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REPAIR AS FOOD FOR THE SOUL
JENNIFER HAD BEEN PREPARING dinner for her boyfriend, Craig, for hours. The tasks of whisking, chopping, grating, and mixing steadied her despite the growing tension between them. Approaching their one-year anniversary, they had been careful with each other for months, afraid to disrupt what felt like a precarious alliance. After the initial bliss of falling in love, it seemed they were stalled, unable to move forward in their relationship.
The quiet of the day allowed a mess of troubled thoughts to swirl in Jennifer’s mind. She relived the moments over the preceding months when Craig appeared distracted and not emotionally available in the way she felt she needed. In this honeymoon phase of their romance, Jennifer had learned to suppress the hurt she experienced. But as they settled into what seemed possibly to be a committed relationship, her distress grew. Her silent cooking masked a bubbling anger.
Craig puttered about the house, occasionally stopping in the kitchen to give his girlfriend a gentle hug from behind as she worked at the stove. To him, it was a scene of blissful domesticity. While he had noticed the increasing distance between them, his approach was to ignore it and simply carry on. He had grown up in a large family with four siblings where hurt feelings came and went like the ebb and flow of the tide. He was used to paying attention to several people at once. Unaware of the painful memories Jennifer brought from her past troubled relationships, he remained oblivious to the brewing storm.
Jennifer, an only child, had little experience with discord. In her family, clashes were avoided at all costs. Her stoic father, a veteran of the Vietnam War, silently held his feelings in. Her mother took great care not to provoke him, as he could go from calm and quiet to explosive in an instant. In the face of any kind of disagreement, her parents would withdraw from each other and from Jennifer. Though physically present, they disappeared emotionally. She had vivid childhood memories of sitting alone in the back seat of the family car in the stony silence that followed one of her father’s angry outbursts. She felt completely lost when her parents withdrew like this, almost as if she herself had ceased to exist. Jennifer brought a reflexive fear of discord to her adult relationship with Craig. She craved the connection she found with him but feared its loss. Silence and avoidance seemed safer than open discord.
At the table, just as Jennifer was quietly placing the finishing touches on their meal, Craig looked down at his cell phone to read a text from one of his siblings. This behavior was not atypical for him, but in that moment, Jennifer felt a wave of rage rise within her, and this time she did not hide it. While she could not have put the idea into words, in the preceding months of their relationship, she had developed a sense that Craig, who was so different in many ways from her parents, would not disappear if confronted with anger. Impulsively and without thinking, she gave this impression its first test: she knocked her elegantly laid-out meal onto the floor.
Initially Craig reacted with shock, bewildered by this unfamiliar display of emotion. But his brief flash of anger quickly dissipated when Jennifer burst into tears. He ran to her and they held each other. As Jennifer’s sobs subsided, she began to share her fear that discord meant loss. Sitting on the floor next to the mess of the ruined dinner, she told him that she feared that their relationship could not withstand conflict. More powerfully, the memory of her sense of self faltering in response to her parents’ emotional withdrawal led her to fear that she herself would disappear. The trust that she had developed in Craig in this new and very different relationship gave her access to these previously unexpressed and complicated feelings.
This moment became a turning point for them. She saw that she had interpreted his behavior as rejection when that was not his motivation at all. Craig saw Jennifer’s tendency to detach in a different light. His approach of waiting for disturbances to pass, which had for the most part worked in his large family, wouldn’t fly in this new relationship. Jennifer increasingly trusted that Craig would not disappear in the face of discord. She learned to engage with him instead of withdrawing in moments of miscommunication. They brought their respective different intentions and motivations into their relationship, each giving space and time to the other to be seen. Their relationship grew in the moments of mismatch and repair that followed over days, months, and years.
The mess of baked scallops, mashed parsnips, and buttered string beans could serve as a metaphor for the role of mismatch and repair in human development. Just as nutrients provide fuel for physical growth, the energy produced by moving through the mess of mismatch to repair fuels emotional growth. Mismatch and repair figuratively (and sometimes literally) feed us.
