Squelching The Family Spirit: The Problem of Enforced Unity

DK: Enforced “togetherness” in families, though largely unconscious, emerges in the way a family tells its story. It is not a unity which augments family spirit, it restricts. The restriction serves a purpose for some. The need for protection is motivated by a history of trauma or too much despair. But often a family member, usually a child, may be sacrificed to maintain this appearance of group unity.

unknown-3Kurt Vonnegut gave us wry advice. He said: We become what we pretend, so be careful what you pretend. The way I look at the world, sometimes families “need” a child to be a problem. It gives them something to be mad about. There is security in having something to be mad about. But when security is rooted in anger, it limits the resilience and creativity that contribute to health. We are not only molded by history, shaped by events; we are pressured to be an extension of the history.

When a family talks about problems they try to understand them, and they often use logic to do so. Their logic shapes and restricts what they can know. The logic undergirds a narrative which helps keep uncertainty at bay. The story tends to be self justifying, eliminating the need for self questioning for some.

Experience in the present can be distorted to fit the narrative. “Making sense”of family upset seems to hold the promise of understanding, like a salve for a images-3wound. Creating a “coherent” story at first helps a family understand its experience of distress. These seemingly rational explanations for family suffering push away confusion. But reason also squelches imagination which is vital to health. Confusion creates uneasiness. Confusion in regard to personal relationships is felt by some to be dangerous, a doorway to craziness. This is especially true for families with generations of trauma. These seemingly rational group explanations provide strong security against meaninglessness and craziness.

Children’s behavior is motivated by worry about their families. Even very young children have good instincts based on their affect sensor-systems. They are like affect barometers. When the artificial “togetherness” is based on distortion or too much compromise, the children are disrupted and produce disruption, it starts with their attempt to grow.

In the next post I will illustrate what this enforced “togetherness” looks like with a clinical story…

Disrupting a Unified Family Story

DK: The Martins were referred by a pediatrician from a nearby city. He had referred a number of cases over the years because he found the way I work with the whole family helped him better understand the needs of his patients and their families.

Mr. and Mrs. Martin came to the clinic because of troubles with John, 13, her son from a previous marriage. His sister was Katherine, 11. Her marriage to John and Katherine’s father ended 8 1/2 years before. She implied her ex-husband was a difficult man. Four years ago she married her current husband, a Corrections Officer (prison guard at a nearby state penitentiary) and has a three-year-old daughter with him. John had been a wonderful baby and was comparatively easy to live with until he was around 9, when she started worrying about his behavior.

When entered puberty around 11, John  became an enigmatic problem both at home and at school. He didn’t pay attention. Sometimes ignored them. He did not always mind his manners. His parents punished him by grounding him and unknown-2he had spent most of the last year at home in his room, not allowed to watch TV or to play video games. As part of their sanctions against him he was not allowed to play baseball or basketball. I regard that as extreme, harmful, fruitless punishment for a young boy who is a talented athlete. I was not getting a clear picture of what it was that was so upsetting. He lied a little, yes, but it was fairly small stakes. He wasn’t deceiving them in a major way, it seemed more an effort to get them off his back.

During the session in my office John was a well-mannered 13-year-old boy, unusually well-groomed and courteous, sitting in the chair and listening, he attempted to answer any questions I asked him. That is not how bad boys behave in a family therapy session precipitated by the boy’s bad behavior.

His mother was puzzled why their consequences had so little effect, so was I. In the interview Mother was composed and thoughtful, a tall attractive woman who paid attention to her appearance; clothes, make up and hair. The stepfather was a quiet, sober small man. Not as tall as his wife. He was dressed in his dark prison guard’s uniform. He had an impassive manner, saying little, even when asked questions. He appeared a master of parental consistency and non-reactivity, perhaps a little too cool. I remember wondering what she saw in him. As a matter-of-fact, I asked her this question.  She said he was reliable and honest. I thought, “‘Honest’ but he sure edits what he chooses to be honest about.”

unknown-3John was cooperative during the interview. He did not know why he is like he is. He did not complain about his parents. There was no evidence of defiance in his behavior in the office. He participated in the conversation, talking about his family, but with caution. He thought about questions and attempted to answer them. My method in interviews is to depathologize the identified patients behavior and to contextualize behaviors , that is, to fit them into the family’s living pattern. The effect of this is to destabilize thinking patterns, to disrupt the logic on which their unified family story of  is based. The effect often is to elicit fragments of health in the person identified as the “patient.”

