can we best ensure safety on our hike?”

Work to address your partner’s values, not just your own.

About the Author: Malia Doss, LMFT, SEP

 I have practiced therapy for 16 years and have assisted for hundreds of hours at training for both Somatic Experiencing and Emotionally Focused Therapy. I am a certified yoga instructor and have taught mindfulness and meditation. I continue to explore and train in attachment based therapies for couples, individuals and families.