MISMATCH AS THE NORM
An idealized notion of parental love might be epitomized by da Vinci’s Madonna and Child, in which Mary and her infant son gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes. In one of Raphael’s depictions of the same pair, more tellingly, Baby Jesus looks at a book in Mary’s hand while she gazes distractedly toward the ground below. Similarly, an idealized notion of romantic love is conveyed in Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’s dancing; we get the impression that in good relationships, people step together perfectly in sync. But the partnership of Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing, where at one point she steps on his toes and he pokes her in the eye, is closer to the truth. The mess of missteps is necessary for the creation of the graceful, coordinated dance of the final scene. For Jennifer and Craig, the laughter they shared while cleaning up the mess and ordering pizza captured the joy and intimacy that comes with navigating through mismatch to repair.
Moving through messiness turns out to be the way we grow and develop in relationships from earliest infancy through adulthood! This might seem counterintuitive, as you might think that in healthy relationships, there is no place for discord. Shouldn’t two people in a good relationship always get along?
The dramatic findings of the original still-face experiment had uncovered a new way to understand babies and parents, but there was still so much to learn about this primary relationship. Previous infant research had reflected the assumption that the more synchronous and attuned the interaction, the more optimal, or clinically “normal,” the relationship. To many people’s surprise, the research revealed that messiness holds the key to strong relationships!
We began by videotaping typical parent-infant interactions. In subsequent frame-by-frame analysis of these videos, we slowed down the tape, gaining a window into the moment-to-moment interactions that we could not appreciate in real time. We expected to see healthy mother-infant pairs in perfect attunement, meeting each other’s gaze, turning away from each other at the same time, reaching for each other in sync, and in general matching each other’s every move. With this preconceived notion of how relationships work, we drew neat graphs of moments of connection, dismissing as irrelevant any data that showed disconnection and did not fit this tidy pattern. But after months of research, we were unable to deny the actual pattern. In typical healthy parent-infant pairs, on average 70 percent of the interactions were out of sync! Disconnection was an inevitable part of the interaction.
In one sequence we observed, for example, an infant was looking at a strap on her high chair and comforting herself by sucking her finger. When her mother tried to get her attention, the infant avoided her. The mother then took the baby’s hand from her mouth and moved back slightly. Their eyes met, and both smiled. The mother then moved closer and the infant looked away. A new dance had begun.
Does it seem right to you that most relationships are mismatched 70 percent of the time? We found this again and again. In the field of developmental psychology, this seventy-thirty split has become famous, with some practitioners referencing it without actually knowing its origin. It comes from our detailed observations of the primary love relationship. Our expectation of attunement initially led us to see mismatch as a problem when in fact it was the norm. In analyzing these videotapes, we discovered that the most important part was not the mismatch but the repair.
REPAIR IS WHERE THE ACTION IS
We came to recognize that repair is the crux of human interactions. Repair leads to a feeling of pleasure, trust, and security, the implicit knowledge that I can overcome problems. Furthermore, repair teaches a critical life lesson: The negative feeling that arises from a mismatch can be changed into a positive feeling when two people subsequently achieve a match. One does not have to get stuck in a negative feeling state. And the belief that one can or cannot change an emotional state develops in an infant’s earliest interactions.
We drew on observations from typical interactions to get a clear picture of what was going on when we performed a set of experiments using the still-face paradigm. We first observed parent-infant pairs engaging naturally in some kind of play that was typical for them, such as a clapping game or a counting game. We found that later, in the experimental setting of the still-face, these infants used the strategies they had learned through the mismatch-repair process in play to signal their mothers. When confronted with a stressful situation, they could apply a style of interaction drawn from the everyday exchanges with their caregivers. While they did not yet have the capacity for language or conscious thought, they were able to draw on their countless moment-to-moment interactions to cope with the stress of caregivers’ unfamiliar behavior.
