Therapist Jay Haley talks about disturbed power relationships in modern families.
straightening out mixed-up family hierarchies—like the "perverse triangles" that forms when, for instance, one parent becomes allied with a child against the other parent. (For an account of Haley’s methods of dealing with these harmful alliances, see the box on page 3).Jay Haley is one of the nation’s leading family therapists —a quintessentially pragmatic man with a clear eye andsardonic wit who teaches his students how to make ailing families function again. Mostly, in his view, this involves
As a therapist who has been working with families for nearly 30 years, the 59-year-old Haley is eminentlyqualified to talk about the problems of the American family today. To hear his views, I went to meet Haley in the small private house in Washington, DC, where he maintains his Family Therapy Institute. I expected a rather formidable figure. I found a tall, rangy man with a graying mustache, western in bearing (he was born in Wyoming), soft-spoken, and wearing sandals.
We covered a range of topics: divorce, remarriage, the economy’s effects on families, the case of John W.Hinckley Jr. and his family. But always the conversation seemed to come back to questions that Haley considerscentral: power and family hierarchies.
f a kid is acting up or crazy, we know that his parents must be divided, that the familyhierarchy is in confusion.
"If a kid is acting up or crazy, we know that his parents must be divided, that the family hierarchy is in confusion."
Maya Pines: When you work with families, you must have some kind of ideal family in mind,don’t you?
Jay Haley: No.
Pines: No? Well, what are you working toward, then?
Haley: Oh, rearranging that particular family. You see, I used to do research on families, and I was astonished at their diversity. There are no many different ways to be a family. You don’t come out of that with an ideal way of how a family ought to be.
Pines: Didn’t Tolstoy say that all happy families are alike, while each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way?
Haley: I know the quote you mean. I don’t think Tolstoy say a lot of families.
Pines: He didn’t see as many as you did?
when you observe them, you see that there are tremendous cultural differences—Italianfamilies, Asian families. And there are big class differences between the working class, the miserably poor, and the rich. There are families in which people aren’t married. And familieswhere they were formerly married. Families where the kids are adopted. Families made up of kids from three marriages.Haley: Well, one of the curious things that happened about the mid-1950s was that, for thefirst time, people arrangedsituations in which families could actually be observed talkingtogether. Before that, we had only people’s reports about what they did with one another. And
Pines: What is the total number of families you’ve observed?
You know, there’s a theory that after you’ve seen more than 300 families, you begin to goHaley: God, I have no idea. I see them six to eight hours a day, all day long, day after day.
through a change in your thinking about the mature of human beings. Up to that point, you canthink about them as a collection of the individuals. But somewhere around 300 you begin to understand that people aren’t what they’re traditionally thought to be. That is, you really beginto believe that people do what they do because of what other people do, and not because of individual choice or free will. And it’s anunsettling idea. I remember that when the family therapist Don Jackson managed to communicate something of that to FriedaFromm-Reichmann, the psychoanalyst, she replied, "I don’t see how you can live with thatidea."
Pines: Then how can you tell who is influencing whom in a family?
Haley: Well, if a kid is acting up or crazy, we assume that the family hierarchy is in confusion.
Pines: How do you recognize a family’s hierarchy?
over the interview. We also have them talk to one another about the problem thatbrought them here, and in the process, their hierarchy begins to appear.Haley: By watching the way the family members deal withanother—who interrupts, who takes
Pines: What kind of hierarchy is there in healthy, normal families?
Haley: I don’t know. How would anybody know? There hasn’t been any research on it that I know of except through self-reports. But if you have a young person who’s violent, crazy oron drugs, one way to get him over it is to have a strong family hierarchy—to put parents in charge, sometimes in a almost tyrannical way. Now that doesn’t mean we believe that this ishow people ought to live. If you have a kid with a broken leg, you put a cast on that leg, butthat does’ mean the way to raise normal kids is to put casts on their legs.
Pines: What would you have done with the Hinckley family?
agreement, by God he’ll do it.""We’ve had families with a kid who won’t go to school. But once the parents are in
and get him on his feet and working before he left home. Often in families there is a kid whofails, who staggers away and wanders around the country. I think this has a function: It stabilizes the family by having it concentrate on him. And you can’t get him free of that situation by just telling him to go away and avoid his family, or having the parents throw himout, because he collapses and comes back again. You have to have him come home. Then he can leave home properly, after he’s started functioning in a normal way.Haley: I never met them, so I don’t know. Probably I’d have had the parents take the boy in
Pines: But how could the Hinckleys have made him function normally?
Haley: They could have brought the kid home and come to some agreement about what heshould do go to school, work. ...My impression from the newspaper reports is that the parents objected to what he was doing while financing his doing it—an don’t think that’s sensible.
Pines: He was pretty old for them to control him, he was in his mid-20s.
Haley: Age has nothing to do with it. It has to do with the stage of family life you haven’t got past. That’s one of the tragedies in many families. If a young adult begins to leave him and it
goes badly, they never get away from one another. It can go on for years—in and out of jail, inand out of the hospital or various programs. The parents can’t cure him, and they can’t get red of him. And often they get advice from a well-meaning psychiatrist: Throw him out! I think this is a grave error. Because he’ll be back. Hinckley will be back with his parents. They’ll be struck with him till they’re 70. Because it’s been mishandled up till now.
Pines: How could they have forced him either to go back to school or to work?