Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Obvious Secret of Interpersonal Influence Within Families

It always amazed me that therapists, who are in the business of influencing people to change their behavior, are often somewhat clueless as to how individuals are influenced by members of their kin group – that is, by their families.  Even the analysts, who thought that psychological problems derived initially from family of origin interactions, sometimes seemed to think all of the child’s reactions to the parents were somehow innate rather than learned. Karen Horney and Harry Stack Sullivan were the two major exceptions among the early analytic theorists.

When family systems theory came along, its ideas about cybernetic feedback loops of interpersonal influence seemed to me to be a major step forward. However, perhaps because they had to go to the opposite extreme from the schools of individual psychotherapy in order to distinguish themselves, some theorists seemed to think that individuals almost did not exist outside of their social context. Systems therapy pioneer Jay Haley pretty much said as much.

I kept coming across a peculiar problem in their explanations for interactions in family systems. Actually, I noticed that the same problem kept creeping into explanations of human behavior from the individual psychotherapy schools. They all seemed to assume that, on some level, people are just incredibly stupid.  Somehow they believed a person could repeatedly get the same feedback from other people about the effects of their behavior on both themselves and on others, yet just not notice what was happening!

Now of course if one looks for evidence of people behaving stupidly, it’s not very hard to come up with examples. But are they really too stupid to notice that when they act in certain ways, they invariably get hit over the head with a two by four, in a manner of speaking.  Maybe the first couple of times their perceptions of the chain of events might miss the inevitable result because of preconceived biases, but over and over?  

If anything, I would think that being hit on the head over and over with a two by four would make the sequence rather salient! To think otherwise is to turn the whole evolutionary reason for the existence of pain on its head.

So what if we assume that people are not that stupid? To explore this, I would like to make a detour and discuss the different perspectives on how individuals influence one another presupposed by the therapeutic schools. Individual therapies tend to be based on something called linear causality; systems approaches on circular causality. A more powerful concept of causality is, in my opinion, dialectic causality.

For simplicity in discussions of circular causality, systems theorist have usually used as a teaching example a schematized and admittedly oversimplified version of a couple consisting of an alcoholic who drinks and his wife who nags him to stop, so let me start there. 

A linear model would suppose that the nagging or the drinking is one element which causes the two behaviors in question:

Nagging----------------------> more drinking (though this might be seen by analysts as a mere excuse covering up some “real" linear cause).  

drinking---------------------> induces more nagging.

Circular causality, on the other hand, would presuppose a sort of vicious circle with no beginning or end, although in fact all interactions must have a beginning, even if it is only when this couple first meets.

T1 = time 1, T2 = a short time later, etc.

In this case, drinking---->nagging----à drinking--à nagging    - ad infinitum

The second model has obvious advantages over the first model in that it includes the obvious fact that both members of the couple are influencing each other in a continuous process with constant feedback. Systems theory would say that this creates a vicious circle where more nagging leads to more drinking which leads to more nagging and so forth. But here is where the “problem of stupidity” pops up.  

If we assume that the nagger is not stupid, we must assume that she knows that her husband is, at the very least, using her nagging as an excuse to drink, and will drink more if nagged rather than less. The husband tells here so, and his behavior bears it out, so she would have to have to have the IQ of a turnip not to notice!

Conversely, the drinker knows that his drinking induces more nagging. If each member of the couple wants the other member to stop drinking/nagging, and I do believe that to be the case, then how do we explain the fact that both of them continue in the non-productive behavior?

More importantly, both members of the couple know that the other member is not stupid, even if many therapists do not, so how do they explain to themselves why the other member of the couple is inducing the very behavior that he or she is complaining about?

In fact, each member of the couple in this situation is not giving off a congruent message to the other, but a double message. Verbally, the drinker tells the nagger to stop nagging, and the nagger tells the drinker to stop drinking. The way that this is done, however, says quite the opposite. The nagger, by continually nagging in a situation where both of them must know that this is counterproductive, is saying to the drinker: go right ahead! I'll give you the excuse you need. And vice versa.

If we assume that these people are not stupid, then we cannot assume that this is just a vicious circle. Indeed, it would be more consistent with the clinical picture to say that the nagger nags in order to give the drinker an excuse to drink, and the drinker drinks in order to give the nagger an excuse to nag. A strange concept indeed! But how can this be?

Surely the wife does not want the drinker to drink, and the husband does not want to listen to his wife's nagging. I agree. So what goes? 

The explanation that I am advancing here is that each person in the relationship thinks, rightly or wrongly, that it is the other person who wants the relationship to continue in its current form. Each thinks this, because the idea is borne out by the context of the other's behavior.

The drinker, by continuing to drink in a context where this behavior is destined to bring out nagging, is in a sense "asking for it." You've all heard that phrase, haven't you? "You're making me mad, you're just asking for a spanking!" What I am suggesting here is that people literally do think this; it is not merely a joking figure of speech.

Now, since both of these people are "asking for it," then they must at some level want it. This contradicts, of course, what I just said. I just said they did not want it. So am I giving you a double message?

