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An Interpersonal Context for the Double Bind
Paradox and Contradiction
Responding to paradox/ Double Binds
An Interpersonal Context for the Double Bind
The double bind, as first proposed, was not described in terms of its function in a relationship. People communicated messages which conflicted at different levels and "victims" had to respond. A child was punished and then punished for expecting punishment, but the function of the double bind in a mother-child relationship remained unstated. It was something that just happened. However, implicit in the description of the double bind was a characterization of the mother as an individual; she was a mother who punished but did not want to be labeled a punishing mother. In other examples it was implied that the person imposing the bind could not tolerate closeness but also could not tolerate being labeled as one who could not tolerate closeness. In this sense the double bind was presented as having a function for the individual but not a function in a relatonship. It was presented as a product of individual motivations which were only implied.
Not only was the double bind presented as a product of the individual's motivational conflicts, but it was largely presented as a unid*ectional transaction. That is, the parent imposed conflicting injunctions which precipitated subjective distress in the child, such as panic or rage. The child might also impose double binds upon the parents, but these then would be unid*ectionalÑfrom child to parent.
When it became necessary to describe the actual interchange between two people and to describe the contribution of each person to the pattern of sequences which occurred, it was not sufficient to discuss a sequence in terms of its function for the individual or in terms of a unidirectional transaction. For example, it became important to note that the mother was imposing conflicting injunctions, but also to note that these conflicting injunctions were responsive to what the child was doing. If a continuing interchange between two people was to be described, it was necessary to postulate a function for the double bind which involved both people rather than merely the motivation of one of them. A mother might communicate the injunction "Do as I say or I will punish you," and qualify it with the secondary injunction, "Don't see me as a punishing agent." But to describe mother and child in these terms is to describe individual rather than interactive behavior since the "function" of the double bind when described in this way involves only the characteristics of the mother.
The research was shifting its focus of description from the individual to a system of two or more people, and the premises about motivation which had developed in the psychology of the individual appeared inadequate. To say that two people talking together do what they do to relieve anxiety, to avoid pain, to attempt to achieve a logical universe, to avoid closeness, or to satisfy instinctual drives did not seem satisfactory if one was attempting to explain the persistence of patterns of behavior in ongoing relationships.
Assuming that a relationship between two people was homeostatic in the sense that it was a governed, self-corrective system, the idea began to develop in the project that the "governors" of this system were the people involved in the relationship. Just as the governor in a cybernetic system controls the range of the elements in that system, so it began to be suggested that people in a relationship control the range of each other's behavior. This idea provided a function for the double bind which in cluded both participants rather than merely the individual; the double bind could be seen as a tactic in the interchange between two people as they each attempted to gain control of the range of the system.1 By imposing a double bind, a person can effectively prevent another from governing what sort of relationship they will have.
This control idea was first presented in a memorandum by Haley in 1956 in an attempt to explain the peculiar behavior of the mothers of schizophrenics. This memorandum suggested that ordinarily two people work out areas of their life together where each, to the satisfaction of both, is in control of what sort of relationship they will have. "This could be called successful setting of the limits of the relationship. However, they may come into conflict and settle the matter by termination of the relationship. Or they may become involved in a constant struggle over who is to determine what type of relationship they will have, as in the schizophrenogenic situation." The peculiar mixture of domination and helplessness evident in the mother of the schizophrenic has its origin, according to the memorandum, in the fact that "The mother of the schizophrenic is not concerned with who is boss, but who is to decide who is boss, and she cannot discriminate between the two. Such a woman cannot stand anyone saying to her, 'You're the boss,' just as she cannot stand an intimate saying to her, 'I'm the boss.' It isn't that she can't stand being in charge, she can't stand someone else deciding who is in charge," or governing what sort of relationship there will be. As a result, if her child wants to tie his own shoes, she cannot permit this autonomy because she interprets his message as a signal that he is deciding what sort of relationship they will have, rather than deciding that shoe tieing is in his domain within a type of relationship determined by his mother. "If the child of such a mother indicates that she is (or isn't) the boss, the mother must reject this message because it means the child is deciding who is the boss." Thus whatever the child does is classified as not the sort of thing that should be done. When a mother is peculiarly sensitive to having her behavior governed by others, she will even interpret compliant behavior by the child as demanding further direction from her and so governing her behavior. The only solution for the child is to qualify whatever he does as not done in relation to mother and therefore he will not be governing her behavior. However, he will then be accused of not being responsive to mother, and so he must again respond to her only to find that his response is rejected.
