A Matter of Personality

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Why Is It So Hard for Families to Change Repetitive Dysfunctional Patterns?

Interpersonal games that never end

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But you can never leave

              -----The Eagles 

Why is it so damn difficult for family members to stop engaging in repetitive behavior that is clearly driving them all nuts? Back in baby boom lore, we used to refer to a big question like that as the $64,000 question, in reference to a TV quiz show. But hey, there's been inflation, so now we have to call it the million-dollar question. 

One reason it is so hard for families to change these interactions was described way back in 1967 by Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson in a book called Pragmatics of Human Communication. It was the first book to look at the linguistics of family dysfunction. That subject later became the main theme of a book that I wrote called Deciphering Motivation in Psychotherapy.  

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One of the most interesting and curious concepts introduced in the Watzlawick book was called the game without end. The book describes what happens when someone in a family steps out of a role that they had, up to that point, always been playing in their family system, and then tries to get everyone else to change the rules by which the whole family operates.   

What often happens is that no one else in the family is certain that said individual really wants the change that he or she is requesting — because he or she had compulsively played the role all the time up to that point.  Leopards do not change their spots, or so the saying goes.  Everyone in the family suspects that the request is, in reality, just another maneuver in the same old game that had been going on up to that point. Therefore, no one else takes the request seriously.  

This happens even when everyone else covertly would actually prefer the requested changes to the old behavior patterns.

The example Watzlawick et.al. used to illustrate what they were talking about was cute, but I did not quite understand exactly how it would apply to a real family. The authors imagined a family that observed a rule that anything anyone said really meant the exact opposite of what it seemed to mean. How would anyone in this family go about trying to change this rule?  If someone said, "Let's change the rule," this would naturally be taken by everyone else to mean its opposite, "Let's not change the rule." Therefore, the rule would stay the same. 

Aha, you say. Why couldn't the person requesting the rule change just say, "Let's not change the rule?"  By the original rules of the game, this statement should be interpreted as a request to change the rule. But not so fast! Remember, everything said under the old rules is supposed to mean the opposite of what it seems to mean. The request not to change the rule would in fact seem to be a request to change it. Therefore, under the old rule, it should be interpreted to mean the opposite of that, namely, "Let's not change the rule." 

No matter what anyone said about the rule, it could therefore be interpreted as a request to go on playing the game with the original rule. Any move to change the rules of the game could be interpreted as a strategic move to make them continue. Clever, but what family would ever operate by such a bizarre rule?  

It took me a while to truly understand the game without end, but let me see if I can explain it to readers. To understand it, let me describe some actual rules under which real families do operate, and show how they can be devilishly difficult to change.   

I will start with a very typical example that many of you might just recognize. Let us say that a middle aged couple had always operated under traditional gender rules and roles, so that the man had always been the breadwinner and the woman had always stayed home and taken care of the house and the kids.  After the kids grow up and leave home, one of parents, say the wife, decides that she wants things to be different.  She is really bored being just a housewife and decides to get a job.  

Her husband is actually really happy that he no longer has to be the only one responsible for making money, since that had been a real burden for him, even though he probably guarded the breadwinner role rather jealously. He, after all, had been taught in his own family of origin that that was solely the man's job.

The wife tells the husband that, since they are now both working, she wants him to start to help with the laundry, the dishes, and maybe the housework. He says he agrees, since it's only fair. We all know what typically happens next.  

He never starts doing the housework that he promised to do unless she specifically asks him to do it each and every time.  Never shows any initiative.  She finally gets frustrated having to constantly nag him about the housework, gives up, and angrilly starts to again do the housework all by herself. The husband is a typical male chauvinist pig, right? Wrong.  

What happened when he first started doing, say, the dishes?  What happened was that she kept telling him he was not doing it right!  He was putting them in the wrong cupboard, he was missing a spot or two, he was using the wrong detergent, whatever. The husband starts to think that maybe she really wants to continue to be in charge of the kitchen, like she always has been, and does not really want him there in spite of her request. 

He will not tell her of this belief, because he knows she will get angry with him and deny it. Unbeknownst to him, she is secretly feeling vaguely guilty about making him do the housework, because she was raised in her own family of origin to believe that doing so was the woman's job, and she is therefore guilty of derilection of duty.  She will not admit this to her husband, because she really does want him to help with the housework, despite her overall ambivalence about it.

From her perspective, he keeps doing a poor job in order to get her to take over the tasks again because of his own selfish wish to avoid housework, not because he might think she really wants to keep doing it herself.  After all, she thinks, he actually does know what soap to use, where they keep the dishes, and that what he is doing is a poor job. He just acts like he does not. In actual fact he does indeed know these things when he acts that way — but only does it because he thinks she's just looking for an excuse to nitpick so she can take over.  


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When she does nitpick, that convinces him even more that the real reason she nitpicks is because she wants to remain in charge of the house. Still with me? This situation is all the more complicated because all these events, mixed signals, thinking about the motives of the other person in the relationship, etc. go on simultaneously. They do not follow sequentially one after the other.  

Understanding this aspect of human interaction was one of the most difficult problems I faced when I created my treatment paradigm, which I call Unified Therapy.  We are all used to thinking sequentially rather than seeing everything as taking place simultaneously. Systems theorists call this linear thinking. A leads to B which leads to C, etc.

Systems theorists, on the other hand, see what is going on as a feedback loop - like a vicious circle - but that is not quite accurate either. The events in the feedback loop are thought of by systems people as sequential even as each even feeds back into the next.  A leads to B which leads to A1 which leads to B1, etc.

The mutual (two-way) and simultaneous nature of human interactions is better accounted for by something called dialectical thinking, which I will not go into here. But why do the people in this situation follow the "new" rules in such a half-baked, irritating manner, when they know doing so will almost certainly elicit criticism by the partner?  

They do so because they already think they know what the other person really wants, so they are just providing him or her with an excuse to do what he or she seems to want to do anyway. With their passive-aggressive stance, they are also allowing the other person to blame them for what is actually a shared problem! They are playing the role of villain in the piece. So very thoughtful.

Here are some more examples of the game without end from Deciphering

1. A wife had been encouraging her husband to be more honest about his true feelings. Consequently, he began to express himself, but in a loud, abrasive, and embarrassing fashion — and in front of her boss. (Not in the book: he's thinking about the girls he knew in high school. Which type of guy got to go out with the most popular girls — the sensitive, touchy-feely guys or the macho football players?  Does she really want him to act like the former?) 

2. A mother finally got her twenty-five-year-old son to get out of the house and find a job; he opted for a low-paying job at a fast food restaurant when he had been offered a high-paying apprenticeship. 

3. The same mother got the boy to fill out his own tax return; he then claimed himself as a dependent so she could not claim him, even though she was still supporting him.  

4. A husband had been encouraging his wife to pursue her long-repressed desire to have a career. When she finally got a job, she chose one in which she had to work a different shift than he did. As a result, the couple never had any time to spend together. When he complained, she told him that he never really did want her to be more than a housewife. 

 5. A young couple encouraged the wife's mother to learn to drive after the death her husband, so mom could be more independent. The mother indeed learned to drive. However, she would never drive to visit the couple because, she said, they lived too far away. The mother would, nonetheless, regularly drive a similar distance in another direction.  

(She secretly believed that the only reason the couple wanted her to drive was so they could use her as a baby sitter). 

There is a relatively simple way for game players to end the game without end, but I will save that for a later post. 

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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