If the summer of 2011 has a seasonal theme, it's got to be "My way or the highway."
Amid Minnesota's government shutdown, Congress and the president deadlocked over the country's deepening financial crisis and the NBA and NFL lockouts, everybody's squaring off, digging in and refusing to budge.
Those who do offer concessions -- who actually bend a little toward resolving the disputes -- are labeled weaklings, losers, even traitors.
These sprawling, simultaneous stalemates are all high-profile. But divorce arbitrators and psychologists report an increase in the "I want it my way, or no deal" mind-set on personal levels, as well.
How did the ability to compromise devolve from a noble art and mark of maturity into something to be ashamed of?
Humorist/activist Lizz Winstead has one theory: "Too many people putting the ME in mediation."
She's on to something there, say behavior experts. The mind-set contributing to our current paralyses is akin to a child sobbing, "It's not fair!" said Steven Harris, director of the marriage and family therapy program at the University of Minnesota.
"What we're really saying is 'I don't like how this situation affects me,'" he said.
Instant gratification is now so rampant that we've come to expect it, distorting our concept of equity. And too many of us spend too much time in techno-isolation, exacerbating the problem. Family members on a car trip, for example, can all listen to and watch different things -- Dad, behind the wheel, is tuned into satellite radio, Mom has her ear buds in while working on her laptop and Junior's in the back playing a video game or watching the car TV. Many people aren't learning how to have relationships, let alone conflict-resolution skills, Harris said, because "they don't have to interact anymore."
It's all about me
The self-centered trend isn't likely to dissipate anytime soon, said Jean Twenge, a psychology professor and author of "The Narcissism Epidemic," because the anti-concession attitude is particularly pronounced in adults born after 1970.
"Anyone under 40 has been brought up on the idea that you should never compromise, not in your work life, not in your personal life," she said. But Twenge, who at 39 is also a Gen-Xer, isn't wagging her finger at her peers.
"Young people didn't raise themselves," she said. "They are reflecting their world, and what their parents and teachers have told them."
But the trend goes deeper than parental indulgence, she said. Over that same time frame, the growth of individualism has seen Americans focusing more on the self and less on getting along with the rest of society.
"The great upside to that is more diversity and less pigeonholing of people based on their backgrounds, but it's been taken too far, to the point of not only do I have my personal freedom, but now it's also, screw the other guy."
The Rev. Gary Reierson, head of the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches, sees the lessening influence of faith on society at the root of the trend, and has observed two related cultural shifts over the past 20 years.
"One is the loss of humility, and the accompanying belief that my views must always be correct," he said. "This is the perspective that produces ideologues who can't be wrong. The other shift is a loss of love of neighbor, to put it in theological terms. Focus on self-interest leads naturally to greed."
Blame it on biology
While we are responsible for our own bad behavior, we're somewhat wired for an us-or-them mentality, said Tai Mendenhall, an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Minnesota.
"The human brain is a categorizer, and it usually stops at two," he said. When making decisions, people tend to see their own opinions and opposing ones as black and white, with no alternative solution.
Take the toothpaste dilemma. One couple seeing Mendenhall for therapy were furious with each other because he wanted to squeeze the tube from the middle, she from the end.
"How about a pump bottle? How about two separate tubes?" he said. Bingo -- two alternative solutions.
A few ideas on working it out
Perhaps legislators, governors, sports figures, bickering couples and sulky kids could all take a page from the high school debate team handbook: Try to passionately argue the other guy's side, and see whose bucket really holds more water.
"It's a great way to test how strong the justification is for a certain policy or set of beliefs," said David Cram Helwich, U of M debate director. "The things people believe are important are generally the same. It's just that the disputes over how to do it overwhelm what could be a shared sense of mission."
Family therapist Harris advises the couples he sees to not only try to assume the other's point of view, but also consider its integrity.
"The other way of looking at it -- 'You, over there on the other side of the table, are just out to get me' -- that leaves no wiggle room," he said. "It's very difficult to reconcile."
Reierson suggests using the good old-fashioned notion of face-to-face contact, as opposed to virtual.
"When you have a personal experience with another human being, it's harder to hang on to uncompromising self-righteousness. That's part of the genius of American culture."
On the other hand, if you're creative enough, try throwing the clashing viewpoints out and try a different course of action altogether, said Andrea Niemi, an attorney and divorce arbitrator.
"The best solutions don't come from meeting in the middle, but from somebody having another idea, another option, something people haven't thought of before," she said. "It's when people in conflict come to an impasse that they often come up with an out-of-the-box idea."
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