He stares across the table at her. Perhaps, glares is a better word.
She keeps her eyes down, watching her finger slowly trace the outside edge of the note pad in front of her. It’s hard to tell at this angle, but her eyes seem a little red at the rims and just a bit moist.
The words that had provoked this moment of silence had been his.
“I don’t understand, after all the time we’ve been together, how she can say she doesn’t trust me now,” he offered. “I mess up once in 25 years. I’m honest about it and I tell her. I ask — no, I beg — for her forgiveness. And, what happens? She has me served with divorce papers.” After a long pause, “I just thought that what we had was stronger than that.”
The mediator listened and watched as the words seemed to melt away. The ticking of the mantel clock was suddenly loud and distracting.
At one level, the husband’s dismay is understandable. If his story is accepted at face value and he and his wife have invested more than a quarter of a century into their relationship, is it right that one event, one admitted mistake, should end it all? How can trust that had been so carefully crafted be destroyed so quickly?
What we are seeing is an example of an attachment injury. A close bond is established over time and one person becomes attached to another. While, in many ways it is a mental and emotional choice, researchers tell us that it also has physiological structure. In the human brain, the amygdalae collect information from multiple sensory paths and actively signal when either safety or danger is present. When a person grows close to another and trust is established, the amygdalae encourage the body to relax and to feel safe. This is known as attachment. Even though the reactions people have with those to whom they have an attachment come quickly, the response is not totally automatic. In addition to the sensory input, the amygdalae also receive messages from the prefrontal cortex that arise from discernment.
When someone acts in an unexpected way, our response process suffers a tremendous jolt. When someone we’ve trusted and attached to suddenly acts differently, even in a sinister way, our brain immediately feels the jolt. Questions circulate constantly. What has happened? Why has this happened? Am I safe?
Those signals of trust and safety emanating from the amygdalae now shift to alarms. Our reaction now is to fear, flee, or perhaps fight. Not surprisingly, those signals are strong and raw and controlling.
For this reason, conflict between two persons who have shared an attachment is often much more severe than between acquaintances or strangers. The shattering of attachment presents a huge obstacle for the relationship and often results in impasse in even the most innocuous transactions. Conflict coupled with an attachment injury require special attention from a mediator.
Drs. Christian Early and Annmarie Early suggest that mediators can help parties overcome impasse from attachment injury by helping them to fashion affect narratives. They recommend that mediators be attentive to a party’s revelation of a shift in affect. In other words, at what moment did her feelings shift toward the other party? By exploring the instant of injury, the mediator may be able to facilitate a conversation to the parties that can help to repair and heal the rupture. This conversation helps develop a new story, the affect narrative, that is a foundation for building a new relationship or restoring a previous attachment.
Remember that attachment occurs when two conditions are present. First, the individual forming the attachment senses that the other person is accessible. “Will you be there for me when I need you?” Second, the other person must be responsive. “Will you provide me with the support and protection that I need?”
Healthy affect narratives center on these themes of accessibility and responsiveness. The mediator guides the parties to talk through the barriers to these elements and to work together to develop behaviors and processes that overcome them and their effect. If the parties invest in that conversation and mutual creativity, the impasse created by the attachment theory becomes externalized and a problem outside of themselves. As mediators have long-experienced, separating the people from the problem is a dynamic tool in bringing peace.
Please note that these affect narratives can only be effective if the parties are willing to share deeply and honestly. Mediators must be at the top of their game to effectively help the parties navigate through these moments of vulnerability. However, the results of successful navigation can be spectacular.
Early, C. & Early, A. (2011, Summer). Neuroscience of emotion: attachment theory and the practice of conflict resolution. ACResolution, Vol. 10, Iss. 1, 9-13.