The Double Bind

Man Scratching HeadThe Double Bind is defined as “…a psychological predicament in which a person receives from a single source conflicting messages that allow no appropriate response to be made” (Merriam-Webster.com).  Wikipedia.com correctly credits Gregory Bateson with the exploration of the concept back in the 1950s as systems theory began to form the basis for Marriage and Family Therapy.

For example, the mother who complains because her son does not demonstrate his love for her, pushes him away when he reaches out to give her a hug.  It is a type of schizophrenic messaging that leaves the child confused about correct responses that will please his parent.

In reality we all give off double-bind messages to one degree or another.  Wanting a child to do his or her chores is one thing.  Insisting that they enjoy doing their chores may not be an effective strategy for making sure the job gets done.  Or asking someone to choose where to go out to eat and then shooting down every suggestion they make puts the person in a double bind; i.e., no right answer.

Families taking pride in their openness and transparency can sometimes discourage the very thing they want.  This can often be because of poor listening skills that unintentionally communicate very different values.

Alcoholic families often wrestle with these mixed messages.  For example, the father who comes home drunk explodes in anger over the most insignificant infractions in the family; sometimes over nothing at all.  At the same time he might totally ignore the most horrendous behaviors among family members. Add a healthy dose of unpredictability and the family is constantly in a state of confusion about family rules for day-to-day functioning and simple tasks.  These patterns of behavior can become so entrenched in families that, long after substance abuse has stopped, the alcoholic family dynamics and belief systems persist for generations.

To the outside observer, the family’s attempts to cope with these double-bind situations of mixed messaging and unpredictability look illogical and even irrational.  Within the family system, however, the unusual behaviors actually make sense at some level.  Try those unusual behaviors in other settings, however, where predictable, logical rules are applied in a consistent way and the unusual behaviors don’t make any sense at all.

The most common reaction in these situations, it seems to me, is to withdraw and isolate one’s self from the tensions they perceive in the family.  People get quiet, go underground, retreat, stuff their feelings and even slump into depression.  On the other hand, family members who attempt to confront the family’s system are sometimes ostracized and labeled as “the problem.”

The double bind is just one of many examples of the types of challenges Marriage and Family Therapists address frequently.  It is all part of how relationships work in marriages and families.  But, more than that, you can also see these dynamics in many social structures such as in church, government, the workplace or school.  In whatever setting, there are things that can be done to confront the double bind systems that we deal with every day, encouraging healthy communication and consistent messaging while also reconciling conflicting ideas and addressing cross purposes.

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