We came to understand mismatch and repair as a normal and ongoing experience fundamental to our species’ development as social beings. What a relief to learn that in primary love relationships, humans are in sync only 30 percent of the time! That the number is so low should relieve the pressure many people feel to seek perfect harmony in their relationships as adults. As long as there is an opportunity for repair, mismatch in 70 percent of interactions is not only typical but conducive to positive and healthy development and relationships. We need the normal messiness in order to learn to trust each other.
Most of the interactions we observed in our videotape analyses were repaired to a matching state in the interchanges immediately following the mismatch. In other words, typical infants and their caregivers are constantly moving into mismatched states and then repairing them. Repairs may be small—microscopic, in fact—but there are lots of them in the countless moments of interactions.
The central lesson of the decades of research that followed the original still-face experiment is that this process of moving through mismatch to repair is not only unavoidable but essential if relationships are to flourish rather than stagnate or fall apart. As Jennifer discovered with Craig, we need to let the mess happen. We need mismatch because without it we cannot experience repair.
MISMATCH, REPAIR, AND MEANING-MAKING
Throughout his childhood, through countless moments of mismatch and repair in his family of origin, Craig had developed a core sense of hopefulness—or, to use the term we borrowed from Jerome Bruner, he made meaning of the world as a hopeful place. In contrast, Jennifer had a paucity of experience with repair, and that led her to construct a less hopeful meaning of herself in the world. A guarded sense of caution characterized her approach to relationships.
We see differences like these emerging in the early months of life. Recall that in the original experiment, we watched the infant employ different strategies to engage her mother. This behavior reflected an ongoing context of mismatch and repair. The baby had learned that she could act on her world to make it better. Even at the tender age of eleven months, she, like Craig, had made meaning of her world as a hopeful place.
When we performed the experiment with parent-infant dyads for whom the mismatch-repair process had derailed, we did not see this robust response. Parents and infants made different meanings. Some mothers, preoccupied by their own distress, made less effort to repair the inevitable mismatches. Others, overwhelmed by anxiety, rarely allowed space for mismatch. Still others behaved intrusively—for example, repeatedly touching the infants even when they pushed the mothers’ hands away or gave other signals of becoming overwhelmed. When confronted by mismatch, infants who’d had a paucity of opportunity for repair did not make the same efforts to reengage, to repair the gap.
While growing up, Jennifer, like those infants, had suffered from a lack of opportunity for repair. She had not developed strategies for managing the inevitable rifts that occur in human relationships. Instead, she had learned to protect herself from the deeply distressing experience of her parents’ sudden emotional absence. She spent time alone in her room, immersing herself in homework or books. She excelled academically, using her intellect to hold herself together, but became emotionally guarded and closed off.
Initially, Jennifer had repeated this pattern of behavior with Craig. But Craig was a very different interactive partner than either of her parents. She observed in his interactions with his family that discord did not throw him. He took her tendency to withdraw in stride, never lashing out. She developed enough trust that, when the anger built up beyond her ability to tolerate it, rather than close herself off completely, she could let the mess happen.
The smashed dinner represented a conscious welcoming of mismatch and repair in their relationship. As they survived this disruption and many others that characterize the normal messiness of love, Jennifer discovered a different way of being in a relationship. She made new meanings of the world as a safe and hopeful place. She could have an argument, knowing she would be closer to Craig on the other side. While Craig’s meanings going into the relationship were not as troubled as Jennifer’s, he too had room to grow. He became more mindful of his distracted behavior, taking steps to be more consistently present once he understood the origins of Jennifer’s tendency to react. He learned from her that relationships beyond the safe enclosure of his family of origin were not always so simple. He learned to pay attention.
WHAT IS MEANING-MAKING?
What does it mean to make meaning? We may use a term like understand or make sense of to capture the idea, but these words imply conscious thought in the form of language. Jerome Bruner, who first described the concept, was a cognitive scientist and so viewed meaning-making primarily in terms of language symbols and cognition. The still-face research revealed that people make meaning well before they have the ability to put those meanings into words. They make meaning at multiple levels of psychological and biological experience, including the sensory system, genes, autonomic nervous system, and motor system. From the multilayered levels of feeling—perceiving, thinking, reaching, looking, and even smelling—they elaborate their sense of themselves in the world. The information they incorporate in their relationships with others is composed of multiple layers of sensations, movements, and emotional experiences as only humans can process.
