Have you ever tickled a child to the point where he or she laughs at the mere sight of your wiggling fingers? Have you ever gotten angry at somebody you don't like, even though they didn't say or do anything wrong in that particular moment? You may be surprised to know that the same part of your brain is responsible for both behaviors.
The Hypothalamus at Work
Relatively recently, researchers in Germany discovered that tickling stimulates the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that manages the fight, flight, or freeze response. Based on this discovery, they theorize that people laugh in response to tickling as a way of signaling submissiveness. This theory helps explain why people sometimes laugh when they anticipate being tickled, even if it has not happened yet. In the case of an overstimulated child, it is effectively an anticipatory cry of "mercy!"
Similarly, as I have written about previously, when people are stressed by their environment, the hypothalamus kicks into action to mobilize the fight, flight, or freeze response. This biological reaction explains a lot of the irrational behavior that we see in arguments, including defensive behavior when an argument has not yet begun – behavior that can itself lead to an argument. People anticipate, rightly or wrongly, that an argument is about to happen, and react accordingly.
Managing Anticipatory Reactions in the Divorce Process
In both tickling and arguments, one way to reduce anticipatory reactions is to allow time and space for the hypothalamus to return to a calmer state. In the case of tickling, that is easy enough to do. However, for an arguing couple, it is much harder, particularly if there is a long history of disagreeement. Living under the same roof means there are potential stress triggers all around. This helps explain, in part, why many divorced spouses suddenly find themselves getting along again once they are living apart – they finally have the time and space needed for their stress levels to decrease, so they can react to each other more rationally.
Stress from a history of arguing can make it exceedingly difficult for divorcing couples to meet each other at the table and discuss the terms of their separation, including finances and parenting. These are likely topics that they have argued about before, and all that backstory means their hypothalamuses are on high alert. Even the most well-intentioned couple can find themselves sliding back into the same old arguments – arguments that might not even be applicable anymore once they are separated.
Two Different Solutions to Impasse: Mediation and Collaborative Law
The power of the stress response can lead divorcing couples to believe they have reached an impasse and that litigation in family court is their only remaining option. In fact, there are many alternatives to divorce court. Mediation and Collaborative Law are fantastic options in apparent impasses such as this, because they add one or more neutral parties to the process who can facilitate the discussion when those stress responses start acting up. A mediator or Collaborative coach can recognize when stress is mounting, and help the couple work through the issue. A mediator might not be able to create physical space between the spouses, but he or she can help manage the emotional space to keep the discussion moving in a productive direction.
So, if you are getting divorced and think you might need some help working through those "ticklish" issues, consider hiring a mediator or Collaborative attorney. You will likely find the process much more manageable, and your hypothalamus will thank you.