Putting the Matrix in Action
I think the best way to see how the IM works is by using it to analyze humans in action. The academy award winning film Ordinary People offers one of the best depictions of psychotherapy and human and family conflict ever developed for the big screen. There is a climactic scene in the film that captures the dynamic flow of motivational states represented by the IM. The story is about an upper middle class family dealing with the traumatic death of the elder son Buck and is replete with themes of power, love, autonomy, and dependency. The mother, Beth, is an emotionally restrictive woman who dearly loved Buck and just cannot process his loss. The father, Calvin, is an accommodating, other-oriented individual who attempts to keep the peace. Much of the story focuses on how their son Conrad attempts to deal both with the loss of his older brother and with his mother's confusing, emotionally distant, withholding behavior.
When the film starts, Conrad had made a serious suicide attempt approximately six months ago and had been subsequently hospitalized for several months. He continued to have symptoms of post-traumatic stress and depression and enters psychotherapy early in the film, with the process focused on his grief, exploring his emotions, and individuating from others, especially his mother. One of the most unique aspects of the Influence Matrix is the manner in which it captures the dynamic flow of relational processes, both intrapsychically and interpersonally.
Here is the scene on YouTube. I encourage you to watch the clip and then read below the analysis, and then watch it again. The first few minutes offer a humorous portrayal of Conrad getting up the nerve to contact a girl for a date. The scene I will be analyzing begins about three minutes into the clip.
The scene begins with Beth appearing with an angry look on her face as Calvin and Conrad are starting to decorate a Christmas tree in the living room. Although Conrad was a good swimmer, he had decided to quit the swim team, in part as a way of asserting his independence. However, he did not inform his parents of this decision, and Beth has just found out about it through a family friend. Enormously concerned with the image of the family, she is furious with Conrad for the deceit.
"What's wrong?" Calvin asks Beth.
Irritated, Beth responds, "Why don't you ask him what is wrong? Then you won't have to hear it from Carol Lazenbee."
Knowingly, Conrad turns to his father and says, "Dad, I quit the swim team."
"Carol thought I knew," Beth snaps. "Of course why wouldn't I, it happened over a month ago!"
From the vantage point of the Influence Matrix (and Justification Hypothesis), by violating an implied social contract, Conrad has betrayed Beth and cost her social capital in terms of her image. This activates in Beth anger and indignant pride. Beth's goal state is to have Conrad apologize and submit, as this would at least restore some equilibrium in the relationship. The conflict escalates because, as a consequence of his therapy and getting more in touch with his conflicted feelings about his mother, Conrad is not feeling inclined to apologize, as he experiences her as cold and withholding.
"Where have you been every night?" Calvin asks Conrad.
Somewhat sheepishly Conrad responds, "Around...at the library mostly."
In a concerned voice, Calvin asks, "Why didn't you tell us, Connie?"
"I don't know...I didn't think it mattered."
"What do you mean? Why wouldn't it matter? Of course it matters--"
"No, that was meant for me, Calvin!" Beth interjects sharply. Turning to Conrad, "It is really important for you to try to hurt me, isn't it?"
Not having received an apology, and indeed being somewhat ignored by Conrad as he turned to engage Calvin, she attempts to punish Conrad by characterizing him as being mean-spirited.
Now angry, Conrad replies, "Don't you have it backward?"
Instead of submitting and avoiding as Conrad's depressive mindset had often previously inclined him to do, this time, in part with the help of a therapeutic process that had allowed him to access his feelings of anger and hurt towards his mother, he engages defiantly in the conflict, attempting to show that in fact his mother has been the one who violates reciprocity and acts to hurt him. As is often the case in intense interpersonal conflicts, both parties now feel wronged and have activated power and hostile frames that emphasize their own self interests.
"Oh?" Beth replies. "And how do I hurt you? By embarrassing you in front of a friend? 'Poor Beth, she has no idea what her son is up to. He lies and she believes every word of it'."
We here see explicitly Beth's impression management concerns. Her needs for impression management and saving face are apparent throughout the film.
"I did not lie," Conrad complains.
