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The Relationship Double Bind: From Frustration To Enlightenment

No-win situations in a relationship can lead to enlightenment.

Alexi Berry
Source: Alexi Berry

Damned if you do, damned if you don't. How many times have you heard this? More importantly, how many times have you said it about a situation you were in? This is called a double bind: the feeling that whatever decision you make, you are wrong. Everyone experiences this at some point; some are more susceptible to it than others.

In the '50s, double bind statements were one characteristic in defining the schizophrenogenic mother. According to this theory, besides being cold and emotionally unavailable as well as overprotective, the mother would also have a pattern of giving her child conflicting messages. These messages placed the child in a no-win situation and caused confusion and anxiety. This theory lost favor over the years, as biological factors involved in schizophrenia were identified.

Although the theory is no longer a prominent explanation of the etiology of mental illness, double binds abound in our world and affect us. These double binds are at once stressful, confusing, and anxiety producing. They can be damaging to relationships. Paradoxically, in Buddhist tradition double bind situations are perceived as beneficial in the search for enlightenment.

Human communication is complex; getting through life without experiencing a double bind is unlikely. There are many instances where relationships produce a double bind situation. One example is in the area of jealousy. Most people do not want a partner consumed with jealousy; at the same time the individual might wonder why their partner is never jealous. The non-jealous partner may experience a double bind as a result.

Another example, which has brought some couples to therapy, is one partner expects the other to meet their desires without being told what those desires are. This is evident when one partner says, "I don't want you to do it because I asked you to; I want you to do it because you want to." The expression of feelings is important in a relationship, but in this case the other partner is put in a double bind: if they do it the desirous partner thinks it was only done because they had spoken up, if it is not done he is not meeting his partner's need. And worse, if they don't want to do it, it may be considered an indication the love in the relationship isn't strong.

There are many people who have sensitivity to these double binds. Much of this is a result of childhood experience. Perhaps parents inadvertently placed them in double bind situations. Conceivably they received dual messages more frequently than peers, such as "I love you" when feeling the body language of the parent was rejecting. Now present-day experience reflects a feeling they cannot "win" in their interpersonal relations.

Feeling there is no acceptable course of action as a result of double binds can contribute to lower self-esteem, feelings of resentment toward a partner, or apathy. In a classic psychological study, when humans and animals were placed in situations where there seemed to be no correct course of action to remedy the situation, they gave up. The term for this is learned helplessness. Apathy is a dangerous feeling to relationships. Too many have given up trying to please their partner.

The perception of double binds in a relationship may simply be a communication issue; it may also be sensitivity to these seeming double bind situations by one partner. Perception is an integral part of any issue. Perceiving double binds may indicate some inflexibility in thinking. For example, every situation is not the same. What might be the correct course of action in one situation may call for a very different course of action in a similar situation. A more Zen-like attitude might be the solution. It will certainly lead to more flexible thinking.

In Zen Buddhist writing, the double bind is a path to enlightenment. Koans (unsolvable problems given to a student by a master) such as "What was your original face before you were born?" were to be meditated on until the student presented an appropriate answer. As there is no correct answer possible, the goal was for the student to become so frustrated in the quest that the ego relinquishes its hold and the student realizes enlightenment. Koans, according to Zen teaching, lead to seeing through the false mind of duality.

The goal for those interesting in viewing double binds in a more advantageous way is to first recognize the role of perception in perceiving the double bind. Then an evaluation of whether this situation is actually a double bind would follow. Is it possible you are sensitive to similar situations, but this isn't a double bind? Even if the situation is determined to be a double bind, it can be reframed through understanding that all situations are somewhat different. Another strategy is to be completely present in this situation, letting go of the past situation that resembles this one, and considering what your partner needs in this moment. The double bind is an opportunity for you to be completely present, to communicate more effectively, and possible to become enlightened.

Copyright 2011 William Berry.

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