Dysfunctional Connection

By: Jane Honoroff

One of the aspects of mediation that we often take for granted is the self selection of the people who come to us in the first place.  That is, we mediators start out with some advantage in that most of the people who come to us are at least somewhat open to the idea that resolving their dispute in a less acrimonious fashion has some appeal.  This doesn’t mean that they don’t also want vindication for the mistreatment they feel they have endured, and a part of them is always clearly ready and willing to continue the fight.  That ambivalence is at the very heart of most conflict.

But then there are the cases where ironically the battle serves to keep the parties connected, albeit a dysfunctional connection.  It reminds me of some of the children I used to treat who hungered for attention and, if they couldn’t get it in a positive way, found a way to get it by causing commotions or being defiant.  It is clearly less satisfying to get negative attention, but it's attention nevertheless.

With some divorcing couples so much of each party’s energy is consumed by their anger and resentment which in turn keeps their soon to be ex-partner still a major part of their lives.   And in those cases it is not a relief to end the conflict but rather experienced as a loss.  While this doesn’t make logical sense, it does serve one or both of the parties where the secondary gain is the ongoing involvement.  The quintessential and extreme Hollywood version of this syndrome is played out, with disastrous consequences, in the movie “The War of the Roses” in which a couple’s need to stay connected with vitriol concludes in a very bitter and tragic end.