J Haley, 1976: As Bateson rightly pointed out when he first read this history, to say that people "attempted to control" was not a way of describing two individuals relating to one another but was putting a "need" into them as individuals. All description implies motivation, and it was exasperatingly difficult to describe a system motivation when the system was made up of persons.
This issue of power and control was always a problem within the project. It seemed to me that how much power one person would allow another to have over him was a central issue in human life. It was also a particular issue in our special fields of investigationÑ hypnosis, therapy, and processes within families, particularly the families of the mad. There was little or no research on power and control at that time, and in fact there seemed to be an avoidance of the subject. The moral issue whether one should or should not struggle for power seemed to introject itself into the study of the phenomenon.
I was trying at that time to shift from the observation of the individual to the observation of a system and to view a power struggle as a product of the needs of a system rather than the needs of a person. I still prefer that view and am trying to clarify it. I think it is misleading to say that an individual has an inner need to control other people, just as I think it is naive to postulate an instinct of aggression. When we acknowledge that all learning .creatures are compelled to organize (they cannot not organize, just as they cannot not communicate as Bateson pointed out many years ago) and that organization is hierarchical, then we must expect confusions in the hierarchy. At times conflicting levels of hierarchy will be defined, and at times the structure will simply be ambiguous. (For example, when a therapist assumes the posture of an expert and puts the patient in charge of what is to happen, the hierarchy is confused.) When the hierarchy is not clearly established, the creatures within it will struggle with one another. An observer watching the action and thinking in terms of the individual as the unit can postulate a drive for power within the person because he is not viewing the situation. I have found it most productive to postulate "needs" in the contexts individuals participate in, and I was groping in that direction at the time of the project.
The control idea was first published by Haley in 1958 in "An Interactional Explanation of Hypnosis." The project had been investigating hypnosis since 1953, with regular visits to Phoenix to consult with Milton H. Erickson about the nature of hypnosis and the process of hypnotic induction. Of particular interest to the research was the observation that schizophrenics and hypnotized subjects often behave in similar ways. This observation raised the question whether there could be a similarity between the ways a hypnotist induces trance in a subject and the ways a mother induces schizophrenia in a child (which was thought to be a possible way of looking at schizophrenia at the time). However, the investigation of the similarities between these two types of relationships required some way of comparing relationships; a more formidable problem than comparing differences between individuals.
The concept of double bind, as originally proposed, was not helpful as a method of classifying and comparing relationships. Although double binds occurred in the relationship between mother and schizophrenic child and also in the relationship of hypnotist and subject, such an observation was insufficient since double binds also occurred in other relationships. Additionally, when the double bind was applied to hypnosis it became evident that the concept was meaningless unless some motive was assumed for imposing the bind. Any postulated motive would be useful only if it was defined at the relationship level. With the idea that the hypnotist-subject relationship is one which centers upon the question of who is to govern whose behavior, it became immediately apparent that the hypnotic relationship could be seen as formally similar to the relationship between between mother and schizophrenic child.
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There is probably no more confused area in psychiatry than the field of changing people. There is confusion over what needs to be changed, confusion over the nature of the problem and the history of the problem, and confusion over investigation of etiology and tactics for inducing change. Central to this confusion has been the simple assumption that what the patient needs is to understand himself better and become more aware of the ideas he would rather not become aware of. All distortions of perception, emotional distress, and behavioral symptoms are presumed to disappear with such awareness; despite considerable evidence to the contrary and despite the occurrence of change without awareness and awareness without change.
