From Here to Eternity

FOR IVAN Boszormenyi-Nagy, M.D., psychiatrist, humanist, a founder of family therapy and developer of contextual therapy, the essence of human predicaments is the same, whether it's ethnic war in Sarajevo, race riots in Los Angeles, substance abuse on the street comer, or unhappy "adult children" in your own house. The problem is a failure of relationships due in large part to misconceptions about justice.

PT: What does justice have to do with it?

Nagy: In 1981, I developed the concept of "destructive entitlement It refers to the ethical dynamics of relationships, which exists in addition to their psychological dimension.

PT: What does it mean?

Nagy: There is an open account for revenge. Entitlement resembles a right, something earned either through contributions that benefit another or through suffering. It is an ethical accumulation or surplus.

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PT: Give me an example.

Nagy: If you were exploited, abused as a child, you feel angry, suspicious, psychologically entitled to revenge. You also have a right to be revengeful, ethically. Or say you have a genetic illness. You pay personally - it's unjust. "Why me?" You also have an entitlement -you were damaged. The question is, "How do I act on it, constructively or destructively?" It's the nature of the action you can take. You can't take it out on your genes. But if you use it against an innocent person, that's taking the past out on the future. It's unfair; it creates a new injustice, and perpetuates the cycle.

PT: How do you see this playing a significant role - in our everyday lives?

Nagy: Destructive entitlement is a huge problem in child care. It has a long history in warfare between nations and ethnic populations within nations. And it plays a major role in destroying marriages.

PT: How does it operate in marriage relationships?

Nagy: When you live closely with someone, you use your partner as a scapegoat. You project onto him or her your negative feelings, blame him for something that is your own fault: "You are angry...."

Psychology concerns itself with the pathology of the person who projects. But ethically, it's much harder for the target, who suffers more for ethical reasons. And he acts on revenge. If you challenge his destructive entitlement, he only insists on it more. The relationship is hurt by both psychological pathology and injustice.

PT: How does substance abuse fit into this scheme?

Nagy: Destructive entitlement organizes the life of many people. One of its major signs is not being sensitive to remorse. You don't care about yourself either. It thrives in the street, among street kids, from the violent things that parents do to kids, which they perpetuate.

PT: How does this help you understand larger social groups?

Nagy: What looks like evil or stupidity - endless tribal or ethnic warring - is much better explained by destructive entitlement. When people seem to be acting fanatically, through prejudice, it is not because they are stupid. They are blind to remorse. They don't see it as unfair. It is a justice issue, not an intelligence issue.

PT: How does it end?

Nagy: Feeling entitled and being entitled are not the same thing. For countries and other groups, we need to develop a code of fairness for these kinds of situations, other than mindless killing. In intimate relationships, I help people recognize that the motivation for revenge is actually driven by a deep sense of justice and a deep loyalty to those who loved but injured us.

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