The Obvious Secret of Interpersonal Influence in Families

Family members can misread each others' motives when ambivalence is an issue

Posted Apr 21, 2014

When family systems theory came along, its idea that  interpersonal influence operates with feedback loops rather than in a linear fashion seemed to me to be a major step forward. However, perhaps because they went to the opposite extreme from the other schools of psychotherapy in order to distinguish themselves, they seemed to think that individuals almost did not even exist outside of their social context. Systems therapy pioneer Jay Haley pretty much said as much. Is individuality really just an illusion?

I kept coming across a major problem in the family systems explanations. Actually, the same problem kept creeping into explanations of human behavior from many of the various psychotherapy schools. They all seemed to be based on the proposition that people are just incredibly stupid. Somehow they believed someone could repeatedly get the same feedback from other people about the effects of their own behavior on both themselves and on the others, yet just not notice that this keeps happening!

Now of course, if one looks for evidence of people behaving stupidly, it’s not very hard to come by. But are people really too stupid to notice that when they act a certain way, they invariably get hit over the head with a two by four, in a manner of speaking. Maybe the first couple of times their perceptions of the chain of events might miss the inevitable connection between their behavior and its result, but can this happen when the same negative thing reoccurs over and over again?  If anything, I would think that being hit on the head repeatedly with a two by four would make the sequence rather salient!

So allow me to begin to answer this question by discussing the different perspectives on how individuals influence one another that are presupposed by the main therapeutic schools. Individual therapies tend to be based on something called linear causality; systems approaches on circular causality. A more powerful concept of causality, in my opinion, is dialectic causality.

For simplicity in discussions of circular causality, systems theorists have usually used as a teaching example an admittedly schematized version of a couple consisting of an alcoholic who drinks and a wife who nags, so let me start there. A linear model would suppose that the nagging or the drinking is one element which causes the two behaviors in question:

Nagging----------------------> more drinking (though this might be seen by analysts as a mere excuse covering up some “real" linear cause) 

drinking---------------------> induces more nagging.

Circular causality, on the other hand, would presuppose a sort of vicious circle with no beginning or end, although in fact all interactions must have a beginning, even if it is only when this couple first meets.


drinking----> nagging----> more drinking---> more nagging ad infinitum

The second model has obvious advantages over the first model in that it includes the obvious fact that both members of the couple are influencing each other in a continuous process. Systems theory would say that this creates a vicious circle in which more nagging by the nagger leads to more drinking by the drinker, which in turn leads to more nagging and so forth. But here is where the “problem of stupidity” pops up.  

If we assume that the nagger is not stupid, we must assume that she knows that her husband is, at the very least, using her nagging as an excuse to drink, and will drink more if nagged rather than less. The husband tells here so, and his behavior bears it out, so she would have to have to have the IQ of a turnip not to notice!

Conversely, the drinker knows that his drinking induces more nagging. If each member of the couple wants the other member to stop drinking/nagging, and I do believe that to be the case, then how do we explain the fact that both of them continue in such non-productive behavior?

More importantly, both members of the couple know that the other member is not stupid, even if many therapists do not, so how do they explain to themselves that the other member of the couple is inducing the very behavior that he or she is complaining about?

In fact, each member of the couple in this situation is not giving off a congruent message to the other, but a double message. Verbally, the drinker tells the nagger to stop nagging, and the nagger tells the drinker to stop drinking. The way that this is done, however, says quite the opposite. The nagger, by continually nagging in a situation where both of them must know that this is counterproductive, is saying to the drinker: go right ahead! And vice versa.

If we assume that these people are not stupid, then we cannot assume that this is just a vicious circle. Indeed, it would be more consistent with the clinical picture to say that the nagger nags in order to give the drinker an excuse to drink, and the drinker drinks in order to give the nagger an excuse to nag. A strange concept indeed! But how can this be?

Surely the wife does not want the drinker to drink, and the husband does not want to listen to his wife's nagging. I agree. So what goes? The explanation that I am advancing here is that each person in the relationship thinks, rightly or wrongly, that it is the other person who wants the relationship to continue in its current form. Each thinks this, because the idea is borne out by the context of the other's behavior.