Louis Sander, psychoanalyst and pioneer of infant research, described what he called an open space, a figurative space between infant and caretaker filled with possibilities from which the infant’s sense of self emerges and grows. In that space, a baby’s own unique self develops in interaction with primary caregivers. The moment-to-moment engagement with people, as babies misunderstand and then reevaluate others’ motivations and intentions, is the process by which they make meaning of themselves in the world.
The still-face experiment dramatically demonstrates that infants are born with the ability to influence their world and possess innate skills to interact with their environment. Confronted with a mother’s unfamiliar blank expression, a baby responds with a number of strategies to reengage her. The still-face paradigm represents an experimental situation in which infants are challenged in their ability to make meaning of their experience. If they had words, they might say of the mother’s failure to interact, This does not make sense. While the duration of the still-face portion of the six-minute experiment varies in different research protocols, the average length is two minutes. Try staring expressionlessly for two minutes at a friend or family member who wants your attention—it will seem interminably long! For the purposes of our experiment, this prolongation magnifies the response, offering a window into the infant’s meaning-making process.
A baby who has experienced successfully moving through mismatch to repair will, when confronted with the stress of the still-face experiment, use various strategies to manage that stress. She points, screeches, and engages in a range of behaviors to reconnect. She shows agency, defined as a sense that she has control over her life and the power to act effectively on her world. If she could put words to her experience, she might say, I don’t know why Mom is ignoring me, but I know I can get her attention if I keep trying. Rather than a sense of helplessness, an infant who has moved through countless moments of error to reconnect develops a hopeful way of interacting with her world. She has made a specific meaning of her experience, one of optimistic expectation, which gives her a sense of resilience (a concept we explore further in chapter 5). In contrast, an infant who has experienced mismatch but has limited experience with repair creates negative meanings: You don’t love me or I can’t trust you or I am helpless. (We explore this in depth in chapter 8.)
It turns out that patterns of interactive coping, the patterns that create meaning, are quite stable over time. We performed the still-face experiment with fifty-two infants and their mothers twice ten days apart, and we saw the infants use the same strategies on both occasions to engage their mothers and comfort themselves. In mother-baby pairs who did not have the opportunity to move through disruption to repair, babies exhibited behavior consistent with sadness, withdrawal, or disengagement. They seemed to have trouble holding themselves together; either their movements were disorganized or they collapsed and became very still. Both responses suggested that they felt helpless and ineffective.
We gained a new level of insight into the significance of our original findings when we applied the still-face paradigm in research with parents struggling with depression. We gave potential participants a screening questionnaire for depressive symptoms, and those who scored high were interviewed to determine if they were clinically depressed. We then analyzed videotapes of pairs of nondepressed mothers and their infants and depressed mothers and their infants, looking for matches (infant and mother doing the same thing together, such as mutual smiling and gazing) and mismatches (infant and mother doing different things with each other, such as the infant looking and smiling at the mother and the mother having a sad facial expression). We figured out the average time it took a dyad for a mismatch to be repaired into a match and found that when mothers were depressed, not only were there more mismatches, but it took much longer for the mismatches to be repaired. We also found that the longer the time to repair, the higher the level of the stress hormone cortisol (measured in saliva) in the infant.
The babies of depressed mothers appeared to turn inward, relying on themselves or looking to objects for comfort. Such patterns of relating are incorporated early into a baby’s way of being in the world and are carried forward into new relationships as the baby grows and develops.
