As I have mentioned in many posts in this blog, the key to effective problem solving for dysfunctional families is to initiate metacommunication (talking about the nature and manifestations of rules by which the family operates, as well as talking about the way the family communicates), and then learning how to do it effectively. Many strategies were discussed previously in my two series, Ve Have Vays of Making You Talk and How to Disarm a Borderline.
Many of the strategies described in the Disarm posts need not be limited to dealing with family members who have significant borderline behavior, but work well on anyone trying to avoid telling you that they are purposely frustrating you because they do not want you to pursue certain lines of questioning.
In this new series of two posts, I will describe situations in which individuals with whom one is attempting metacommunication seem to be answering the questions that have been posed to them but are, in actuality, avoiding answering the questions.
Two of the three members of the triangle may seem to gang up on the third, but there is usually much more to the story than that. If deemed necessary, the alliances can quickly shift, so that the person ganged up upon can suddenly join either of the other two parties to gang up on the third, who had previously been allied with the other member of the triangle. The goal of triangulation is avoidance of the underlying conflict, not its solution.
In the process of roping in a potential triangulee, so to speak, one of the original warring dyad – will call him #1 - will tell stories about the other (#2) designed to provoke outrage at #2. #2 will be said to have engaged in some dastardly behavior or other.
When first asked about a particular interactional relationship episode, #1 may respond with a rather global judgment about the other person involved rather than a specific description of what actually took place.
A typical scenario in which #3 might conclude that he or she is being misled might go something like this: #1 states globally that her father tries to control whatever she does. Dad might, unbeknownst to #3, call her incessantly on her cell phone whenever she goes out on a date. Upon further inquiry or observation, however, #3 learns that the father bankrolls his daughter’s every whim, no matter how reckless, whenever she asks him for money. #3 then draws the incorrect conclusion that the patient’s characterization of the father as “controlling” is completely distorted.
In this case, for example, the father is attempting to control his daughter's dating life, while letting her do whatever she wants in most other areas of her life. In fact, he seems to be enabling her to do what she wants in those other areas. So the judgment "controlling" is both correct and incorrect simultaneously. Nobody is one was all of the time when it comes to almost any conceivable characteristic. To think otherwise is black-or-white thinking, or "splitting" if you will.
After an example of an interaction is finally given, it may still be necessary to ask for further clarification: Exactly how did the father’s behavior lead #2 to conclude that he wanted to control one of her activities? The father’s statements as reported by #2 may sound relatively innocuous to #3, but such may not be the case. #3 might ask, “What was it about that statement that made you think that he does not want you to get married?”
To continue with the example a woman who described her father as “controlling,” the metacommunicator would learn much by asking the patient the following additional questions: What do you mean, in behavioral terms, by “controlling”? What is your father doing and saying that indicate that he wants to control you? What do you believe to be his motives for wanting such control, and on what do you base this belief? What part of your life do you think he wants to control? What exactly is he trying to get you to do or not do? How does he go about trying to control these aspects of your life? Under what circumstances does he act in such a manner, and under what circumstances does he not act that way? What are you doing or saying that might be provoking a “controlling” response?
One should try also to elicit as much as possible about the whole conversation, not just a part of it. In particular, the way conflictual conversations end may provide important details about the patterns of mutual invalidation that often characterize poor communication in families. Statements such as “Mom did not respond at all after I told her that” are ambiguous and should trigger further requests for clarification. What did Mom actually do at the point of “no response”? It is impossible to not behave.
Did Mom turn around and walk out of the room? Stare silently into space as if in a trance? Roll up into a fetal position? The answer to such questions allows #3 to better understand #2’s need for avoidance and ambiguity in their discussions of important issues.