Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Family Communication: Countering Relatives Who Go Off on Tangents

In my blogposts about family metacommunication, one issue I discussed is the tendency of people to change the subject when discussing anything touchy. When a person is afraid to or does not want to go into depth in discussing a particular repetitive interactional pattern with a family member, for whatever reason, a subtle switch from the issue under discussion to some other matter is often a successful strategy for avoiding further dialogue about it.

This is particularly easy to do if there are a whole bunch of similar issues that are all inter-related and intertwined with one another. As I wrote in the previous post: 

Another related misdirection strategy is to mix several separate but highly interconnected issues so that none of them is ever completely discussed. For example, one woman was in a complex family system in which her husband would find ways to distract her from her anger at her parents and vice versa. Whenever she expressed anger at one of her parents, the husband would do annoying things to draw away her anger from her parents towards him Similarly, when she was ready for war with hubby, one of her parents would act out and draw her wrath towards them.

The woman's genogram revealed that the problems in this system were related to gender issues (whether men should take care of women or women should pursue independence), concerns regarding the adequacy of males in the family to take care of their women (her husband felt that he was supposed to protect his wife but felt inadequate to do so and angry about "having" to shoulder the responsibility) and even class (how much money was being brought in).

The discussion would change from one of these aspects of the problem to another at the drop of a hat. Because the aspects were all so interconnected it was indeed difficult to talk about any one of them without talking about the others. For example, when the issue of the husband's adequacy came up, the issue of why he was like that would also arise. Because the subject of any conversation jumped around, however, any conversations about the issue would end up going in circles with nothing being resolved.

In this post, I want to discuss another useful strategy under these circumstances for keeping family metacommunication on track in order to get to the bottom of a single issue. Another way to look at the problem of subject changes is that the mix-up of issues allows people to go off on a tangent that is related to - yet different from - the main theme the metacommunicator is trying to clarify.

The trick here is to remember the definition of a tangent from your old geometry class in high school. Tangents are related to circles, and look like this:

If you go to the tangent line and trace it backwards, it always goes right back to the circle. Analogously in metacommunication, the "circle" is the main theme that ties all the different tangents together.

Any tangent someone goes off on can be thought of as just another example of the main theme - the circle in the diagram.

As an example, let us take a hypothetical situation in which there is a highly conflicted relationship between a mother and a daughter who come from a typical highly dysfunctional family - one characterized by many examples of major gender issues common to many members: the females getting involved with men who are drunk, abusive, and/or cheating; whether or not they should leave relationships with such men; expressing anger at such men; mothers who do not protect their children from abusive men or from witnessing domestic violence; conflicts over being tied down by children leading to neglect and invalidation of them; enabling children who don't take care of themselves; depending financially on either unreliable men or good providers who mistreat women, and so on and so forth.

There are indeed families characterized by all of the above conflicts- over several generations. If there are several sisters, aunts, great aunts and female cousins acting out several of these themes, one can see how easy it would be to subtly avoid focusing in depth on any one theme, or for that matter, on any one relationship.

So what might tie all of these gender-related themes together as they play out in metacommunication about problematic behavior patterns between a mother and her adult daughter who has children of her own?

Here we can make use of the concept described in a previous post: intrapsychic conflict leading to ambivalence leading to mixed and/or contradictory messages. Anything the mother says to her daughter regarding any of the above behaviors can be translated into a message to the daughter to either "act (or relate to the issues) like me" or "do not act (or relate to the issues) like me." Usually both within the very same conversation!

In this case, a good strategy might be for the daughter to express confusion about what the mother is trying to tell her in terms of following or not following mom's example no matter which aspect of the gender dysfunction is brought up. She might say something like, "Gee Mom, sometimes it sounds like you are criticizing me for doing the same things you do, while at other times it sounds like you are criticizing me for not doing them. I'm confused about what you think is the right strategy when, for example, my ex-husband keeps calling me on the phone several times a day."

A typical dysfunctional conversation might go something like this:

Mother: "I told you to block his phone number and stop talking to him."

Daughter: "But you let Dad keep bugging you all the time."

Mom: "Well, I do that for your sake 'cause I know you still care a lot about him, so it's better if we are civil to each other."

Daughter: "But wouldn't that also apply to my sons from my ex?"

Mother: "Well you don't seem to want to be bothered with your kids' feelings half the time anyway."

In this example, the mother has subtly changed the subject from how to handle an ex-husband to the daughter's parenting practices. If the daughter were to engage the mother on that issue, the mother might then talk about how the daughter is still financially dependent on her ex and needs to support herself better so she can get rid of him. Nothing would ever be resolved.

The counter-strategy is to take each tangent the mother goes off on and reconnect it to the circle or main theme. Any criticism the mother makes of the daughter on any of these inter-related subjects can be used as yet another example of how the mothers statements confuse the daughter in regards to whether or not she should follow her mother's example.

If the daughter starts with the statement above describing her confusion about whether or not mother thinks the daughter should emulate her, and the issue of the stalking ex comes up, the daughter would not say, "But you let Dad keep bugging you all the time." She would instead say, "I'm confused when you say that, cause that sounds like you are saying I shouldn't let my ex keep bugging me like you put up with Dad."

