(Indicating a set of geometric patterns) This group represents a game of touch football. … This was a cluster of pigeons fighting for bread crumbs. … And this is a woman chasing a man who stole her purse. … In competitive behavior, someone always loses. … If I could just devise a stratagem where nobody loses.”Russell Crowe as scientist John Nash in A Beautiful Mind

Russell Collins

Russell Collins

In the movie, as in real life, Nash wins the Nobel Prize for his contribution to game theory. His hypothesis, called the Nash equilibrium, describes a situation in a game or negotiation where nobody loses. And yet, each player chooses the best deal possible for himself, given the positions of the other parties.

As an example: Two countries could independently choose a nuclear strategy that virtually ensures nuclear peace, simply by guaranteeing that both nations would be obliterated if either side ever launches a missile. You may recognize that situation as the brinksmanship strategy that kept the United States and the USSR from destroying each other during the Cold War. Mutual assured destruction (M.A.D., for short) is a Nash equilibrium.

Divorcing couples have available another, closely related Nash equilibrium. Both spouses, acting rationally, get the best deal for themselves by keeping their big weapons — the litigating attorneys — in their silos. Either side can trigger a scorched-earth scenario by insisting on too much in the settlement. Or by simply unleashing the dogs of war and standing aside. As science commentators and teachers often observe about the Nash equilibrium, once you point it out, it seems obvious. If you think through your options, you see clearly what is in your interest, and that’s rarely the nuclear option. And trust me on this, my mediating partner Laura and I point this out ad nauseam during the course of a divorce mediation. Yet, more often than you’d expect, it falls on deaf ears.

Tom and Helen seemed like the perfect candidates to mediate their divorce. Despite the suffering they had experienced in the marriage, they were coming to the divorce committed to being rational. And rational people can often find the equilibrium point where enough of each spouse’s needs are met to make both partners happy.

Helen and Tom wanted to end the marriage civilly and fairly, and, if there were issues to resolve, to keep their teenage twin daughters out of the middle. The couple still shared a kind of trust in each other’s goodwill, and they had agreed that neither would try to take the other to the cleaners. There was a glow of optimism in the room as we started talking.

Unfortunately, it didn’t last. A misstep by Tom proved explosive, and threatened to blow up the whole process on the launching pad. As Helen was leaving for work one morning, Tom intercepted her to ask if it would be OK for him to take Sofi, a client of his firm, for a weekend at the Tahoe cabin. As Helen described it, she kept her composure just long enough to tell him that she would prefer he didn’t. Fifteen minutes later, still sobbing, she pulled her car over to answer the phone. It was Tom. Thinking he was calling to apologize for his thoughtlessness, she was enraged when he told her instead, “You know we bought the cabin with money from my father. I don’t think it’s fair that you should control who uses it.”

Game theory and the Nash equilibrium are based on the assumption that people take action in their own self-interest. Tom and Helen had rationally considered the collective benefits they could get from a mediated agreement, and planned to settle out quickly and peacefully. But something shifted after the Tahoe weekend request. It caused Helen to stop acting rationally. In game theory, that “something” might be a lack of shared information or just a basic miscalculation. But contemporary conflict resolution research points to a different conclusion.

Psychologist Daniel Shapiro of the Harvard Negotiation Project, for instance, uses the term “vertigo” to describe the emotional tunnel vision and dizzying disorientation that can result from the presence of strong negative emotion during a conflict. Shapiro is part of a new movement in conflict studies that looks at emotions as the key to understanding the causes and cures of wars and other forms of strife: “In ‘vertigo,’ a person becomes (negatively) preoccupied with a single relationship, failing to consider alternative or expanded perspectives of the relationship or of other relationships.” This narrowing of focus restricts the natural range of project-solving in a conflict, and either one side or both sides get locked in a nonproductive cycle.

Strong negative emotions such as fear or rage drive us away from connection, concern and compassion, and toward egocentricity, rigid responding and defensiveness. In her current emotionally reactivated state, according to Shapiro, we should expect the following responses from Helen during mediation: a) to react negatively and contrary to her own interests; b) to “go it alone”; c) to think rigidly; and d) to act deceptively and be seen as untrustworthy.