But as we explore in depth in chapters 9 and 10, for adults, the main significance of these findings is that early relationship patterns are not fixed or permanent. You can continue to change and grow throughout life by engaging in the messiness of interaction with children, spouses, friends, teachers, therapists, and the wide range of other people you have the opportunity to bring into your life. If your early relationships were characterized by insufficient opportunity for repair, you can heal by engaging in a new set of moment-to-moment mismatch and repair with both your original caregivers, if they are available and open to change, and new partners in a range of relationships.
When you find yourself repeatedly stuck in problematic relationships, when you carry meanings of anxiety or hopelessness, you may feel you do not have the power to change your circumstances. But agency, like hope, is instilled by the iterative, repeated process of moving through mismatch to repair in relationships with people close to you.
STARTING FROM BIRTH
Meaning-making begins in a person’s first moments. Consider the early dance of breastfeeding. Let’s look at it first from new mother Aditi’s perspective, then from that of her newborn daughter, Tanisha. All of these interactions occur, not over hours or even minutes, but over seconds that, strung together, build one’s sense of self in the world.
Aditi had anticipated Tanisha’s arrival with excitement and fear. This was her first baby, and she wondered how she would know what to do. Hours after giving birth, she tried to put her screaming infant to her breast. But Tanisha’s arms got in the way and her movements became increasingly disorganized. Aditi began to speak softly to Tanisha while wrapping her tightly, and soon she felt Tanisha’s body go from tense to relaxed; the incessant crying slowed and finally stopped. Tanisha slept and then woke and vigorously latched on to nurse, and Aditi experienced a peaceful calm that until then had eluded her. The meaning she made of this experience, if she’d put it into words, might be I can do this and I know my baby.
Now consider the same scene from Tanisha’s perspective. Her tiny body wriggled. She screamed again and again as her arms flew over her head. Something was in her mouth, but she didn’t know what to do with it. Then Tanisha heard a soft, gentle whisper and was wrapped in a warm blanket. Her breathing slowed. Now she could rest her arms on her chest and stop their wild movements. Her body relaxed as her need for help settling her immature nervous system was answered, and soon she drifted off to sleep. After a brief nap, her body felt calm and restored. When her mother again put her to the breast, she latched on without struggle. The meaning Tanisha created might be expressed as I am safe and I am whole.
In this early moment of figuring things out together, Tanisha and Aditi began to fall in love. Aditi recognized that Tanisha was tired and her nervous system was stressed. She needed help from her mother to calm down and a brief nap to refresh her before she would be ready for a meal. Allowing time for the process to work itself out literally fed Tanisha while also nourishing Aditi’s growing new identity as a mother, building her sense of confidence and self-efficacy. Moving from mismatch to repair provided actual nutrition for Tanisha and for Aditi a kind of food for the soul.
This shared experience is well captured by the phrase moment of meeting, coined by Louis Sander. In 1977 he wrote, “Current research in early infancy is beginning to provide provocative evidence that human existence normally begins in the context of a highly organized relational system from the outset. This relational system interfaces two live, actively self-regulating, highly complex, living (and adapting) components—the infant and the caregiver, each already running, so to speak.” He painted a picture of the newborn period as a time when two separate unique individuals—infant and caregiver—got to know each other. When together Tanisha and Aditi worked through their first moments of mismatch, the pleasure of that moment of meeting fed them both.
Moving through mismatch to repair is more important than anything in particular that we do or say in the face of any given challenge. It is the process that matters.
A UNIFYING THEORY
In our moment-by-moment analysis of parent-infant interaction, we observed again and again that first love relationships are characterized not by synchrony but by error, and we wondered, “What purpose could this error serve?” We found the answer in a scientific theory with broad application to a wide range of disciplines, from physics to psychology.
Open dynamic systems theory describes how all biological systems, including humans, function by incorporating information into increasingly coherent and complex states. Systems that fail to gain complexity lose energy and fail to grow—say, Uncle Harry at Thanksgiving dinner who holds rigid political views and shuts out the different perspectives of other family members. Systems that are successful in gaining information grow—for example, Cousin Sue and Cousin Pete, who take time to listen to each other’s stories and hear each other’s respective motivations and intentions, and in working through their differences develop new understanding and insight. The energy produced by acquiring new information fuels growth and change.
