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Mediation & Attachment style

May 25, 2018

 Most of the cases I mediate are family law cases. I am not an attorney. I am not a therapist. I am not a social worker. I am a social scientist who researches family sociology and developmental psychology. As a mediator, I am not acting as an expert. Certainly, I am neutral.


Still, after having spent the past ten years researching trauma, ACES, attachment theory, minding theory, motivational behavior theory, positive psychology theory, and fMRIs, it is easy to see patterns in conversations and coping strategies in adults who are showing up as angry, indignant, self-righteous, defensive, offensive, timid, or who feel the need to build a case. These are the behavior patterns adults with insecure attachment styles and there are mediation models that work and don't work for these--and any one of the models could or could not work, based on the mediation participants in the room. 


Here is a breakdown of adult attachment theory, based on my own extensive research of the literature (or just look at the graphic at the bottom if reading makes you cranky):


There are two primary dimensions of insecure attachment: an anxious dimension and an avoidant dimension (Shaver & Mikulincer, 2002). An insecure attachment is defined into either three or four specific types of attachment (Hazan & Shaver, 1987; Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991) falling under two domains: Secure or Insecure. For the purposes of this research proposal, the insecure attachment styles will be identified using Hazan & Shaver’s model of two sub-types of insecure attachment: Anxious or avoidant, with the understanding that avoidant attachment styles include both dismissive types and fearful types, and each manifests in the utilization of different coping strategies for attachment stress. When one or both partners has an insecure attachment style, the research shows that relationship tends to suffer (Mikulincer and Shaver, 2007). Couples in which one or both actors experience an insecure attachment style have a positive correlation of negative relational behaviors (Dainton & Gross, 2008; Goodboy et al., 2010). Distressed relationships are marked by lower relationship satisfaction, commitment, and intimacy (e.g., Davila and Bradbury, 2001; Keelan et al., 1994; Treboux, Crowell, & Waters, 2004), as well as more conflict and less stable relationships marked by shorter duration and higher breakup rates (Hazan and Shaver, 1987; Kirkpatrick and Davis, 1994; Treboux et al., 2004). The main qualities of partner satisfaction are partner responsiveness and emotional engagement—without them, research shows outcomes of low relationship quality and higher rates of divorce (Gottman, 1994; Huston, Caughlin, Houts, Smith, and George, 2001; Johnson, 2004).


A central idea in attachment theory is that early attachment experiences with primary caregivers are internalized into mental representations of the self and others. These develop into ‘‘internal working models’’ that affect pathways from childhood to adulthood by shaping cognitive, emotional, and behavioral responses in intimate relationships (Bowlby, 1982, 1948). People grow to use adapted cognitive maps to interpret the goals or intentions of their relationship partners and respond behaviorally in ways consistent with how they expect to be treated. The quality of attachment interactions determines the valence (whether a piece of information is interpreted as positive or negative) of these relational beliefs, which are thought to be the basis of individual differences in attachment style (Dewitte, 2012; Hazan & Shaver, 1987).


Secure attachment within relationship is marked by intimacy, closeness, commitment, trust, support, and constructive conflict management skills. The research has shown that those with a secure attachment: hold more optimistic beliefs about romantic love; have high levels of self-disclosure; and maintain a healthy balance between closeness and independence (Collins & Read, 1990; Feeney, 1999; Feeney & Noller, 1991; Hazan & Shaver, 1987; Kirkpatrick & Davis, 1994; Mikulincer & Nachson, 1991; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2004; Pietromonaco & Carnelley, 1994).


Anxious individuals hold more dysfunctional relational beliefs and, when the anxious attachment is activated, this person’s coping strategies run the gamut from jealousy, snooping, positive and negative attention-seeking behaviors, to ambivalence and withdrawal once the worst fear is confirmed: abandonment (Carnelley, Pietromonaco, Jaffe, 1996; Collins & Read, 1990; Feeney & Noller, 1990; Guerrero, 1998; Hatfield, Brinton, & Cornelius, 1989; Hazan & Shaver, 1987; Shaver & Hazan 1988; Mikulincer, Shaver, Bar-On, & Ein-dor, 2010). Actors within the couple dyad with anxious-ambivalent attachment experience dissatisfaction, high conflict, obsessive/dependent love, clinging and controlling behaviors, jealousy, distrust, strong desire for merger, worry about rejection & unworthiness. Anxious individuals also tend to: disclose non-discriminantly, want more intimacy and commitment than they are experiencing, and demonstrate approach-avoidance and ambivalence due to fears of unworthiness and rejection.


When the attachment system has been deactivated through unresponsive caregiving environs, individuals develop coping strategies that are more self-reliant and non-seeking of support in times of distress (Feeney & Collins, 2001; Feeney, 1996; Feeney & Hohaus, 2001; Kunce & Shaver, 1994; Millings & Walsh, 2009; Peloquin, Brassard, Delisle, & Bedard, 2013; Peloquin, Brassard, Lafontaine, & Shaver, 2014). An avoidant attachment style has learned that there is little to no intrinsic value in relationship and seeks to distance him or herself from intimacy due to discomfort with intimacy and closeness (Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991; Campbell, Simpson, Kashy, & Rholes, 2001). The more a partner wishes to be in proximity, the more the dismissive aspect of this attachment style avoids, creating a negative flow between the parties (Simpson, Rholes, & Nelligan, 1992). Hallmarks of this attachment style include: instability, dissatisfaction, distrust, interpersonal distance, low levels of emotional involvement and self-disclosure; difficulty attending to partner’s needs or giving reassurance; confirmation bias on negative beliefs of social interactions confirmed by partner negative reactions to an avoidant person’s behaviors. This style of attachment is most likely to have a high sense of self-worth, engage in illicit sexual trysts and one-night stands, commit adultery, or be serial monogamists. Avoidant individuals are less interested in long-term, open, warm, committed relationships and favor game-playing over romance (Hatfield et al., 1989; Shaver & Brennan, 1992; Shaver & Hazan, 1988; Hazan & Shaver, 1987; Kirkpatrick & Davis, 1994; Levy & Davis, 1988; Mikulincer & Nachson, 1991; Downey, Downey, Freitas, Michaelis, & Khouri, 1998).


Attachment style is thought to be stable throughout the lifespan, but can change with mentally training and reinforcing secure interactions (Carnelley & Rose, 2007; Gilath, Selcuk, & Shaver, 2008, Johnson, 1999; Johnson, 2004; Greenberg and Goldman, 2008).




It is definitely clear to see many of these behaviors at work at the mediation table, and a variety of modalities of mediation are needed, as well as a mediator with a facility to switch between modes. It is often true that people do not recognize their own coping strategies, and while the Neutral is not there to point these out to participants in conflict dialogue, they are certainly asked to bring a wide swath of skills to the table in the best possible service to the clients. My own current research is a study designed to create a new method for earned secure attachment designed with self-determination theory in mind--the same theory that propels people to mediation and the heart of the role of mediation.


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