The contribution of the project in this area was the enlargement of the description to include both patient and therapist and the introduction of levels into the analysis of the interchange. With this shift, other factors in the interchange appeared more relevant than self-awareness as a cause of change. In particular, the variety of paradoxes faced by a patient in the therapy setting as long as he continued with his symptoms appeared to be causal to change. Additionally, when the patient is forced to change his behavior as a result of therapy, he requires his intimates to change their behavior in relation to him. As a result, he sets up a new network of relationships which require him to persist in his new mode of living. From this point of view, individual therapy uses the individual patient as a lever to change a family system, and family therapy is an attempt to induce change in a system by dealing with all intimates at once. Whether the patient faces a therapist alone or conjointly with his family, he faces a situation which provides him ways to behave differently and by the imposition of paradox forces him to do so, with a consequent shift in his subjective experiences.
The project began in a period when a social scientist could choose one of two directions: the investigator could concentrate upon trivia with rigorous methodology and produce trivial results (as Bateson put it, "if it's not worth doing it's worth doing well"). Or the investigator could move into the abstract realms of questions of identity, human purpose, and existential philosophy. In the trivial area of typical psychology and psychiatry, there was absurd oversimplification. In the abstract area there was an inability to conceptualize the human being in a way which would ultimately lead to the documentation of ideas. The project sought a middle ground which was sufficiently abstract to deal with formal patterns but sufficiently conceptualized to lead to verification of hypotheses. The areas chosen to investigate were those important areas in human life which an academic social scientist would consider too formidable to inquire into: metaphor, humor, schizophrenia, hypnosis, family systems, and psychotherapy. Into these areas the project attempted to bring the communication point of view, the concept of levels, and theoretical concepts from related disciplines. The project drew upon the terminology of artificial languages and the field of semantics, the language of ethology, the ideas of kinesics and linguistics, Information Theory, Game Theory, and ideas from cybernetics about homeostatic systems. The hope was to achieve a rigorous description of important areas in human life. The exasperation came with the absence of adequate analogies to deal with the problems of multilevel patterns in human communication systems.
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Paradox and Contradiction
It is essential to distinguish between paradox and other kinds of contradictions and incongruencies since the double bind is so often interpreted as meaning inconsistent communication or contradictory messages and the like. Unless such definitions further specifiy that the contradiction occurs between different levels of abstraction, or different logical types, the definition is one of simple contradiction rather than paradox. A qualitatively different feature of paradox is its reflexivenessÑthe invalidation of its referents by itselfÑso long as one remains conceptually within the frame posed by paradox.
Watzlawick, who has repeatedly reminded double bind investigators of the importance of this distinction (Watzlawick 1963, 1965; Watzlawick et al. 1967) offers the following example to illustrate this crucial distinction: With a pair of contradictory orders such as "Stop" and "No Stopping Anytime," one may choose to obey one or the other, though the unchosen will of course be disobeyed. With paradox, however, there is essentially no choice, though there is the illusion of choice: e.g., a sign which reads "Ignore this Sign. " In this illusion lies the difficulty, since it is not simply that you will be wrong whatever you do, but that you cannot really do anything at all.
Contradictions and conflicts of the type called "simple" can be difficult and harrowing; the distinction drawn here is not intended to minimize their disrupting effects. They do not, however, have the peculiarly paralyzing effects of paradox, wherein a perpetual oscillation between nonexistent alternatives is set in motion. It is something like turning on the light to better inspect the dark; you simply cannot do it.
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Responding to paradox/Double Binds
Attempting to respond to paradox within the terms posed by the paradox itself invites, in Russell's language, vicious circle reasoning; in double bind language, it leaves one trapped in a bind. Double bind theorists say that such a response is necessarily as paradoxical as the situation which elicits it; thus a self-perpetuating and mutually binding interaction pattern evolves (Bateson et al. 1963; Jackson 1965; Watzlawick 1963; Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson 1967; Weakland and Jackson 1958). To illustrate, consider the entire class of injunctions commanding behavior which by definition can only be spontaneous, e.g., "Be independent." The basic injunction is that Xbe independent. The statement is an order, and thus evokes a response which will in that context be a response to an order. It is paradoxical in that independence cannot be ordered; to obey is to disobey. The injunction implies alternatives which are nonexistent; it implies by its assertion that it is somehow possible to respond with the requested behavior. Any response within that context is invalidated by being subject to redefinition at another level.