Sure enough, Helen’s early sessions with us were filled with fresh tears and recriminations. She was unable to focus on the issues directly affecting her divorce, but returned again and again to the litany of Tom’s transgressions during the marriage, his selfishness and his irresponsible parenting of the twins. When we attempted to reflect back her feelings, she cut us off. When I reframed some of Tom’s needs and interests as beneficial to their daughters, Helen turned immediately hostile. “It doesn’t seem like he abandoned us, Russell. He did abandon us. It’s not a feeling or perception, and it seems like for some reason you’re twisting things in his favor.”

As Helen’s anger turned to rage, she began to ask for things that she knew Tom would find unreasonable. And, despite my attempts to tune in to her needs and to her emotions, she turned more and more against me as well.

What was going on with Helen? Why did she change so suddenly?

When they called for the first appointment, Helen still felt confident in their emotional connection. Tom had always taken care of her, and, almost without thinking, she expected at a deep level that he would take care of her now. There was a certain habit of relatedness — almost unconscious — that left her feeling angry, yes, but angry and connected. As the reality of the dissolution set in, she felt suddenly alone in the world. And she panicked.

Of course she did. What could be more vertiginous than the loss of your mate, of the person who for 25 years has helped to orient and stabilize you, to provide purpose and direction? Even in a high-conflict relationship, as marriage researcher John Gottman has pointed out, we can feel deeply connected and loved. We know who we are struggling with and why. And we are confident that even if a conflict takes us over the moon emotionally, its resolution will find us together again, back home in the relationship.

Like gravity, our primary relationships ground us when we are upside down; tell us which way we’re headed, and which way is up. Then one day, suddenly, we’re in free fall with nothing to grab onto, no way back together, no home. The reality that Tom might one day be taking care of someone else, stabilizing, orienting, pointing the way for someone else, was finally sinking in. And Helen was disoriented and afraid.

Another useful way to explain Helen’s oppositional attitude is through the lens of adult attachment, which measures one’s sense of safety in the world by asking the questions a) is she there for me?, and b) can I depend on him when I need him? If the answer to either of those questions is no, anxiety results — even panic.

In a divorce, the obvious answer to both of these questions is no, sometimes unexpectedly. This can leave partners feeling incredibly abandoned, betrayed and alone.

My own observation, backed up by the attachment research, is that couples who gracefully navigate the waters of divorce don’t do so out of superior intelligence, rationality or negotiating skill. They succeed because they have a secure adult emotional base somewhere in their lives. They may still be attached to each other, even though they are divorcing. Through their religious faith, they may be attached to God or a community of believers. They may be attached to new mates, or old friends or their family of origin. Among our own clients who divorce, the most successful — meaning the ones where the co-parenting relationship or the friendship stay intact — happen between partners who, through natural proclivity or deep life experience, have the ability to stay loving and compassionate toward their spouses, even in the face of hardship and pain.

Tom and Helen’s mediation turned out well, largely because her own parents stepped up to support her emotionally, and to advocate for a peaceful outcome for their grandchildren. We had some bad moments early on — Helen stormed out of a session saying bitterly, “Have your lawyer call my lawyer, honey.” But, after several weeks of hiatus, she came back in, ready to resume the mediation. Meanwhile, Tom, with some coaching, set aside his own reactivity and tried consciously to come at Helen with an attitude of kindness and respect.

While our appeals to her rational nature had proved futile (a court battle would have obliterated their finances, to say nothing of their co-parenting relationship), it was her family connection and Tom’s determined positivity that brought Helen back to the table. Harvard’s Shapiro describes this emotional dimension by comparing it to swimming. If your emotional needs are ignored during a negotiation, he says, “you may feel as if you are drowning, ignored, alone, and unable to breathe. Your emotions respond, and you are prone to adversarial behavior.” In a positive emotional state, in contrast, when you feel appreciated, supported, respected and loved, “you are prone to cooperate, think creatively and be trustworthy.”

Despite winning an Oscar, A Beautiful Mind was a little formulaic for me. Still, the character John Nash has some nice lines near the end of the movie that puts the respective roles of rationality and emotion in their proper perspective. Here, in the twilight of his career, he seems to recognize, at last, that emotions matter. And, while mental efforts such as game theory or his own Nash equilibrium can help us identify the best models for getting along, it’s our emotions that give meaning to human interactions and motivate us toward connection, cooperation and harmony.

Nash: I have always believed in numbers. In the equations and logic that lead to reason. I was wrong. It is only in the mysterious equations of love that logic or reason can be found. Perhaps it is good to have a beautiful mind. But a better gift is to discover a beautiful heart.

— Russell Collins, Psy.D., is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.