Lying is clearly unjustifiable and would put Conrad in a one-down position of being guilty. His anger energizes him to challenge this characterization. Beth responds by justifying why it is a lie of omission and then why she needs control over him.
"You did! You lied every time you came into this house at 6:30." Becoming visibility distraught, Beth declares, "It is starting all over again, the lying, the covering up, the disappearing for hours. I will not stand for it. I cannot stand for it."
Conrad angrily replies, "Well, don't then! Go to Europe!"
A counter-dependent claim, justifying disengagement and thus challenging her need to control his actions.
"Connie!" Calvin motions to calm Conrad.
Conrad yells, "No, the only reason she cares-the only reason she gives a f*ck about it-is that someone else knew about it first!"
Here we see, for the first time in the film, Conrad explicitly expressing his core concern that his mother doesn't really care about him, except insofar as it impacts other people's impressions about their family. Consistent with both attachment theory and the Influence Matrix, this core concern is at the center of Conrad's emotional disturbance.
Stepping in actively between them, Calvin turns to Conrad. "Now just settle down. Stop it, just stop it."
"No! You tell her to stop it," Conrad says in an aggressive stance. "You never tell her a goddamn thing! And I know why she never came to the hospital she was busy going to goddamn Spain and goddamn Portugal. Why should she care if I am hung up by the balls out there?"
Now Conrad's anger associated with his unmet dependency needs is flowing. He is finally giving voice to a dark, secret fear. It is also useful to note here that memories are categorized in part based on emotional content. Thus as his anger becomes increasingly activated he is flooded with past adaptive representational networks of emotionally similar situations (i.e., times in which his mother was withholding when he needed her care). It is also useful to note that his response to his father is telling. Even though he knows his father loves him, it is clear that Calvin's accommodating style left Conrad feeling unprotected from his mother's cold distancing behavior.
Indignant, Beth responds, "Maybe this is how they sit around and talk at the hospital but we are not at the hospital."
Ignoring the content of Conrad's claim, Beth seeks to regain power and control by reminding him of his 'pathology' and insisting that his actions are completely unjustifiable.
Conrad yells, "You never came to the hospital! How do you know about the hospital?"
The hurt and anger remain strongly activated.
Calvin again tries to lower the intensity of the exchange. "You know that she had the flu and she couldn't come inside, but she came and..."
Calvin's goal state of maintaining amicable relations is clear throughout this exchange. Here he attempts to justify Beth's actions in manner very different than Conrad's interpretation. It shifts the attribution of her not going to the hospital from Beth's lack of love for Conrad to external factors.
Conrad interrupts, "She wouldn't have had any flu if Buck was in the hospital, she would have come if Buck was in the hospital!"
Conrad challenges Calvin's justification with a direct comparison to Buck, attempting to demonstrate that it was not external factors, but her feelings for him that explains why she never came to the hospital.
In a cutting voice, Beth replies, "Buck would have never been in the hospital!"
Beth's comment is a searing poker into Conrad's heart. Feeling unloved by his mother, Conrad had spent much emotional energy struggling for the reason why. First, he wondered if it was in his head. Then, as he came to believe she did not in fact love him, he had to ask why. Was it because his mother was incapable of loving? No, because she clearly loved Buck. Was it because she was mean-spirited and enjoyed withholding from him? If so, that led to feelings of anger and hostility. But what if it was because there was something fundamentally wrong with him? What if he did not deserve to be loved? Core fears and beliefs about being unlovable are central to many theories of psychopathology. It was the fear that she withheld her love because there was something fundamentally wrong with him that made it such a searing comment for him. It basically says to him: "Yes, you are right. I did not come because I did not care and I did not care because you were not worthy."
"That is enough!" Calvin yells.
Conrad runs off to his room.
"What the hell just happened there?" Calvin asks, bewildered. "Somebody should go up to him."
Frustrated, Beth turns to Calvin. "Oh god yes, that is the pattern, he walks all over us and you go up and apologize!"
Notice here how Beth has power-related frames for the relational exchange and directly accuses Calvin for being overly giving and accommodating.
"I am not going to apologize..."
Cutting him off, Beth says, "Yes, of course you are. You always do. You have been apologizing to him ever since he got home from the hospital, only you don't see it."
