Relationship therapy: Brain signals show that mediation works

Having a referee intervene when couples argue improves the outcome of the confrontation – at least in the laboratory.

Brains scans revealed that the intervention by a mediator is also linked to heightened activity in key regions of the brain belonging to the reward circuit – suggesting that opening the argument to guided resolution sets off a neural “thank God for that” response in the combatants.

These were conclusions of an experiment carried out by scientists from the University of Geneva.

The researchers say this is the first time that a controlled, randomised study has succeeded in demonstrating the advantages of mediation for couples in conflict and “identifying a related biological signature”.

What prompted this study?

Dr Olga Klimecki is a psychologist and neuroscientist interested in understanding the neural mechanisms that shape social emotions in adaptive ways.

Dr Olga Klimecki is investigating how mediation in couple conflict plays out in brain processes. Photo: University of Geneva

She is co-ordinator of an investigation into the role of emotions in conflict resolution at the Swiss Centre for Affective Sciences, University of Geneva – and a corresponding author of the new study.

In a prepared statement she said: “We know from numerous studies that thinking about romantic love and your romantic partner activates the so-called reward circuit in the brain, which is associated with feelings of pleasure and motivation.

“Until now, however, we didn’t know the impact that couple conflict, and mediation by a third party, could have on this activation. It was precisely to fill this gap that we devised our study.”

How did the experiment work?

The researchers enrolled 36 heterosexual couples for statistical reasons and for comparison with previous studies. The couples were monogamous, according to the couples. And they had been together for at least a year.

Before coming to laboratory, the participants had to check off a list of 15 standard subjects – including the in-laws, sex life, finances, household chores and time spent together – and identify which of these most often set off conflict with their partner.

In effect, they were choosing something to argue about in the lab.

Participants completed a behavioural questionnaire before and after their argument to measure their emotional state.

In each couple one member’s brain activity was measured before and after the dispute – using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the nucleus accumbens while they were shown images of their romantic partner or images of an unknown person.

“Some of the couples chose a box ticked by both partners. Others preferred to start on a subject that only one of the partners considered a source of conflict,” said Halima Rafi, a doctoral student in the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences, and the article’s first author.

“This worked just as well, if not better. The first 10 minutes were generally a little embarrassing, but things then began to flow with an impressive naturalness, and inevitably ended in conflict.”

A control group was left to thrash it out

The session lasted one hour, and was accompanied by a professional mediator who mediated the dispute in half of the cases. In the other half, the control group, the mediator remained entirely passive.

The researchers found that couples who received active mediation reported higher satisfaction than non-mediated couples at the end of the conflict.

The nucleus accumbens proved to be the “gee I love you” spot when a mediator intervened. Image: Wikipedia/Creative Commons

Heightened activation in the nucleus accumbens, a key region in the reward circuit, was also identified in the mediation group compared to the control group.

Goodwill helps

Data from the questionnaires suggested that “couples who benefited from active mediation were better at resolving conflicts, were more satisfied with the content and progress of the discussion, and had fewer residual disagreements”.

In other words, couples who routinely make an effort to sort out their disagreements at home, and who don’t carry ongoing grudges, will be more open to intervention. It’s an important caveat to keep in mind.

The value here is that the neural imaging provided objective evidence that mediation can be a positive experience.

After all, some couples would be surely tempted to tell the researchers that all was fine and dandy – as they’d tend to do at home, until one fight too many wears them out.

As Dr Klimecki noted: “This biological signature for romantic love is very interesting because it cannot be manipulated in the same way that an answer to a questionnaire could be.

“We would now like to continue the research and see, for example, whether we can measure similar effects in conflicts of a different type and not necessarily concerning love.”

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