Friday, October 2, 2015

How to Fail at Family Problem Solving

In prior posts, I have discussed what I call the principle of opposite behaviors as it applies to repetitive behavior in personality disorders as well as in recurring dysfunctional family behavior. It is related to an idea that I call the net effect of behavior: that if someone always gets the same results from their actions, and they keep doing it anyway, then the result they get is the result they are trying to get.

The principle of opposite behaviors applies in those cases in which someone repeatedly does the exact opposite of what another person is doing, yet repeatedly gets the same results anyway. Or those cases in which a person goes from one extreme to the other, and still always ends up in the same place.  Prior examples discussed in this blog: Parents who let their kids do anything they want versus those who try to control their every move; those who never ask anyone for anything versus those who ask people for the moon.

This post is about how the principle of opposites applies to metacommunication — family members discussing both their mutual interactions and the family dynamics over several generations. As readers of this blog know, I believe that doing so is the most effective way to solve problems and put a stop to ongoing dysfunctional interactions which trigger psychological symptoms and troublesome behavior. It is the "curative" part of my psychotherapy, which I call Unified Therapy.

When I discuss this idea on either this blog or on my blog on Psychology Today, I am usually besieged with comments saying that readers have tried this and it just doesn't work, or that I cannot appreciate that their family members are totally incapable of stopping abusive, distancing, or other provocative behavior.

I always reply that I do not blame anyone for not believing what I say about how metacommunication is both possible and effective in any family in which members are not fragrantly psychotic or a victim of brain damage or Alzheimer's disease. In fact, when I first broach this ideas with my own psychotherapy patients, I frequently get this response. Patients tell me that I couldn't possibly know how impossible their particular family can be.

Oh, but I do. In fact, I've almost always seen families that are far worse. And it is true, I add, that metacommunication done poorly can make a family problem even worse. Then I go on to say that doing it well is extremely difficult and that if it were easy, the patients would have already done it. 

In order to do it well, they have to become aware of things about their family and its members that they could not possibly have known before. Last, every family is different, so I can't just tell them right off how to proceed. Therapy is a complex process by which the right interventions are devised prior to any actual attempts at implementing them.

So why do folks who have tried to talk about family issues get into trouble? Well, again, every family is different, but we can discuss some general issues. It is much easier to talk about what does not work than trying to predict what will work in a given family or with a given relative. 

For this post, I invoke the principle of opposite behaviors: talking too much about something— especially if one always goes about it in the same way—is as futile as not talking about it at all. In either event, nothing gets resolved.

Obviously, trying to ignore an issue might work for a short time, but the issue will continue to hang over the heads of the participants like the proverbial Sword of Damocles, and things will eventually blow up. Or there will be an emotional cutoff in which family members try to divorce one another. But even that does not prevent the issues from continuing to contaminate the participants' other relationships, particularly between them and their lovers and children.

So what "doesn't work?" Here is a short list: blaming, accusing, and saying some variant of "You're bad (or evil, or stupid)," "You hate me," or "You did this to me." Getting angry rather than trying to hear the other person out, and/or becoming defensive rather than being thoughtful about what might be the kernal of truth in what the other person is saying. Not giving the other person the benefit of the doubt no matter what they say.

Another big one is invalidation. There are several variants of this. One of the most obvious is denial of events such as child abuse when both parties to the conversation know very well what happened. 

Telling the other person what they are feeling rather than asking them what they are feeling is another well known example.

A less well-known pattern is when each party is so keen on making their own points that they do not address the points that the other person is making at all. They steamroll any exchange by talking over each other, by completely ignoring what the other person has said in response to something they said, or through other ways of refusing to acknowledge the other person's point of view at all as they continue to make their own additional points.

Interestingly, people talking about a family problem can move on to discuss a related issue without ever having come to any agreement on the initial issue that was broached - so that neither of the issues is addressed fully. Sometimes people make a big circle, bringing up one related or tangential issue after another without achieving any resolution of any one of them, and then at long last returning to the initial issue. And then starting the whole circle all over again from the beginning!

Last is the best illustration of how talking too much leads to the same results as talking too little. After achieving some resolution of an issue, the parties continue to bicker incessantly about it, refusing to drop it even though, if they followed up on their initial plans, the problem would have been solved. In a commonly discussed example, some members of couples are well known for repeatedly bringing up an old grievance even decades after the problematic event took place.

There are a lot of ways to fail.


  1. The really tough part in communicating with family is the incredible resistance one feels, first in oneself and then with family members, in trying to communicate anything about what's really going on in the family system. And then you come to realize that you asking them to hear you out, and them refusing, is probably itself a feature of the system. There may be a chink in the family armor, but one will have to work like mad to find it and at the end of the day, one has to wonder why such effort is being expended on people who are fighting the process every step of the way.

    1. Hi Chris,

      Thanks for your comment.

      The resistance your describe is usually fear-based, but as you mention, it is incredibly strong.

      Seeing it in yourself helps you to empathize with others when they fight you, which is a prerequisite for getting them to stop fighting so hard.