A Matter of Personality

From borderline to narcissism

Commitment Phobics

Some commitment phobic adults are playing a dysfunctional family role

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Almost all of us know or have heard about young adults who seem to chronically avoid making permanent a long-term romantic relationship by offering a marriage proposal. Some may even seem to be highly reticent to leave home and live with their lover.  You can read about them all the time in letters to advice columnists.

For example, in Carolyn Hax's column of December 16, 2011, a letter writer inquired, "Is there a way to make someone want to marry you? I mean, after 31 / 2 years of being together, are there any guarantees short of giving an ultimatum?

Ms. Hax wisely answered that it would be very difficult to "make a good marriage out of a coerced proposal," and advised the writer: "Marry someone who, after spending years getting to know you, is eager to take whatever initiative is necessary to be your partner in life. Otherwise, pass."

Carolyn Hax

Such reluctant individuals are often thought of as having a commitment phobia. Fear of commitment in much of the popular literature refers to avoidance of long-term partnership and/or marriage.  However, the problem is often much more pervasive - affecting school, work, and home life as well. The term commitment phobia was coined in the popular self-help book Men Who Can't Love in 1987 by authors Steven Carter and Julia Sokol.

However, some commitment phobes may not truly be afraid of commitment per se. People who appear to fit this bill may in some cases be playing a dysfunctional family role originally dubbed the go-between by psychiatrist Sam Slipp.

In my post of August 31, Self Sacrifice: For the Good of the Kin, I discussed how children act out certain roles in their family of origin in order to try to emotionally stabilize parents who are emotional unstable. Doing so also has the unfortunate side effect of maintaining dysfunctional relationship patterns so that the family operates in predictable but problematic ways (family homeostasis).

In previous posts, I described the roles of the spoiler (typical of many individuals with borderline personality disorder), the savior (typical of some cases of chronic minor depression or dysthymia) the avenger (the prototype of the antisocial personality disorder), the little man (the prototype of the narcissistic personality disorder), the defective  (typical of some people with psychosomatic illnesses), and the monster (sometimes the prototype for severe child abusers).

In today's post, I will discuss this last primary dysfunctional family role, the go-between.

In order to finish my series of posts describing particular dysfunctional families roles, I will then go on to describe two ancillary roles.  Individuals playing an ancillary role usually do not have significant personality pathology or psychological problems themselves, but are crucial to the performance of primary dysfunctional roles by other members of the family.  Those playing such seldom come in to treatment for this reason, but I hear about them from patients who are playing one of the primary roles.

The usual caveats:  all of these roles are prototypes only and can exhibit a large number of variations and degrees of severity.  People can play one role at one time and then quickly morph into a completely different one as their family situation requires.

Personality disorders are not diseases, but are merely combinations of dysfunctional character traits that happen to occur together at a frequency much greater than would be predicted by chance.  Some people who have the behavior patterns that I describe may not be examples of the family role that I am illustrating with examples.

The go-between: In this situation, the adult child is triangulated into a highly conflicted parental marriage. Triangulation is a basic concept in family systems theory that was first described by Murray Bowen and Salvador Minuchin.  Whenever two people are involved in a conflicted relationship, anxiety within the duo increases.  A common response is to rope a third party in to help diffuse the tension in the first relationship by spreading it through three relationships.

Murray Bowen
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Sometimes one or both parents may use an adult child as a confidant to complain about the other parent. Sometimes the parent may even subconsciously induce the child to act as a sort of surrogate spouse - providing to that parent what the real spouse is not providing.

In the latter scenario, if the parent-child relationship has any sexual overtones, the child may exhibit histrionic traits. Sometimes, adult go-betweens are "on call" to settle marital disputes. Mother might come over and say to a grown daughter, "Go tell your father to do such and such; he won't do it if I ask him but he will for you." If the daughter complies, the mother may become jealous of her child's relationship with the father, and treat her like a rival in a love triangle.

I discussed some aspects of the go-between role previously in my post of July 5, 2011, Freddie the Freeloader and Minnie the Moocher:

"Said daughter will often not marry because when she asks Mom why she does not ask for help from the daughter's brother or sister, Mom says, "Well, she has a family and I don't want to bother her." In other words, "She has a family and you don't." Since Mom seems to need someone to do this, daughter takes Mom's statement as an instruction for her to remain single. Otherwise Mom is in trouble.