The drinker, by continuing to drink in a context where this behavior is destined to bring out nagging, is in a sense "asking for it." You've all heard that phrase, haven't you? "You're making me mad, you're just asking for a spanking!"

What I am suggesting here is that people literally do think this; it is not merely a figure of speech.

Now, since both of these people are "asking for it," then they must at some level want it. This contradicts, of course, what I just said. I just said they did not want it. So am I giving you a double message?

What I believe is happening is that each member of the couple is actually of two minds on the subject. On some level, they are more comfortable with the relationship in its current form, but on another, they hate it. Now, you may ask, why would they be comfortable with such a horrible relationship on any level?

I'll answer that shortly, but first I'd like to point out that each member of the couple has no doubt asked him or herself this very question – but about the other member of the couple. Each correctly ascertains that the other seems to need the relationship as is, but they have not the slightest clue as to why.

If indeed as I am proposing they are both ambivalent about it, a direct question will probably lead to a defensive and negative response. These responses could range from the other person changing the subject or denying any incongruity even exists all the way to bashing the questioner in the face. In therapy, I found that because of these negative reactions, people have to make guesses rather than ask outright.

Because psychoanalytic ideas have become common currency in America, these guesses are usually linear explanations based upon what I call "bad psychoanalysis" (with apologies to Dan Ackroyd and Leonard Pinth Garnell). As mentioned, psychoanalytic explanations are linear and not circular or dialectic. The wife, for instance, would never in her wildest dreams come up with the explanation that the husband drinks out of a misguided perception that she needs him to.

Leonard Pinth Garnell (AKA Dan Ackroyd, Saturday Night Live)

Because each member of the couple always plays a certain role, each believes the other wants to play the role, when in fact, each is playing the role compulsively partly because each thinks the other wants it that way. The compulsivity of the behavior reinforces this view.

Both usually believe, and in therapy they will often tell you, that they think the relationship will end if it changes in the way that they each seem to want it to!  It never ceased to amaze me how often couples in couples therapy would say that if the relationship changed in the way they said they wanted, it would then end  They believe this not because of their own wishes, no - but because they each thinks the other guy needs it to stay the same. (They won’t say this out loud unless you know how to ask about it).

There is a vicious circle going on here, but it is completely different from the vicious circle postulated by systems theory. Each member of the couple sees the other person's behavior as self-generated, not realizing that it is, in fact, in part reactive to their own behavior. The more the nagger nags, the more the drinker drinks, because he sees her continued nagging as evidence that she wants him to drink. His increased drinking reinforces the nagger’s view that the drinker needs more nagging, and so forth.

This mutual and simultaneous influence on behavior is what is entailed by the idea of dialectic causality. Diagrammatically, it looks something like this:


The people are labeled Al, A2 etc because the interaction over time is helping literally to create a somewhat changed individual. Dialectic philosophy tells us that nothing in the universe is constant, change is universal, and even though we are always ourselves, people do constantly change.

Cognitive schemas (mental models of the world), for instance, are continuously updated through the twin processes of assimilation and accommodation. The diagram shows that A and B are continuously pushed further apart over time. The confused, mixed message picture within the relationship creates friction which eventually cause these people to move apart, a phenomenon called distancing. The relationship is co-created by the way each person in the relationship perceives the needs of the other.

Unfortunately, I must add one further complication in order to explain why the couple got started in the troublesome pattern in the first place. Circular explanations ignore time, and often genesis, but time is intrinsic in dialectic interpretations. The nagger cannot be nagging only because she is trying to please her husband, although that is a very important reinforcer. She must at some level be more comfortable with the role than without it, despite the fact that the role of nagger is so ungratifying.

What I am about to propose is that each member of the couple developed the role in response to a perceived need in the family of origin of each. Part of the reason that they picked each other in the first place is because they needed help maintaining this ungratifying role. These roles were described in previous posts. That is why each continues to provide this sort of "help" and why each thinks the relationship cannot change.

Each needs to play his or her role at great personal cost because each believes some disaster would befall their parents, or other important family members, if they stopped playing the role. For instance, Mother might become depressed, or Father might start drinking. We care about our families despite what we might want to think about that proposition, and the prospect of discontinuing our role behavior is indeed terrifying.