Angrily, Calvin defends himself. "I am not apologizing." Gritting his teeth, "I am trying to goddamn understand him!"
Once again indignant, Beth replies, "Don't talk to me that way. Do you talk to me the way he talks to you!"
Taking a deep breath, Calvin attempts to calm the situation. "Beth, let's not fight, okay? No fighting, okay? Please, let's go upstairs..."
She stares back at him, but doesn't move.
We see in this exchange Beth attempting to maintain her dominant position in regards to Conrad and the situation generally. From her frame of reference, Conrad has acted irresponsibly and should have apologized. Instead, he was defiant, which justified in her mind that there is simply something wrong with him. In contrast, Calvin is willing to listen, understand and give the benefit of the doubt. Calvin's anger almost reaches a boiling point but he quickly regains control and reasserts the need to be amicable.
Calvin leaves and goes to Conrad's room. Entering, he finds Conrad on the bed crying, with his face in his arms.
"I need to sleep," Conrad whimpers.
"In a minute."
"I did not mean it," Conrad says sobbing. "I did not mean any of it, I am sorry. Please don't be mad."
The shift in Conrad's motivational-emotional tone is striking. Instead of continuing to be angry and defiant, he is now apologetic, fearful, and deferential. He does not aggressively deride his mother, justifying what he was entitled to from her as he had just been doing but instead he appears riddled with guilt, apologizing over and over for unleashing his rage and begging his father not to be angry with him. What could possibly explain the shift? This is where the dynamic control theory of the Influence Matrix does some of its most impressive work. Beth's comment activated a shame-based, forced submissive reaction in Conrad. That resulted in a flip in his Influence Matrix orientation from upper left to lower right. Having lost the battle because she struck at his emotional Achilles heel, Conrad was flooded with feelings of guilt and shame, and is now motivated both to apologize and escape the consequences of the encounter.
"I am not mad. I am just trying to figure out what happened down there."
"I don't know what happened, I am sorry about it all. I am sorry about the whole thing. Just tell her I didn't mean it. Just tell her I am sorry, will you?"
His feelings had been stuffed for a long time, for good reason. They were enormously anxiety provoking because they carried potentially catastrophic implications, either for Beth (i.e., that she was a mother who did not love her son) or Conrad (i.e., that he was unlovable). Conrad now just wants to undo the damage and restore equilibrium in the relationship.
"Why don't you tell her?" Calvin asks.
As if a knife pierced his heart, Conrad calls out, "Oh God no, I can't...don't you see I can't talk to her?"
"Why not?" Calvin asks, puzzled.
"Because it doesn't change anything, it doesn't change the way she looks at me," says Conrad, still covering his face with his arm.
Conrad's experiences of his mother's coldness exist at the core of his being. Although he longs to be closer, he does not experience the feeling to be reciprocated. Thus out of counter-dependency motives, he needs to maintain his distance to protect himself.
Trying to help, Calvin explains, "She was upset, Conrad. Your mother was hurt because you quit the swim team. I don't understand it myself..."
"No, I don't mean just now," Conrad's voice rises in desperation, "Don't you see? I don't mean just today."
"What then? Explain it to me."
"I can't Dad. Everything is Jello and pudding with you, you don't see things."
Calvin's nonconfrontational, accommodating style comes with consequences. In order to maintain an amicable view of things, he filters out many of the conflict-ridden dynamics of the family.
"What things. What things...I want you to tell me"
"That she hates me, can't you see that?" Conrad cries out.
Incredulous, "Your mother doesn't hate you, Conrad."
Despondently giving up, Conrad says, "Alright, alright. She doesn't. Please leave me alone." After a moment, Calvin gets up and walks out.
And here we see Conrad's central emotional dilemma playing out. Desperately needing validation from his father, but fearing his father's inability to recognize what he sees, Conrad obviously vacillates between explaining his feelings and pushing his father away. Finally, he blurts out his experience, but for a host of motivational and cognitive reasons, Calvin does not see the dynamic Conrad feels. Of note, later in the film, Calvin does come to see the truth in Conrad's claim, and it comes with significant ramifications for his relationship with Beth.