High Conflict: How to break the spell?

We’re bewitched by high conflict. But there is a way out.

This is a true story about two grown women who stopped talking to each other. For 30 years. Over a piece of cheese.

A century ago, two sisters named Anna and Maria immigrated to America from Italy, raising their families side by side in central New Jersey, working hard to keep afloat during the Great Depression. Anna made pizzas. Maria ironed shirts and cleaned houses. They learned English and went to church, celebrating birthdays and mourning deaths and growing older together.

Then one day in the 1970s, Anna went back to Italy to visit. While she was there, someone gave her a hunk of good Italian provolone, the authentic kind that originated in Naples, to bring back for Maria.

Anna came home as planned. But the cheese never made it to Maria.

What happened to the cheese? Nobody knows, to this day. Probably, it got eaten. Whatever the case, this disappearing cheese sparked a feud, the kind that seems to have a life of its own. There was a huge blow-up argument. And then silence. The sisters didn’t speak again for decades.

High conflict is what happens when discord distills into a good-versus-evil kind of feud, the kind with an us and a them. High conflict acts like a spell, bewitching us without our realizing what is happening. The brain behaves differently. People feel increasingly certain of their own superiority and, at the same time, more and more mystified by the other side. Both sides feel the same emotions, though they never discuss it with each other.

“Where one was not going to forgive, the other was not going to forget,” Maria’s granddaughter Samantha told me. Each woman complained about how stubborn the other one was. On and on and on. “They were saying the same things about each other,” Samantha says. At her First Holy Communion, the sisters kept a wide berth from each other. Same thing at Easter. The family adapted, maneuvering around the sinkhole in their midst, trying not to fall in.

For others, when we encounter the other side, in person or on a cable news channel, we feel a tightening in our chest, a dread mixed with rage, as we listen to whatever insane, misguided, dangerous thing they say. The more we try to escape the conflict, the more tightly we get caught in its grip, like a Chinese finger trap.

For the past four years, I’ve been following people and communities that were stuck in some kind of high conflict — and made it out. Their unforgettable stories are chronicled in my new book High Conflict: Why We Get Stuck — and How We Get Out. There’s a lot to say about this, and so many questions I want to ask you all. But one way I can be useful right now, I think, is to make you a promise:

I’ve seen it happen right in front of me, again and again. People who have made this shift have certain things in common: they all found ways to rehumanize and recategorize their opponents, and they revived curiosity and wonder, even as they continued to fight for what they knew was right.

About 30 years after the provolone went missing, Anna’s husband died. Maria called her sister Anna on the phone. They talked for a long time. Not so much about cheese, but about their lives, their grandchildren, their family back home in Italy.

This was not a surrender, to be clear. The sisters still argued. They still got on each other’s nerves. Maria never forgot the missing cheese. The two of them continued to complain about each other to their grandchildren, just as they always had. But the conflict had shifted from high to healthy, and it stayed that way, until they died.