Double, Double, Toil and Trouble Part II

In Part I of this post, I began the discussion of how children decide how to respond to consistent double messages about what is expected of them from their parents.  I mentioned that they respond according to three general principles of ranking the conflicting elements of the double message, and described the first.

Hmmm.  I find myself questioning your gesture

In this post, I will describe the other two.  Actually, the first two general principles are merely examples of the third, overaching principle.

Principle #2.: Children pay more attention to what adults say to each other, or to generalizations they make about various issues, than to any direct instructions or admonishment said to children.

For instance, a mother might verbally prod her daughter, in a compulsive repetitive manner, to get married - after having spent years telling anyone who would listen about what jerks all men are, and how unhappy she is with her own spouse (her daughter’s father). The degree of the mother's preoccupation with both the subject and her daughter's stand on the issue would quite likely lead the girl to the conclusion that her choice regarding marriage is of major concern to the mother.

Once again I will ask you to suspend your disbelief and assume that the daughter's appraisal of the mother's opinion, right or wrong though it may be, will be a major determinant of what the daughter does, regardless of the daughter's own personal preference. So what to do? The mother's negative comments about men, according to principle #2, would seem more important than the direct admonition to marry, so most likely the daughter would not marry.

However, once again, she will face criticism if she stays celibate. A possible solution is for the daughter in such a situation to end up picking a series of jerks with which to hook up, in order to satisfy both ends of the double message. That is, she follows her mother’s instructions and keeps trying to find a husband, but proves that her mother is correct about how men really are.

Whether she dates a series of jerks or actually marries and then divorces a series of jerks will usually depend on other relationship issues in her family of origin, such as what role her father plays in this family drama.

This leads us to the general principle, principle #3. When someone compulsively engages in repetitive behavior, family members will invariably conclude that this behavior is quite important to the perpetrator. In the example from principle #1, as mentioned, they conclude that mother likes to do housework AND complain about it. In the example from principle #2, they conclude they have to try to do what they are told while conforming the way they do it to the parent's apparent expectations. 

Far be it for a child to deprive a parent of a cherished role. In the first case, they will “help” their mother by making sure that she has plenty of housework to do, and plenty to complain about.

In order to do so, they may appear to be oppositional to the parent, but the oppositionality is merely an illusion. To borrow a phrase from Marshall Mcluan as co-opted by psychoanalyst Leston Havens, the medium of the total picture of the mother's behavior over the entire history of the relationship takes precedence over single element - particularly any verbal message. The mother's total spectrum of behaviors, in context, is more important that what she says on any specific occasion.

Keeping these three principles in mind, it becomes easy to see why oppositional behavior is so common in dysfunctional families. In cases where parents are ambivalent about themselves, they induce children to appear to disregard verbal messages in favor of some other factor.

This may have biological roots. Attention to non-verbal behavior preceded attention to verbal behavior in the evolution of social animals.


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