Conflict in Time of Crisis

By the end of March 2020, over 100 countries worldwide had instituted either a full or partial lock-down, affecting billions of people. Stuck at home with your spouse and families for the next unforeseeable future, you probably had one of two thoughts: 1) “I’m so in love and can’t imagine spending this scary time with anyone else!” or 2) “I have to see you every day, morning and night, for the next 32 days? NOW TWO MONTHS?? Send help!” Yes, not all couples were designed to spend 24/7 together and Corona virus is showing that whereas couples might love each other, they may not actually like each other.

In light of the outbreak of COVID-19, whereas some families rekindled their love, a gender-based pandemic called family violence also attacked causing a horrifying percentage global surge in domestic violence and more importantly severely limited the ability of service providers to help victims. For many it meant being locked down in an abusive place; “Stay home” meant isolation with an abuser and more control and violence; the threat loomed largest where they should be safest. Almost 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men are experiencing physical violence by their partners at some point, and 30 to 60 percent child abuse in the household. Notably, millions of people live in countries where domestic violence is NOT considered a crime.

One asks, what causes conflict in times of crisis. Crisis breeds conflict. In these difficult times the stress of economic uncertainty caused by CV-19 are only outpaced by the anxiety many feel for the safety of their loved ones. Economic distress escalates as we figure out how to pay bills, deal with unemployment, worry whether our jobs will be there “after the virus,” and if they are, what sort of changes can we expect? Children are idle and restless. They have suddenly lost contact with friends, school mates, and teachers; they have fewer (if any) outlets for physical activity. Children as well as their parents are trying to cope with rapidly organized distance learning courses.

Domestic violence increases during crisis, especially when families are sharing cramped homes and insufficient resources such as computers, internet, food, and emotional energy. Parents are working from home and home schooling, leaving little energy to recharge their own emotional batteries or to find time to be alone as adults/couples.

These tensions heighten emotions and we react by either confronting the entity (fight) or we shutdown (flight). At the initial moment of conflict our brain cortisol levels release instantaneously, causing us to overreact in zero to sixty seconds. The reaction happens so quickly that the brain becomes stressed resulting in brain fog, which is the inability to think rationally and both brain and body are experiencing multiple emotions including anger, fear, hurt, disappointment, and many others. In the heat of the conflict, we stop in taking information in a coherent format and people excuse their feelings/reactions by blaming others, pointing fingers, and trap ourselves in the “I’m right and you are wrong” mindset.

What then must we do to de-escalate this gender-based pandemic. Hard as it may be, choosing not to react in the heat of the moment sometimes is the best reaction and promotes a positive behavior response. Having a mediator present is key to help one “go to the balcony.” Going to the Balcony, according to William Ury, is a metaphor for a mental and emotional place of perspective, calm and self-control where we can stay focused on real interests and keep sight on the real prize. It is only through a process of self-inquiry, self-understanding and frequent practice that one can Go the Balcony.

CV-19 crisis has brought heightened need for community-based conflict resolution and the need for Government intervention to prevent further domestic violence is paramount. Globally, mediators are offering their services formally and informally via teleconference, zoom, Skype and other platforms in order to assist parties to reach mutually-agreeable resolutions to their disputes. Some of the hotels are made available to domestic violence victims; Conflict Management specialists are being called upon to provide marital mediation, parent-teen mediation and even neighborhood conflict management. These sessions involve a mediator/facilitator who seeks to identify the root causes of conflict, then helps the parties to develop ground rules designed to avoid or resolve future conflict through the creation of shared expectations. They also assist parties to better develop their communication and conflict resolution skills so they may better resolve their own disputes in the future. As mediators, we have worked with people dealing with differing conflicted situations and our duty is to help our clients gain a balcony view. Courts may be closed, but disputes do not cease. Now is the time to be our brothers’ keepers. The government should further avail resources to sensitize communities on conflict resolution mechanisms and to offer mediation training to our elders and Local Council chairpersons and all other interested parties so that they are empowered with tools to curb the unguided domestic violence cases and wrangles in their respective communities. The new normal clearly brings forth a growing need for all of us to take on collective responsibility and become conflict resolution coaches in our communities to assist the very small number of mediators countrywide.

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