Family therapy got started when the grandparents of the field, interested in cybernetics–the science of self-regulating systems–started studying communication in families. Some of the more interesting ideas they came up with were the three progressively more problematic kinds of contradiction. This is a summary of Virginia Satir’s version of those contradictions, from Conjoint Family Therapy:

Simple contradiction: This is when a person says two things that contradict each other straightforwardly, as when someone might say, “I love you but I don’t love you.” This kind of contradiction consists of assertions that are incompatible, but at least out in the open, in an easily decodable way. That means that the receiver of the message can easily comment on the contradiction, saying “I don’t understand what you mean. You didn’t make sense to me just then.”

Paradoxical (or incongruent) communication: A paradox is a special kind of contradiction, where the incompatible statements exist on different “logical levels.” That is, one of the statements is part of the context of the other statement. These are significantly more difficult to decode and comment on. The two logical levels in human communication are usually verbal and non-verbal behavior, where the non-verbal behavior is the context for the verbal. For example (from p.83) “A says, ‘I hate you,’ and smiles.” If A had said “I hate you” with an angry look on their face, that would be congruent, but what does “I hate you” mean in the context of a smile? This is more confusing than the simple contradiction, both because it is more difficult to track the two levels of communication simultaneously, and because we have unspoken social norms against commenting about how someone is speaking. Consequently, it takes more awareness and bravery to question the speaker’s intent when they present you with this kind of contradictory communication. (Satir calls paradoxical communication “incongruent communication.”) Being able to metacommunicate, or comment on the communication going on, is the major tool of the psychotherapist. We don’t usually know it, but this skill is the main thing we go to therapists for.

The double bind: The double bind is a special kind of paradoxical communication that was first laid out in Watzlawick and colleagues’ Pragmatics of Human Communication. A double bind is a paradox with two additional rules, giving four total requirements:

1) A verbal statement

2) A contradictory non-verbal context

3) A rule that you are not allowed to metacommunicate

4) A rule that you are not allowed to leave the field

This happens to people all the time. Children, especially, mercilessly, unconsciously, are put in this position a lot because they are not in a position to leave their parents “field.” They are completely subject to their parents on every level.

Here’s an example: A parent, obviously stressed out, tense, and in pain for whatever reason, says to their child, “I love you.” This puts the child into a double bind, because the statement is contradicted by the “I don’t love you” expressed by the parents’ body language and facial expression. That’s 1) and 2). Third is that the child can’t comment on the contradiction because they don’t have the tools, and even if they did, and said something like, “Mom, I hear you saying that you love me but it doesn’t really seem like you love me right now. It seems like you’re having other feelings,” the child would almost certainly be punished in some way for being insubordinate, for questioning the parent’s love, for questioning the parent’s word, for making the parent feel uncomfortable. Fourth is that the child is not allowed to leave the field. That is, even if they had the communication tools, the awareness, and the bravery, they have no where else to go if they are rejected by the parent. Their lives are dependent on the love and support of the parent. They are stuck in the field. To cope, they “learn” one or both of the following:

I am not lovable. My parent knows this, and I have figured it out, but at least they are pretending that they love me, which keeps me alive, so I’ll go along with the pretense that they love me.

I may be lovable, but love feels awful. Still, it’s the best thing available.

Then the child grows up and, having their own children, perpetuate the process, being a pretending-to-be-lovable parent with awful-feeling love to give to the next generation. Not only that, but they develop adaptations to this way of living that look like DSM-diagnosable Mental Disorder conditions.

Metacommunication and congruent communication: Notice that metacommunication is the key out of all of these situations. In the case of a true double bind, you might need the help of someone else’s (a therapist’s or friend’s) metacommunication, but metacommunication is still the key. Someone needs to stand up and say, “I’m confused! Can we slow down here and talk about what we’re talking about? What can you say to me right now that your body language and facial expression will agree with?”

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