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.

It’s a Question of Style

Recently I was a participant in a training for a very specialized interview technique. As we listened to the background and the purpose for the methods we were to learn, I immediately began connecting with my previous training and experience as a mediator.

We were asked to come up with five great questions that we could use to build momentum in the interview. I wrote five questions. I have to confess; I didn’t write five different questions. In fact, I didn’t write two.

I wrote five versions of the same question.

In my estimation, each one was an improvement on the previous. Some were more succinct. Others were more elegant. Number Five was pretty close to perfect . . . in my estimation.

So, when my turn came, I offered my question.

Scarcely had my mouth closed when another trainee, a veteran of dozens of these trainings, offered constructive criticism. I had begun my question with “Tell me about a moment  . . .”

“Never say ‘Tell me,'” he offered. “Doing that places the emphasis on you instead of the person you are interviewing.” He and the instructor then went on to offer alternatives.

Dutifully, I wrote them down. It hasn’t been twenty-four hours and I’ve revisited that advice a dozen times.

And, I now firmly believe that advice was wrong — at least for me.

I understand the higher purpose of placing the other person in a place of prominence where your attention is riveted on her story. Yet, it misses the very important element of relationship between the two people in the conversation.

When I ask you to “tell me about” something important to you, I invite you to deepen our relationship. I enlist your partnership in the conversation. In this time of disengagement from others and intentional isolation, people are searching for others who care enough to connect.

So, the next time we sit down for coffee and you say, “Tell me about your day . . .”, I’ll be smiling. I’m sitting with someone who wants to share information and relationship.


Subscribe to the PeaceBytes newsletter

Stuck on You: Attachment Theory & Resolution – Part 2

Trust me. Trust. Me.

Even in the most sterile of business transactions, trust is the hinge the entire deal swings on. Broken trust is the fuel that feeds the flames of conflict.

In Part 1 of this series, we highlighted two separate, yet related, concerns of mediation parties and their attorneys: trust and the exploration of emotions.

The primary concern is that of trust. How do we come to trust the words and the actions of the other party? This is particularly difficult when the lack of trust is what propelled the dispute into mediation.

The second concern touches on control. Yet it most often surfaces in an expression of fear regarding the exploration of emotions by the parties during mediation. “I’m afraid I will grow emotional and say something I shouldn’t . . . I’m afraid my client will, in an emotional state, make poor decisions about settlement.”

Recent research suggests that peacemakers can learn much about reconciliation by studying the ways that relationships form. Some of our earliest ties to others are explained through the theory of attachment.

Edward John Mostyn Bowlby was the fourth of six children born to an upper, middle class, London family. John was raised primarily by his nanny. Except for the summer months, John and his siblings spent only an hour a day with their mother. In that societal echelon, parents were inclined to limit their attention and affection in an effort to avoid spoiling children.

As John would later report, his nanny’s decision to leave the family when he was four years old, had much the same effect as the loss of a mother. With his own experience, a special interest in child development, and with his background in psychology and psychiatry, Dr. John Bowlby became increasingly interested in the effect on children resulting from separation from familiar people. World War II had greatly increased the occurrence of such separation of children from significant adults. Dr. John Bowlby was a front-row observer of the effects of these separations.

Dr. Bowlby’s theory of attachment is founded on the concept that an infant needs to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver. If that relationship fails to materialize, the child is at risk in her or his social and emotional development. The attachment is instinctive and carries with it the quest for survival.

Psychologically, attachment brings security. Security, in turn, sets the stage for trusting interaction. An infant attaches to its primary caregiver or caregivers and experiences security through close proximity. As the child seeks to broaden its social horizons, the attachment relationship provides a safe haven from which to explore other relationships and situations.

As children grow, the gravity of attachment lessens as the attachment relationship is negotiated. Many a parting conversation at daycare sounds something like, “You stay here and play with your friends. I’ll be back to get you right after work.” Over time, the goal of the attachment behavioral system is less about proximity and more about availability. As long as the primary caregiver is available in times of stress and fatigue, longer periods of separation become possible as the child develops independence.

Regardless of the stage, attachment and security in special relationships revolves around either proximity or availability of significant people. As individuals mature, the need for a close relationship with a primary caregiver fades. But those relationships are often replaced by essential ties with trusted friends and loved ones. Just as with children and primary caregivers, these areas of working trust become safe havens for contemplation and exploration of other opportunities. And, perhaps more importantly, maintenance of stability in increasingly complex life situations.

But what happens when these attachments are ruptured?

In the next segment of this series, we’ll take a look at a significant cause of loss of trust and the resulting conflict among individuals in a wide range of relationships — the attachment injury.

In mediation, parties have an opportunity to rebuild trust even when the injury to a relationship has cut deeply. Yet they must be allowed to deal openly with their underlying feelings and emotions.

Trust me. Trust. Me.



Bretherton, I. & Munholland, K.A. (1999). “Internal working models in attachment relationships: A construct revisited.” In Cassidy, J. & Shaver P.R. Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research and Clinical Applications. New York: Guilford Press.

Cassidy, J. (1999). “The nature of a child’s ties.” In Cassidy J. & Shaver P.R. Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research and Clinical Applications. New York: Guilford Press.


Subscribe to the PeaceBytes newsletter