Intrapsychic Conflict and Dysfunctional Family Patterns

Severe ambivalence in parents can lead to extreme behavior in their children.

Posted Apr 10, 2017

 Wikimedia commons, public domain
Source: Source: Wikimedia commons, public domain

Few studies have looked at how personality problems may be passed down from one generation to the next. The emphasis of studies today is mostly on biogenetic factors. 

However, the few studies that have been done on that subject generally show similar patterns. Although there is never a one to one correlation (because people’s development is affected by the chaotic interactions of thousands of different variables – genetic, biological, interpersonal, and sociological), certain issues are highly likely to be passed down.

Examples of studies that looked at the transfer of certain types of dysfunctional patterns from one generation show, include:

Boundary disturbances such as maternal over-protection or relationships characterized by lack of affection, enmeshment, and/or parent/child role-reversals (Jacobvitz et. al., Development and Psychopathology); emotional instability with poor disciplining skills with children (Kim et. al., Journal of Family Psychology); substance abuse combined with child abuse and/or neglect; and low levels of family competence (Sheridan, Child Abuse and Neglect).

In order to understand the process by which these types of patterns are passed down, incorporating and modifying concepts from different "schools" of psychotherapy is a useful strategy. In this post, I will focus on the relationship between two such concepts: The three-generational model of dysfunctional behavior from Bowen family systems therapy, and intrapsychic conflict from psychodynamic therapy. People have inner conflicts between their innate desires and the values they have internalized as they grew up within their family and culture. 

The attachment theorist Bowlby first suggested that intergenerational transfers occur, not through the observation of specific behaviors like “abusiveness” or psychiatric diagnoses per se, but through the generation and development of mental models of interpersonal behavior in the minds of the affected children. These working mental models are now called schemas by both psychodynamic and cognitive-behavioral therapists. The concept is also subsumed under the rubrics "theory of mind" or "mentalization" by another set of psychodynamic therapists. We can look at the subjective experiences of the involved children throughout their development.

Zeanah and Zeanah (Psychiatry) discuss the concept of organizing themes. They mention that studies show that abusing mothers tend to attribute more malevolent motives to their own children compared to other people’s children. More generally, they react with more annoyance and less sympathy to videotapes of crying infants than do non-abusive mothers. To think that these patterns would not be noticed or sensed by children through their daily interactions with their parents, and would not affect the development of their schemas, would be extremely naïve.

In turn, abusive mothers reported more threats of abandonment and role reversals with their own mothers than did control mothers.

These findings are probably the tip of the iceberg in terms of subtle manifestations of repetitive parent-child interactions, and as the Zeanahs say, “Patterns of relating are considered to have more far-reaching consequences than specific traumatic events.”

When Bowen therapists started doing genograms of their patients, which describe family interactional patterns over at least three generations, they noticed something that has not really been described much in empirical studies. While some children of dysfunctional parents had problems that were similar to their parents – such as substance abuse – other children seemed to have developed behavior patterns that were exactly the opposite – they became teetotalers!

I have seen this sort of thing many times while taking genogram-related family histories from my own patients. One son of a workaholic will also be a workaholic, while his brother becomes a complete slacker who cannot seem to hang on to a job, or who does not even bother to look for one and goes on disability of some sort. Or who is enabled by the workaholic father.

In fact, in some families one generation has a lot of alcoholics, the next generation a lot of teetotalers, and the third generation goes back to having a lot of alcoholics. Or impressive successes in one generation are followed by remarkable failures in the next. McGoldrick and Gerson, in their book Genograms in Family Assessment, traced the genograms of some famous people like Eugene O’Neill and Elizabeth Blackwell and readily found such patterns.

If these sorts of issues were entirely genetic, it would be difficult to explain how progeny of the same parents could be so completely opposite from one another, as well as completely opposite from their own parents. So what might be going on psychologically within people that might lead to interpersonal behavior with their own children that generates such bizarre patterns?

This is where intrapsychic conflict may come in. Say a father was a young adult during the Great Depression of the 1930s. He had grown up feeling that work defined him, and that he was obligated to keep his nose to the grindstone in order to support his family. He was lucky enough to have a job, but his boss made his life miserable. He could not quit because he would not be able to get another job, and therefore he began to subconsciously resent the very values with which he has defined himself.

This could lead him to develop an intrapsychic conflict over hard work which starts to tear him apart. He may relate to each of his sons in a manner that – very subtly – suggests to one son that he too should be just like him, while the other son is subtly rewarded for acting out the father’s hidden resentment towards hard work and self-sacrifice.

Likewise, a patient might come from overly-strict religious parents who had rejected any and all hedonistic pursuits, but who had preached to their child about the evils of alcohol in a highly ambivalent manner. Such ambivalence usually arises in them because of their having received mixed messages from their own parents. Their son may feel pushed to rebel, and therefore lead a licentious, alcohol-drenched lifestyle. Such a person often destroys himself in the process, because if his parents observe him being successful in spite of drinking, this would exacerbate the conflict in his parents and destabilize them. The parent's reactions would frighten him. So he becomes a self-destructive alcoholic.

His behavior would be sort of compromise. He would be following the repressed urges of his parents and allowing some expression of them, while at the very same time showing his parents that repressing the urge was indeed the way to go.

In the next generation, his children may “rebel” just like he did, but the only way they can do so is by going to the opposite extreme themselves. They become teetotalers. Their children, in turn, “rebel” by becoming alcoholics.

I’m tremendously over-simplifying this process so the basic outline is clear to the reader, but I see these types of patterns – with many fascinating twists and turns – every day in my practice.