If mother then brings up her having put up with Dad for the patient's sake, that of course contradicts mom's initial advise for the daughter to cut off her ex when there's a child involved there. The daughter might then bring up that seemingly contradictory advice as a way to get back to the circle once again. 

The daughter would be ill-advised to come right out and accuse her mother of being hypocritical, as that would usually lead to the mother becoming defensive. Instead, she could blame her own confusion about what the mother is trying to say:

"Well I'm again kinda confused now. Are you saying I should handle it like you did for the sake of my sons, or that I should do the opposite of what you did and cut off my ex?"

Of course, this strategy could have good results, but it could also backfire.

The mother might at that point be struck by how she is giving the daughter double messages, which might then allow her to take pause and start to discuss why she herself might be confused on these issues - a good result. On the other hand, the strategy might also make her feel guilty and want to change the subject yet again. 

Mom might try the strategy of saying that her situation with the daughter's father is somehow different than the daughter's situation with her ex. Naturally, in some ways every situation is somewhat different, but in doing this she would be ignoring all the ways in which their situations are similar.

Figuring out the next move on the daughter's part would probably require the services and advice of a knowledgeable therapist. A therapist can tailor a counter-move for the daughter, using his or her knowledge of several different things: 

Knowledge of the mother and daughter's prior interactions; the therapist's own experience successfully countering the daughter's having done the very same thing to the therapist as her mother does to her within the context of psychotherapy; and information from the genogram about the source of the mother's ambivalence that can be use to empathically advance their conversations toward problem resolution.


  1. Do people like the above mother ever really listen to logic? The daughter may offer counter arguments and rebuttals, but can't the mother always rely on misdirection? i'm curious if this ever works because I have many people like the mother in my family.

    1. Hi Anonymous,

      Thanks for your excellent question.

      Yes, absolutely this can certainly work, but you see how tricky it is.

      The good news (and the key to keeping the conversation on track) is that everyone in the family is almost always somewhat ambivalent about bringing up an issue - so one can appeal to the side of them that wants to get everything out in the open. Granted, their fear is usually much greater than their desire to do that.

      In order to appeal to the positive side, the questioner has to remain empathic to the Other's fears and defenses, no matter how irrational they may seem, and refrain from saying anything that might be interpreted as an attack or a guilt trip. Remaining empathic with someone who has been abusive is of course a major challenge, so in therapy we examine the family history over at least three generations (the "genogram") to make sense of the abuser's behavior without condoning it.

      Diversion moves can be anticipated and countermoves designed at each stage of the discussion, with any results/problems/mistakes created during each conversation being used to further refine the strategy for use in the next encounter. It is extremely rare than one conversation is enough.

      If mistakes are made, there are also strategies for handling the fall out. One also has to anticipate other family members inserting their own two cents and mucking things up.

    2. same anonymous guyJanuary 22, 2015 at 5:51 AM

      I guess my real question is this: communicating with these types of people is like trying to put out a brush fire with a blanket. It takes a lot of effort to achieve even modest success, and you have to keep swatting the embers to maintain any success. If regression is inevitable why would the patient pin their hopes of resolution on such a flimsy hope as their perpetually avoidant or delusional family members? Wouldn't the patient be attempting with their family member what, in a few conversations, a therapist would take months or years to achieve in weekly sessions?

    3. Hi same guy,

      The extended time in therapy you mention is spent forming a relationship between the patient and the therapist, uncovering hidden family history and family dynamics, getting detailed descriptions of stereotypcial family interchanges, fashioning an hypothesis about why family members act the way they do, and then devising a series of strategies for metacommunication.

      That all can indeed take months or years.

      Actually putting the strategy into practice, on the other hand, does not take nearly so long if the preparation has gone well.

      Regression is, as you say, inevitable, but I give my patients instructions on exactly how to handle it when it occurs to get things back on track.

      I'm not saying this isn't a lot of work or that you don't have to stay on your toes - it most certainly is and you do - but the results can be well worth it.

  2. Do the genograms take into account economic incentives that determine alliances and allegiances that are made when the adult child marries?

    (1) My widowed mother made a point of telling one serious boyfriend I had that when she died, as her only offspring, I would inherit property and a modest sum of money. This person always took my mother's side whenever I made an attempt to become independent and live away from home. When I tried to dump the boyfriend after 18 months, my mother refused to support me and encouraged him to keep visiting the home until I was worn down and changed my mind.

    Fast-forward two years and

    (b) I was not the type of female that my ex-spouse's conservative Anglicans parents preferred him to date let alone marry (aka not a virgin), but I was always an heiress to a valuable inner-city property with a widowed mother who had a bad heart. When my mother sold the property and purchased a lesser valued house in a regional area, within the first 12 months of my marriage; the spouse told me that he didn't love me as much as he used to.

    Follow the money and presumptions that involve counting chickens before they hatch. It is an insidious factor.

    1. Hi Rain,

      Genograms certainly take into account monetary issues which can and do create conflicts within a family system. They can, however, lead in many different directions. For instance, if a father gets depressed if a child makes more money than he does, it might lead to someone forcing himself to be poorer by subverting their career.