Relationships matter

A recent conference on our campus entitled Conversations on Attachment included two prominent scholars working in neuroscience:  Dr. James Coan, a psychologist, and Dr. Daniel Siegel, a psychiatrist.  A few points from their presentations help explain why relationships are so important:


  • “Our brains are designed to be with other people.”  The “baseline brain” is not alone; it is in relationship.  The brain expects social relationships; the “weird situation” is when we are alone.
  • We aren’t designed to solve problems by ourselves; we are designed to be interdependent.  When we are isolated from others, we perceive that we have more problems and it takes more energy to solve them.  “Relationships matter.”
  • When we are familiar with someone, they become parts  of us; we extend ourselves to them.  “I am you and you are we.”  If you are under threat, then part of me is under threat.  Human altruism is partially explained by this.
  • Read more from Coan’s presentation


  • It is an optical illusion that the self is confined by the skin, separate from others. Happiness, wisdom and health all come from a sense of self that is connected to a much larger entity than the individual body.
  • Both genes and experience shape our brains.  Since the brain is designed to connect with others, and because much of its development occurs after birth, attachment experiences and cultural messages affect how the brain is wired.
  • 1500 years of cultural messages that our self is limited to our skin, separate from others, has impacted our brains in a way that is unreal, unhealthy and destructive to ourselves and the planet.
  • Scaring people about the future of the planet hasn’t worked.  Informing hasn’t worked.  We have to expand the self from “me” to “we” or we are dead. The health of the planet is a moral issue.
  • A key to health and recovery is in relationship.  That is why it is so important to feel heard.  As one counseling client said to him, the breakthrough was “when I felt felt.”
  • Trauma and neglect destroy integrated brain functioning. Both chaos and rigidity result from impaired regulation and integration.
  • When threatened, people amplify who they think is the “in-group” and who is the “out-group.”  They treat the in-group with more tenderness and affection and the out-group with more hostility and disrespect.  If you identify someone as different from you, the circuitry of compassion and empathy shuts down.
  • Read more from Siegel’s presentation

This basic relational orientation of the brain, I would suggest, explains why restorative justice is so important and why restorative processes are often successful.  This also helps explain the often-negative consequences of a criminal justice approach that encourages us to divide the world into “us” and “them.”  And it goes far to explain our nation’s responses to the tragedy of 9/11.

Relationships matter. Restorative justice reminds us of this web of relationships and suggests principles and practices to create and restore healthy relationships.

As Christian Early, a Bible and Religion professor at EMU, noted in his response to Coan, “it is good for us to live in community.”  Yet human connection can also be a source of great stress.  That is why it is so important that we develop practices of restoration and reconciliation.

Ultimately restorative justice is not about crime or about specific programs or practice models.  It is a reminder that we are fundamentally interconnected; it is a call to practice the arts of relationship. As Siegel said, we have to expand the self from “me” to “we” or we are dead.



In a 2009 blog entry I discussed the contribution of restorative justice to the overall effort of building a peaceful world.  Since that entry is buried in the blog archives, perhaps it is worth repeating some of it here.

Peacebuilding is about relationships; it is about building, mending and maintaining healthy relationships.  To this effort restorative justice makes these specific contributions:

  1. A recognition that questions of justice and injustice are central to conflict and must be addressed if we are to manage conflict and build peaceful communities.
  2. A relational understanding of wrongdoing that focuses on the impact on people and relationships rather than rules.
  3. A set of principles to guide us when a harm or wrong has occurred. Put simply, these might be called reparation, accountability and engagement.
  4. A group of specific practices that, although they use some skill sets similar to those for conflict resolution, allow us to name and address the harms involved and the resulting obligations. These include victim offender conferencing, family or restorative group conferencing and – perhaps most powerful and widely applicable – circle processes.
  5. An explicit grounding in core values that not only guide the processes but are fundamental for healthy relationships. While a number of values are often named, I often identify these core values as three “R’s” – respect, responsibility and relationships.


4 comments on “Relationships matter”

  1. It is so true…with the traditional system of justice we are used to leave the resolution of ours problems in other persons, if we want to me a mature and resposible community we have to start learning through dialogue and communication to solve our conflicts, so Restorative Justice is the key. And it is not new for humans because it is the justice we had in the past and we lost with the ages…
    Only with this way we can build a more peaceful world! Thanks Howard for this interesting article, always an inspiration

  2. Paddy O'Connor says:

    When people are harmed it is so much easier to fall back on the punishment option but unfortunately because honest engagement is not given an opportunity to happen, nothing is truly resolved.
    Within our families we instinctively engage intensively with those we love at times of stress or conflict. We work hard at listening and supporting so that the conflict does not metasthesise and the family unit usually emerges all the stronger for it.
    Extending this restorative approach to our wider worlds of school, workplace and justice systems is what will transform people-in-society beyond measure. As the old Irish saying recognised: “Ar scath a cheile a mhairimid” – We all exist in each others’ shadow

  3. Howard,
    How do you manage a relationship when the fundamental values that you refer to are not mutually agreed upon? When a one-sided deception is at the heart of the relationship, is it possible to repair the harm? I am thinking that this question has been asked since the beginning of time. Isn’t this often the reason countries go to war? I believe that restorative justice practices can begin to deconstruct the harm and “make things right” but how can we avoid the harm in the first place? Is it possible to begin a relationship with an understanding of these values and maybe avoid creating the harm?

  4. Sarah Federman says:

    I’m working on a master’s thesis a related issue. Some Holocaust survivors want to here a ‘true apology’ from the SNCF train company in France for taking them or their loved ones. The company expresses ‘regret’ but not ‘repentance’ because repentance would imply guilt. So they are stuck. Some survivors do not ‘feel’ , ‘felt’

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