This idea applies not only to human relationships but also to the origin of life itself! In his book A Brief History of Time, renowned physicist Stephen Hawking explains how life on Earth evolved out of errors. Initially the Earth’s atmosphere had no oxygen and was thus incompatible with life. Primitive life emerged in the oceans through chance combinations of atoms into complex structures called macromolecules. Hawking tells how errors in reproduction eventually led to new structures:
However, a few of the errors would have produced new macromolecules that were even better at reproducing themselves. They would therefore have an advantage and would have tended to replace the original macromolecules. In this way a process of evolution was started that led to the development of more and more complicated, self-reproducing organisms. The first primitive forms of life consumed various materials, including hydrogen sulfide, and released oxygen. This gradually changed the atmosphere to the composition that allowed the development of higher forms of life such as fish, reptiles, mammals, and ultimately the human race.
The macromolecules in Hawking’s model of the origins of life represent an example of open dynamic systems. Those molecules, through a process of multiple errors over time, organized in such a way as to produce oxygen. Humans bump into each other in a way analogous to those early macromolecules, developing an ever more complex sense of themselves in the world out of the errors inherent in their interactions.
New information is not simply absorbed. Again, macromolecules provide a helpful image. They don’t simply shift—they bang into each other, get disrupted, and reorganize into new configurations. New information disrupts humans too, forcing them to reorganize their old sense of self in the world. New and different meaning is created out of the disorganization.
When people experience this process of reorganization along with another person—whether a caregiver when they are young or with friends, colleagues, and partners as they get older—they co-create a new way of being together, of knowing each other. If people don’t allow for disorganization, or mismatches, they fail to grow and change and do not get to know others deeply.
The process of mismatch and repair in human interaction generates the energy—the calories, so to speak—for development. The information we gain about others and about ourselves through this messy interactive process provides the nutrients that allow our minds to grow.
"In this fabulous book, which everyone must own, Ed Tronick and Claudia Gold give all of us a scientifically-based compass for negotiating the messiness of social interaction. Rather than searching for perfection, in this book they teach us that it is the messiness and the mistakes we inevitably make as parents, friends, and lovers, and the repair of our mistakes that really matters. For in repair we 'co-create a new meaning,' and relationships thrive and proceed, full of life and good enough. Get this book!"
—John Gottman, author of Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work
"Lively and riveting...Human connections have the power to heal by engaging us in a new set of moment-to- moment mismatches...as long as we are open to repair and reconnect."
—Bessel van der Kolk, MD, author of The Body Keeps the Score
"A brilliant overview of our contemporary relational landscape that argues that what people -- both children and adults -- need most is the messiness of real relationships, with their conflicts, partial resolutions, and imperfect efforts at repair. In trying to make these things work, we practice attention, connection, and listening. We practice our humanity. We learn to put technology in its place. A book for thinking and for practical action. A must-read."
—Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology
"This profoundly wise book sets out how the dance of connection and disconnection with attachment figures molds our nervous system, our emotional lives, our sense of self, and our ability to dance in tune with others. When we miss each other is when we truly learn to turn, reach, and connect. There are no slick tips for perfect relationships with your kids or lovers here. Just a deep understanding of how the imperfections of life and love can make us strong."
—Sue Johnson, author of Hold Me Tight
- "Our relationships with attachment figures are often innately 'messy' and filled with discord as mismatches rupture the attuned, resonant alignments that are possible in our relational world. The reconnection established in the mismatch-repair process illuminated in this important work enables us to develop resilience in the face of the inevitable disconnections in these important self-defining close connections in our lives. This wise book will help many to reframe such ruptures as opportunities rather than troublesome burdens, painful yet important challenges that can actually afford us the interactive reconnection experiences that serve as the foundation for flourishing in life."—Daniel J. Siegel, MD, author of Mindsight and Clinical Professor, UCLA School of Medicine
- On Sale
- Jun 2, 2020
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Little Brown Spark