Saber-Toothed Tigers in Divorce and Family Law Mediation

“He won’t listen to reason at all. It’s like he’s gone crazy.”
“She’s not making any sense. Can’t she see what’s going on here?"
“I’m not acting like myself anymore, and I don’t understand why.”

If any of these phrases sounds familiar, then you have seen firsthand how stress can affect people going through difficult situations, whether it be a divorce, the passing of a loved one, or even something more mundane like a bad day at work. Why do people seem to lose their grip on reasonableness in stressful situations?

Blame the Cavemen

To understand why normally rational people sometimes act irrationally when they are under stress, it helps to consider some important biological processes that are in motion in such times. 

In 1929, Walter B. Cannon, M.D., a professor of psychology at Harvard University, released the second edition of his book titled Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear and Rage: An Account of Recent Researches into the Function of Emotional Excitement. In it, Cannon examined how animals’ bodies respond to actual or perceived danger. In one passage, he observed:

The increase of blood sugar, the secretion of adrenin [sic], and the altered circulation in pain and emotional excitement … [are] biological adaptations to conditions in wild life which are likely to involve pain and emotional excitement, i.e., the necessities of fighting or flight.

In this manner, Cannon coined the now-famous term “fight or flight,” a reference to the various biological processes that, together, are perhaps more accurately described as the “stress response.”

Although our understanding of the stress response has expanded significantly since Cannon’s seminal publication (for example, “fright” is frequently included in the short list of responses – imagine a possum playing dead, or a deer in the headlights), the general principle holds true today: when exposed to actual or perceived danger, animals undergo various biological changes that (ideally) help them respond appropriately. The process begins when the brain receives sensory input that it perceives as threatening. The brain then triggers a stress response in the hypothalamus, which in turn mobilizes the adrenal glands to release adrenaline, cortisol, and aldosterone. These hormones cause various other reactions that raise the heart rate and metabolism, constrict the blood vessels, and increase blood flow, among other things. In short, the brain commands the body to marshal its resources in response to the threat.

Modern Conceptions of Danger

Hearing the term “fight or flight,” many of us probably envision a caveman encountering a saber-toothed tiger, or some other image of impending physical danger. However, as noted above, the phenomenon is more broadly referred to as the “stress response,” a term that aptly captures the wide range of threatening stimuli and concordant responses that plague modern humans. As Lauralee Sherwood, professor of physiology at Michigan State University, has noted:

Most of the stressors in our everyday lives are psychosocial in nature … yet they induce these same magnified responses. Stressors such as anxiety about an exam, conflicts with loved ones, or impatience while sitting in a traffic jam can elicit a stress response.

Tight deadlines, excess workload, interpersonal conflicts, and other such pressures that, for many of us, are part and parcel with our daily lives may also provoke the stress response. Sleep loss and poor diet are similarly common markers of many people's lives that further increase stress levels.

Excessive Stress Impairs Decision-making

In 2003, researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health published a review of cross-disciplinary literature relating to stress and decision-making. Among their findings was the observation that individuals’ decision-making performance may be either positively or negatively impacted by stress. In the same way that athletes require a certain amount of pressure to perform optimally, our decision-making abilities can benefit from a certain amount of stress. However, excessive stress exhausts the body’s resources and hampers performance. In other words, the more stressed we get, the more likely it becomes that the stress response will impair decision-making. For example, studies suggest that stress increases the likelihood of hasty decisions that either fail to examine all possible alternatives or consider those alternatives at a relatively shallow level.

Implications for Divorce and Family Law Mediation

In light of these findings, it seems clear that in situations involving difficult family situations — be it divorce or something else — the stress response will likely be active to a high degree. Equally important is the observation that our ability to make rational decisions in these situations will decrease over time, if stress levels continue to increase. This connection helps explain, at least in part, why putting off difficult decisions about family issues can lead to hasty and ill-advised decisions, if the stress increases to the point that one can no longer respond rationally to perceived psychosocial dangers (e.g. feeling undervalued, deceived, etc.).

While these observations certainly don’t excuse poor decision-making, they do offer guidance for managing stress in divorce and family law mediation.

1. Cultivate Self-Awareness

At the outset, clients’ self-awareness is critical. We all experience mounting stress a bit differently. Mediators should help clients be aware of their physical and emotional states, so clients can identify when their own stress levels are increasing. This can be accomplished using the fundamental mediator’s techniques of active listening (“From what you just said, it sounds like you are angry about this topic.”) and checking in with the clients ("How are you doing right now?”). The best time to act on stress is before it reaches that critical tipping point.

If it seems like a client’s stress levels are mounting, the mediator has various tools at his or her disposal. A break — whether a five minute recess or an adjournment until the next session — might stop the stress from increasing even further. A private caucus can allow a stressed client to explain themselves without the added pressure of the other client’s immediate presence. Or, it might simply be enough to acknowledge what is happening; remember, we are not trying to avoid all stress (and cannot realistically do so), but rather to keep it at a manageable level where the clients remain capable of participating productively in the mediation session.

2. Let Them Eat Snacks

As noted above, loss of sleep and poor diet can be aggravating factors. Mediators should try to be aware if a client is operating under a sleep deficit, and it is no secret that conveniently placed snacks can be a welcome addition to the conference table. If a mediation session is scheduled near a mealtime, the mediator should be sensitive to the fact that one or both clients might not have eaten before coming. In general, the mediator should pay close attention to the ways in which fatigue or hunger might be affecting clients’ thinking and demeanor, and try to mitigate them to the extent possible.

3. Accept the Challenge

Ultimately, stress is inevitable in divorce and family mediation. Clients will get angry, they will make irrational statements, and progress will be momentarily derailed. In those situations, it is important to recognize that clients are, to some extent, victims of their own biology. As much as they might want to act calmly and rationally, they could very well be chemically incapable of doing so at any given moment. As mediators, it is incumbent on us to accept those situations, avoid casting blame, and employ all the techniques at our disposal to keep the process moving in a productive direction. Thus, we are more able to fulfill our roles as neutral facilitators and bring our clients toward a lasting agreement — even if they had to face a few saber-toothed tigers along the way.

Further Reading:

  • Cannon WB: Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear and Rage: An Account of Recent Research Into the Function of Emotional Excitement, 2nd ed. New York, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1929.
  • Bracha HS et al: Does “Fight or Flight” Need Updating?  Psychosomatics 45:448-49, October 2004.
  • Everly G and Lating J: A Clinical Guide to the Treatment of Human Stress Response, 2nd ed.  New York, Kluwer Academic, 2002.
  • Leyden-Rubenstein LA: The Stress Management Handbook: Strategies for Health and Inner Peace, Connecticut, Keats Publishing, 1998.
  • Sherwood L: Fundamentals of Physiology: A Human Perspective, p. 560, California, Thomson Brooks/Cole, 2006.
  • Svenson O and John Maul A: Time Pressure and Stress in Human Judgment and Decision Making, p. 41, New York, Plenum, 1993.
  • Kushida CA: Sleep Deprivation: Basic Science, Physiology, and Behavior, Vol. 192, p. 94, New York, Marcel Dekker, 2005.
  • Kowalski-Trakofler K et al: Judgment and Decision-making Under Stress: An Overview for Emergency Managers, International Journal of Emergency Management 2003 Vol. 1, No. 3 pp. 278-89.