A Matter of Personality

From borderline to narcissism

How to Talk to Relatives about Family Dysfunction

Recalcitrant relatives have ways to derail constructive family problem solving

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Oh, how family members hate to discuss among themselves the nature of, and reasons for, chronic repetitive ongoing interpersonal difficulties they have with each other, in a way that they might then understand each other better. Doing so would allow them to find ways to stop the problematic patterns. There are several reasons for this.

First, everyone fears that they will hear something about themselves that is negative. Some do not want to face up to or admit to anything they may have done wrong. If they are already feeling guilty about their past behavior, they may expect they will be unjustly blamed or misunderstood or humiliated. Sometimes discussions about family dynamics elicit angry outbursts or lead to an emotional cut off or the silent treatment. Some may even lead to violence.

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All of this is true. Surprisingly, however, an even bigger factor in many folks' reluctance to discuss their relationship patterns is that family members worry that their thoughts and feelings about the other person will hurt that other person's feelings. They fear that the Other cannot handle the truth because of intrinsic weaknesses, or that the truth might lead to an exacerbation of the Other’s tendency to drink too much or to become depressed or even suicidal.

This reason for avoiding saying what you believe in order to avoid hurting others is part of what I refer to as the protection racket.

On the other hand, a family member might worry that a flat refusal to discuss a problem when pressed by another family member may seem rude or inconsiderate. So in response, people have developed a whole repertoire of behaviors designed to very subtly get out of such discussions without appearing to have even done so. Some of these strategies are so subtle that the other person often does not even realize that the discussion has been completely derailed and redirected toward a more benign-sounding subject than the one the original complainer had in mind.

This brings up another important problem about such conversations: the original complainers may dread such discussions themselves. They may have spent weeks building up the nerve to bring up the complaint, and are subconsciously relieved when the discussion is derailed by the Other. They therefore cooperate with the other family member's ruse. To prevent this from happening, those bringing up a problem for discussion have to remind themselves that, despite their discomfort, the problem really does need to be effectively and directly addressed.

This post is the first of a long series of posts describing strategies for avoiding the above problems so that family patterns can be discussed, understood, and changed. I will describe the most common strategies used by family members to avoid talking about dysfunctional interactions, as well as suggest effective countermoves to keep a conversation on a more productive, empathic, and problem-solving track. Much later on in the series, I will describe countermoves to more audacious moves by the other person to distance or push you away - those typically made by adults with borderline personality disorder.

Some of the strategies and counterstrategies I will mention may seem rather obvious, but it is amazing how often people fall for them and/or fail to implement the counterstrategy.

The posts will serve as a primer for what family therapists refer to as metacommunication. Mosby’s medical dictionary defines metacommunication as communication that indicates how verbal information should be interpreted; stimuli surrounding the verbal communication that also have meaning, which may or may not be congruent with that of or support the verbal talk. In other words, metacommunication is communication about the ways in which members of a relationship communicate with and interpret one another.

Metacommunication is not limited just to the lexical content of the words or even the tone of voice and body language that accompanies it, but the meaning of communication within the context of the entire history of the relationship. Statements and behavior from years ago may color the meanings of things said or done in the present.  

And often communication in dysfunctional families is contradictory (not congruent) - full of mixed messages.

I would also like to include within the rubric of metacommunication discussions of the emotional family history of individuals within the family as well as the family itself as a whole. Such discussions often clarify the reasons for misunderstandings, double messages, and abusive behavior by individuals within the group.

In Part I, I will discuss the most common strategy used by family members to avoid metacommunication - changing the subject without appearing to have done so – and suggest ways to prevent it. In future posts I will do the same for other strategies. 

IMPORTANT CAUTIONS Please be advised that sticking to the counterstrategies that I describe can be extremely difficult, so the services of a therapist who knows about these patterns are often necessary. For families in which violence and/or shattering invalidation of people who speak up is common, a therapist who can coach you in effectively employing the techniques is essential. Also, the advice in my posts is designed for adults dealing with other adults.  Metacommunication with children and teens is a whole different ball of wax.

In all of the counter-strategies that I recommend, maintaining empathy for the Other and being persistent are key. Empathy is different from sympathy. Empathy is the attempt to understand the feelings and motivations of others without necessarily condoning their behavior, whereas sympathy also conveys the message, “What you did was OK.” Condoning misbehavior on someone else’s part, no matter the provocation, is never empathic because the other person knows, despite any denials, that what they did was not right. Therefore, they know the sympathizer is lying, and lying is not an empathic act.

Strategy #1:  Changing the subject. The person avoids a touchy issue by diverting the conversation to something else. This one may sees pretty straightforward and simple to understand, but often it is more difficult to spot than one might think. Subject changes can be both subtle and insidious.

For example, a person may go off on an interesting tangent. A discussion that starts with someone bringing up a marital problem concerning the spending habits of the other person, for instance, may be led astray when the the Other brings up one particular recent but somewhat atypical purchase and how important it was to the couple.

This may then lead to fun stories about events that transpired over the purchased object in question over the course of the entire relationship. The original complainer starts to reminisce with the partner, not even realizing that the original complaint was completely deep sixed.

Other examples are when the Other makes jokes, or looks for something in the environment that seems to need attention right away and suddenly starts talking about that using a nifty segue.

The first thing one has to do to counter subtle misdirection is to recognize it when it occurs, and then bring the subject back to where it needs to be. Metacommunicators must constantly be alert to subtle subject changes, which often have an almost hypnotic effect.


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The complainer's first countermove, obviously, should be to directly change the subject right back to the original issue.