What I believe is happening is that each member of the couple is actually of two minds on the subject. On some level, they are more comfortable with the relationship in its current form, but on another level, they hate it. Now, you may ask, why would they be comfortable with such a horrible relationship on any level? I'll answer that shortly, but first I'd like to point out that each member of the couple has no doubt asked him or herself this very question about the other member of the couple. Each correctly ascertains that the other seems to need the relationship as is, but they have not the slightest clue as to why.

If indeed, as I am proposing, they are both ambivalent about it, a direct question will probably lead to a defensive and negative response. These problematic responses could range from the other person changing the subject or denying any incongruity even exists all the way to bashing the questioner in the face.  In therapy I find that, because of these negative reactions, people will not ask their partners this sort of question, and therefore have to make guesses.

Because psychoanalytic ideas have become common currency in America, these guesses are usually linear explanations based upon what I call "bad psychoanalysis" (with apologies to Dan Ackroyd and Leonard Pinth Garnell). As mentioned, psychoanalytic explanations are linear and not circular or dialectic. The wife, for instance, would never in her wildest dreams come up with the explanation that the husband drinks out of a misguided perception that she needs him to.

Leonard Pinth Garnell (AKA Dan Ackroyd, Saturday Night Live)

She, being a product of American culture, would think he needs to drink for some selfish reason, not an altruistic one. She might think that he needs to drink in order to provide an excuse for acting in a hostile fashion - people are often not held accountable for their actions while drunk - in order to vent his otherwise unacceptible hostility towards his own nagging mother.

Because each member of the couple always plays a certain role, each believes the other wants to play the role, when in fact, each is playing the role compu1sively partly because each thinks the other wants it that way. The compulsivity of the behavior reinforces this view. Both usually believe, and in therapy they will tell you, that they think the relationship will end if it gets better!

There is a vicious circle going on here, but it is completely different from the vicious circle postulated by systems theory. Each member of the couple sees the other's behavior as self-generated, not realizing that it is, in fact, reactive to their own behavior. The more the nagger nags, the more the drinker drinks, because he sees her continued nagging as evidence that she wants him to drink. His increased drinking reinforces the nagger’s view that the drinker needs more nagging, and so forth.

This mutual and simultaneous influence on behavior is what is entailed by the idea of dialectic causality. Diagrammatically, it looks something like this:

The people are labeled Al, A2 etc. because the interaction over time is helping literally to create a somewhat changed individual. Dialectic philosophy tells us that nothing in the universe is constant, change is universal, and even though we are always ourselves, people do change, and much of the change is due to the nature of interactions with others.

Cognitive mental models of how to behave in certains social situations (schemas), for instance, are continuously updated through the twin processes of assimilation and accommodation. The diagram above shows that A and B are continuously pushed further apart over time. The confused, mixed message picture within the relationship creates friction which eventually causes these people to move apart, a phenomenon called distancing. The relationship is co-created by the way each person in the relationship perceives the needs of the other.

Unfortunately, I must add one further complication in order to explain why the couple got started in the pattern in the first place. Circular explanations ignore time, and often genesis, but time is intrinsic in dialectic interpretations. The nagger cannot be nagging only because she is trying to please her husband, although that is a very important reinforcer. She must at some level be more comfortable with the role of "the Nag With An Alcoholic Husband" than without it, despite the fact that this role is so horribly ungratifying.

What I am about to propose is that each member of the couple developed the role they play in response to a perceived need in the family of origin of each. Part of the reason that they picked each other in the first place is because they needed help maintaining an ungratifying role. Some of these roles were described in previous posts. That is why each continues to provide this sort of "help" and why each thinks the relationship cannot change. The concept of role function support by a spouse is exactly like the concept of enabling from the 12 Step literature - except that the alcoholic husband is also enabling the "co-dependent" nagging wife.

Each needs to play his or her role at great personal cost because each believes some disaster would befall their parents, or other important family members, if they stopped playing the role. For instance, Mother might become depressed, or Father might start drinking. We all care about our families deeply despite what we might like to think about that proposition, and the prospect of stopping our role behavior is indeed terrifying.


  1. Yes quite!

    I know this to be true. Resistance to me changing when all my wife wanted was for me to change was something to see!! Only to mention her of course.

  2. It sounds like we are "fated" to act these ways. Is the awareness enough to be free?

    1. Hi Elizabeth,

      Awareness certainly helps, but someone stuck in patterns like these has to figure out how to discuss it with the other people involved without inducing anger, withdrawal, or defensiveness. That isn't easy. One also should understand what purpose the patterns serve, and hopefully a bit about how they developed. In dysfunctional families, a therapist who understands family dynamics is often needed to coach people on how to address patterns constructively.with one another.

  3. Thank you for your answer. I am a "defective" in the process of divorce from a "little man", a sister to a "monster/little woman and a daughter to a self-centered mother (preteen emotionally). I've discovered patterns of subtle mistreatment where the three above regulate their emotions through diminishment of me.
    I can only do IT for geographical reasons and the fact that they enjoy it much more than me (the only thing that works so far is withdrawal, but sooner or later they resume their act, so constant vigilance is necessary). Well, the failure of the marriage came from my inability to bring the change without "inducing anger, withdrawal and defensiveness" in my "little man".
    I'm trying to figure out what is my pay off from these exchanges.