The daughter will accomplish this feat in a number of ways. She might choose to stay celibate, but if this is unsatisfactory, she may instead date - but nothing but a series of commitment-phobic or married men. At least then she gets to have sex and companionship."

She'll take a silver lining any way she can get it.

In my practice, I have seen this pattern continue well into such a daughter's middle age.  She will often live a few blocks away from the parents.

Male go-betweens often seem to be momma's boys who treat their relationship with their mothers as far more important than their relationship with their long-term girl friends. They many or may not continue to live with their mothers and, if they do, act as if they do not really want to get married because they seem to have it too good at home.

Often there may be vague promises of marriage made to the girl friend for some indefinite point of time in the future, but somehow it never seems to happen.  This might be the situation experienced by Carolyn Hax's letter writer.  If the girl friend starts to ask about when the promised marriage is going to take place, the man complains that she is "pressuring" him or that she is "controlling."  The woman then feels guilty about her reasonable request, and backs off.

The girlfriend in this scenario may also be a go-between who is "on call" for her own family.  If she were not, she would be far less likely to put up with this sort of nonsense.  She would cut her loses by cutting the boyfriend loose, take her lumps, and begin to look for a more appropriate mate.

As pointed out by Sam Slipp, although go-betweens may derive some sense of importance and identity from being needed, their own needs for personal growth are not met and their autonomy is stifled.  This lack of self-actualization is the hallmark of all dysfunctional family roles.  Children in this role function much like an extra-marital relationship: giving something to one parent that the other parent is unable or unwilling to give.

And now, on to the ancillary roles.

The circuit breaker.  The job of the circuit breaker is to prevent very emotional family conflicts  from escalating into overt violence.  He or she distracts two warring family members just when their arguments are about to reach a boiling point.  

The clearest example of this that I saw occurred in the case of a violent teenage girl whom I saw when I first started practice.  The case was described in more detail in my book, Psychotherapy with Borderline Patients: an Integrated Approach.  Here, I focus on the patient's sister. 

Right before I first met the primary role player, I had learned that she had broken every door and every appliance in the house in fits of rage, but had never actually assaulted anyone.

I met with the patient and her divorced mother soon after the young girl was admitted to a psychiatric hospital.  Before too long, the two of them got into a loud argument, and without warning, the patient went into a rage.  Mother then promptly put her nose in the patient's face and started to berate her.   (That, of course, is an exceedingly bizarre thing to do when faced with someone whom one knows is apt to explode, but more on that in a future post).

In a split second, POW!  The patient slugged her mom in the face as hard as she could, and was quickly dragged away.  (And it took several large male psychiatric staff members to accomplish that feat).

This episode led me to have a strong respect for the rage felt by patients with borderline personality disorder. However, I wondered why there had been no earlier incidents of physical assaults against the mother.  I later discovered the answer when I later saw the patient's mother and then her sister separately in therapy

It turned out that at home, whenever an argument started to escalate, the patient's younger sister would start crying, and the mother would stop arguing with the violent daughter in order to tend to the younger one, thereby short-circuiting any further escalation.

Sis had her timing down to an art form.

The second ancillary role is one I call the switchboard. This is the person who relays messages between other family members who are playing the major roles when these other parties are not speaking directly to each other. 


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The parents of some individuals who are playing the primary roles may sometimes seem to be completely estranged from their offspring, but the apparent estrangement is somewhat misleading.  The "not seeing or speaking to each other" part is real, but it rarely means that communication between the estranged family members has ceased altogether.  Instead, messages are relayed through third parties who carry them back and forth like a carrier pidgeon.

In large dysfunctional families with lots of warring relatives, playing the switchboard can take up a lot of time.  Occasionally the switchboard becomes a full time job and the person starts to get stressed out by the duties, or does not have time for his or her own life.  They can sometimes start to look like the go-betweens in this situation, and may then go to therapy themselves. 

Usually, however, the role is not so time consuming. 

Other family members may in fact be quite considerate of the switchboard's time, and try not to bother him or her too much.  Such parents would not dream of seeming to shoot the messenger when unnerving information about their exiled child is passed on to them.

David M. Allen, M.D., is a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Tennessee and author of the book How Dysfunctional Families Spur Mental Disorders.

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