If that fails, which in many instances it will, metacommunicators should then point out in a non-condemning manner how the other is avoiding their concerns, and insist on returning to the subject at hand. If the Other still persists in sidetracking maneuvers, the complainers should step back and ask themselves why the Other is becoming uncomfortable, and then either empathize with his or her concerns, or, if they cannot find a way to do that, express puzzlement over the Other's reactions.

What the metacommunicator should not ever do is begin criticizing the Other for not wanting to stay on the subject. Remember, the metacommunicator has probably experienced the exact same discomfort and reluctance that the Other has when thinking about bringing up a touchy subject.  Why criticize others for feelings that you've had yourself?

Another, more annoying way for someone to derail a conversation through a subject change is through the use of a counter-complaint. The original complaint is not addressed, but instead the Others brings up a complaint of their own. This maneuver usually takes the form of a statement beginning with, "Well you..." or "What about the time that you...?" The original complainant is then cowed into discontinuing his or her effort to address the original issue.

Again, metacommunicators should scrupulously avoid the temptation to angrily criticize the Other for engaging in a tit-for-tat.

There are two versions of this strategy, each requiring very different countermoves. The first is when the Other brings up a complaint that is completely unrelated to the original complaint. In this case, the person should reply, "Well, that's an important issue for us, and I will be happy to discuss that with you later, but first I think we need to come to some mutually agreeable understanding on what I am bringing up."  One has to be willing to non-defensively do just what is promised for later on, of course, or else this strategy will eventually fall flat.

In the second version, the Other says something to the effect that, "Well, you do the same thing that I do, so how dare you complain about me?" It is usually not stated this clearly, however. The Other instead may bring up a specific example of the problematic behavior as practiced by the original complainer. For instance, if an adult child wants to talk to a mother about why the mother stayed with an abusive spouse, the mother will start talking about the complainer's relationship with his or her own abusive spouse.

This type of response usually leads to defensiveness on the part of the original complainer, which then leads to an argument instead of effective problem solving. An effective countermove for this is to acknowledge the legitimacy of the comparison, if it is in fact legitimate.

Although there may be important differences between the behavior of the mother and the child, usually there are significant similarities as well. The complainer should ignore the differences for the time being and say something like, "I was not trying to rake you over the coals for staying with Dad. Isn't it interesting that we both seem to have the same problem?"  This situation can be turned to the metacommunicator's advantage as it can lead to productive discussions about how the mother and adult daughter came to be in the similar situations in which they find themselves.

The conversation is therefore changed into a far less provocative conversation about about a mutual difficulty. It is far more difficult for the Other to feel criticized if the complainants admit to having the same problem themselves.

Yet another way to change the subject is to make it confusing as to what the subject actually is!

Ambiguous language might be used by the Other so that the first person is not sure if they are both talking about exactly the same thing. In one case, for instance, a single mother of a teenager was discussing her son with her own father. The mother brought up the issue that the grandfather was only willing to help with his grandson's expenses when the grandson was living with his father, but not when he was living with the complainant. 

The woman, as a single working mother, had significant financial hardships. During their conversation about this subject, allusions to the grandfather's somewhat similar behavior when the mother was herself a child were injected into the conversational mix - by both participants.

After a while, it became very difficult to tell which of these subjects was being discussed at any given time. Were the mother and her father talking about themselves, or about the grandson?  Most of the references made within the conversation could just as easily apply to either one.

Again, spotting the confusion through understanding the analogies is the first step in separating out the ambiguous references so that the pair can discuss a single pattern (that probably started when the mother was a child and is continuing in an altered form in their current relationship whenever the needs of the grandson arise).

Another related misdirection strategy is to mix several separate but highly interconnected issues so that none of them is ever completely discussed. For example, one woman was in a complex family system in which her husband would find ways to distract her from her anger at her parents and vice versa. Whenever she expressed anger at one of her parents,the husband would do annoying things to draw away her anger from her parents towards him. Similarly, when she was ready for war with hubby, one of her parents would act out and draw her wrath towards them.

The woman's genogram revealed that the problems in this system were related to gender issues (whether men should take care of women or women should pursue independence), concerns regarding the adequacy of males in the family to take care of their women (her husband felt that he was supposed to protect his wife but felt inadequate to do so and angry about "having" to shoulder the responsibility) and even class (how much money was being brought in).

The discussion would change from one of these aspects of the problem to another at the drop of a hat. Because the aspects were all so interconnected it was indeed difficult to talk about any one of them without talking about the others. For examply, when the issue of the husband's adequacy came up, the issue of why he was like that would also arise. Because the subject of any conversation jumped around, however, any conversations about the issue would end up going in circles with nothing being resolved.

Lost in the mix of subjects in particular was the basic underlying pattern: family members constantly triangulating themselves into other discordant family relationships.

In some relationships, large numbers of related issues are brought up in a sequence. By the time the pair gets done with the last one, the arguments about the first one have already been forgotten. That first subject is then brought up, and the sequence begins all over again. It repeats ad nauseum.

Again, the most important countermaneuver in these situations is to recognize what is happening. The original complainant should then bring up the fact that there are several related issues, acknowledge that dividing them up is somewhat artificial because they are so intertwined, but request that they do so anyway before going off on a tangent.

Alternatively, the metacommunicator might bring up the underlying, overall pattern and refuse to get drawn into discussions about any particular issue that was the subject matter of a conflict between any two family members at a given moment in time.  This is easier said than done, by the way, but hardly impossible.

If that does not work, then once again the complainants should follow the steps discussed earlier in this post: first point out in a non-condemning manner how the other is avoiding a subject and insist on returning to the subject at hand. If nothing changes, the complainers should next step back and ask themselves why the Other is becoming uncomfortable, and then either empathize with his or her concerns or express puzzlement over the Other's reactions.

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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