Stuck on You: Attachment Theory & Resolution – Part 3

“I don’t trust her anymore.”

How many times had I heard that said at my mediation table? And how many times had I collected that information and saved it for my meeting with the other party?

“You know, she doesn’t trust you anymore.”

While it is helpful for a person in conflict to understand what the other person is feeling towards her, I’m beginning to realize that I’ve been missing a real opportunity to delve deeper into that element of trust and the generation of mistrust.

In recent years, researchers have discovered more and more evidence of the connection of emotions to other elements of rational decision-making. Popular thought just a few decades ago instructed us to separate our emotions from our decisions. We told people not to make decisions until all emotion had drained away.

Yet emotion and the underlying physiological actions play a very important part in our decisions. We use emotions to screen incoming stimuli and to look for safety and danger. In search of secure places, we seek to form special bonds with others we can trust. This is the basis for what is known as attachment theory.

After we have formed an attachment with another human — mother/child, spouse/spouse, partner/partner, friend/friend — our brains, and in particular, our amygdalae, create emotional memory that aids us in making decisions. The amygdalae, small gatherings of neurons in the temporal lobe of the brain, gather information both from sensory neurons (transmitting sight, smell, and aural messages) and cognitive messages from the cortex about the presence of these people. Then depending on past experience, the amygdalae signal the cortex its programmed response — safety or danger is present.

Thus, a child introduced to a new environment is soothed by the presence of his mother. Adults, facing extreme conditions, find safety in being in close proximity with those with whom we have special bonds. As a result, trust and safety signals are generated by the presence of these “others” or by their endorsement of scenarios or others “whom we should trust.”

However, in the path of life, events occur that disrupt this feeling of safety. The young child finds that his mother’s assurance that “the shot really doesn’t hurt much” was overstated. Or a spouse learns of his mate’s relationship with another man. Moments like these constitute what researchers have called “attachment injuries.” Safety messages are replaced with danger messages.

For this very reason, mediators (and helping professionals) have recognized that the most devastating of conflicts are most often between those who shared special bonds and relationships.

So, when I hear someone say, “I don’t trust her anymore,” I have new questions to ask.

Attachments between people key off two central elements. The first is accessibility. (Can I get to you if I need you?) The second is responsiveness. (Will you respond to me?) In regard to the second, a corollary is whether or not the response proves to be helpful and/or accurate. Thus, when trust is lost, the underlying event is a break in accessibility or responsiveness (or the reliability of the response).

My response to “I don’t trust her anymore” now revolves around those underlying interests of accessibility and responsiveness.

“Was there a time when she wasn’t there for you? . . . Tell me about that time. . . . How have things changed since then?”

The stories that emerge may lead to a new affect narrative that allows the mediation party to deal with those danger signals and to imagine conditions and behaviors that would allow settlement and reconciliation.

Remember, trust is rarely triggered or restored by the simple request to “Trust me.” Healing must occur, at least to some extent, to the attachment injury. There must be a bright and clear image of safety that can be used to satisfy both the cognitive and emotional aspects of our thinking.

In the next segment of this series, we’ll take a look at how mediators can effectively assist parties in building new affect narratives.