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.


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3 thoughts on “Stuck on You: Attachment Theory & Resolution – Part 2

  1. Trust is crucial but doesn’t one party in a negotiation, essentially, have to have it blindly neutral, especially when the mediator is totally new to a person. Evaluative mediators must really struggle with hoping a party will trust them when compared with facilitative mediators, right?

    • Doug, good thoughts. Hopefully, in the convening stage of the mediation, the mediator has made deposits in the “trust bank” with both of the parties. I do think that a mediator who is more facilitative in nature has a better opportunity for building trust. However, an evaluative mediator would be able to establish credibility by demonstrating her or his control over the process. However, rigid control can destroy credibility as well. In my view, the mediator and the parties are all better off if the mediator establishes relationship with all involved.

  2. What I see missing here is the acknowledgement of the parties’ pre-developed attachment styles and their ingrained in/ability to trust someone they hardly know.
    Trust goes back to issues of trust learned in childhood and people react in a way that is almost unconscious, either trusting or not trusting immediately according to factors that are not clearly rational or currently present.
    Simply asking someone to trust you, without knowing their attachment style has very limited chance of success.
    If you were with a child you would make eye contact, have appropriate body language and voice inflection, do reflective listening; attempting to relay a congruent message through body, voice and words that you are really interested in him or her. A child’s attachment style is still malleable. With an adult you would need to use these same tools, though you may be battling a stronger, more concrete attachment style that would reject your request for blind trust.

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