Responding to that injunction within its paradoxical frame can be illustrated with a reply such as "Okay, tell me how" or "I'd love to be independent but you won't ever give me a chance," or even simply "Okay." These replies respond to the literal content of the injunction; they are expressed intentions of willingness to obey. The intention is however invalidated by the dependence inherent in the willingness to obey the order. A refusal is similarly subject to redefinition such that it becomes its own opposite; an angry "I will not" or even passive resistance belies dependence in spite of the overt stand for independence. Such responses can, hopefully, be recognized as the sort which feeds into a vicious circle within which both parties to the interaction will be quite trapped. The pattern can be expected to continue indefinitely until or unless one party recognizes the basic inconguity in the situation and extricates himself or herself accordingly. Lest this example sound like a one-way infliction of a bind from a binder upon a victim, consider the nature of the relationship within which such a statement comes to be made. One party feels the other is too dependent, wishes the other would be more independent, and eventually feels driven by the overdependence to make an explicit statement to that effect. The verbalization is generated by the relationship and is as much a reflection of the binding quality of the relationship as it is an example of a binding message.
The successful resolution to paradox requires, in Russell's formulation, awareness that different levels of abstraction are involved, and that the discontinuity between them has been breached. The paradox provides a particular frame within which there is no solution. Solution requires stepping outside the frame, i.e., recognizing a different logical type. The analogue with the double bind's resolution is metacommunication, i.e., someone must comment on the predicament, thereby communicating about the communication. The term metacommunication may be, as Wynne suggested (1969), an artifact of the concept's description in communication theory terms, and may put an unnecessary emphasis on overt statement. What is apparently required for escape from a bind, however, is some sort of recognition or action which transforms the insolubility of a bind within its own terms.
In this discussion, we have focused on the abstract principle or logical heart that structures an interaction pattern which may result in or support pathology. This whole business is a matter of the qualities of relationship contexts in which such interactions occur. We have artificially separated paradox, as the kind of contradiction, from the relationship, which is what is being contradicted or invalidated, for the purposes of drawing a distinction essential to the concept.
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In some settings, e.g., logic and mathematics, paradox has interesting and fascinating qualities which can provide nice mental exercise. When those qualities become disorganizing in the context of personal relationships, we begin to speak of double binds. In the context of a relationship, the relationship itself is necessarily a referent for all behaviors occuring within its context. In a double bind, the very behaviors which seem most appropriate to the maintenance of a relationship (illustrated in the example on p 115) are those which threaten to destroy it. Such a relationship is "untenable," and would ordinarily be abandoned by both parties. This certainly seems the reasonable thing to do. This is not, however, always possible; in such cases we must recognize a quality of dependence in the relationship which, as Weakland (1960), Bateson (1969), and Wynne (1969) have emphasized, is crucial. A child is dependent for his physical and emotional survival upon his relationship with his parents. The stability and intactness of that relationship is one of the basic, abstract, out-of awareness givens upon which the course of development is based (Bateson 1966a). Where such an intensely important relationship is characterized by patterns of this kind, the thesis is that pathology will result. Its nature will reflect the tenuousness in establishing and maintaining relationships which characterize the experience; similarly, it will reflect the more formal characteristics of the interactions themselves, i.e., logical distortions and incongruities, errors in logical typing, errors of context, errors of classification, confusions of meaning, disqualifications, etc., in other words, "schizophrenia."
This formulation proposes, among other things, that an appropriate within-paradoxical-frame response is necessarily a schizophrenic response; that schizophrenics are, when being schizophrenic, responding to the binding nature of the world as they have come to perceive it (Bateson et al. 1963; Haley 1959b, 1959c; Jackson 1965; Jackson and Weakland 1959; Watzlawick 1963). In terms of paradox, the individual has learned to remain within its frame; to leave it is to leave the relationship. The person remains in a bind to preserve an essential relationship.3
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Double Bind. The foundation of the communicational approach to family therapy. Carlos E Sluzki/ Donald C Ransom (eds) 1976 Grune & Stratton