Mother was married to John’s father for seven years. He was a very abusive man. She finally left him when John and his sister were four and two. There was an inference that John’s father had been physically cruel to Mother. But she said nothing explicit it was only implied. Still it was hard to figure out why John was seen as so impulsive, so impossible, what he did to warrant the extreme disciplinary measures was not clear.

As we got to the end of the interview, “Any questions?”, I asked.

“Well what is wrong with John? Can you help us?”

“I hope I can help you. These are the kind of problems I work with. That is why Dr. Sebastian referred you to me. As to what is wrong with John, this may not make much sense, but I think he worries too much about his family, especially his mom.”

“Why would he worry about his family?”

“That I’m not clear about. I keep having the feeling you all are leaving out something important. And what’s being left out is probably what worries him.

“You should go home and think about this conversation. Then come back and talk about it. I recommend you don’t talk about the interview for 24 hours. Give yourselves some time to think about it.”

Mother was the spokesperson here. Her husband, the stepfather was poker-faced and taciturn, disengaged. I remember thinking, but didn’t say, I’m glad I’m not married to this guy. I caught her side-wise glance at him then back to me. I didn’t see anything from him, not even a flicker. “All right”, she said, “we can come back.”

I know now I had just witnessed a very subtle non-verbal communication between them. I know now when I was with them in the office there was a lot I was missing. They were being careful with me and I suspect I was gentle with them so as to reduce their subtle defensiveness.

In the next post I will describe how mother and father’s relationship is stabilized by John’s ‘misbehavior’.

“The Dangers Of Being Dutiful” from The School of Life

AB: Here’s another thoughtful vignette from Alain de Botton’s “The School of Life.”  While overly simplistic at times, Botton peers into the demands parents put on  their kids for dutiful behavior, particularly related to school performance. He notes that the source of these demands often stems largely from a place of fear, something I’ve seen over and over again in my family therapy practice. And I like how he talks about the importance of pleasing oneself in regards to career; he notes how valuing our own pleasure and creativity  is a key ingredient in making our “work” life a successful one. Agreed.



The Relationship Disrupter

AB: This is a post from a few years ago, but I think it’s more apt than ever. In her “Opinion” piece in the New York Times, Sherry Turkle, psychologist and MIT professor,  beautifully captures the isolation that accompanies our increasing addiction to our mobile devices. Turkle,  who specializes in the intersection between technology and humans behavior, highlights–rather mournfully–the stunting of emotional growth that occurs when we replace actual messy, demanding, person-to-person conversations with texting, Facebook and Twitter.

images-3I know what she means–-though I often feel like an old fogey when I complain about it. I feel slightly bereft now when I get in an elevator in New York and no one looks at each other any more, too engrossed in their phones. It used to provide a few moments of awkward enjoyment, being trapped in a small space with total strangers. So many potentially fascinating public encounters–on planes, trains, in cafes, have been sacrificed to the lure our our electronics. Mesmerized by our screens, the rich tapestry our our human connectedness–-and our awe of the natural world– may be lost unless we pick up our heads and take time to discover where, and who, we are.



Art For The Soul

Please enjoy this drawing by Relationship Rhythms friend, Anca Tiurean. Anca is a talented Romanian psychotherapist and socio-cultural animator. We look forward to sharing some of her art work with you.

She says “The other attached drawing is inspired by the verses of a Romanian writer, Lucian Blaga. I included his verses among the figures:

“When and where I was born into light, I don’t know. From the shadow, I tempt myself to believe that the world is a singing. Like a stranger smiling, bewitched climbing, within her core I fulfill myself with wonder”


More Musings On “The Nice Man”

AB:  Part of my attraction to the video “What Nice Men Don’t Say to Nice Women” (see post from 9/5) was that this was the first time I had seen this “nice guy”  idea addressed, in this way,  in mainstream culture. Before that, I’d been thinking a lot about this guy. I know him very well. I see him in my office all the time, as part of a couple.

It’s hard to think about the state of  men and women without taking into account the huge cultural shifts that have transpired over the last thirty to forty years. Sometimes, images-6when I see young men pushing their toddlers in a  stroller, I smile. It wasn’t too long ago that this daddy-baby scene would have been rare, and a cause for remarks. It makes me very happy to think of young children now being raised by Dads who are more engaged, more open,  at all levels of childrearing and family life. For the most part, young and middle-aged men are not the “strong”, silent, disengaged dads so common during the first half of the twentieth century. Today’s relationship dynamics have a more democratic flavor, and overt power differentials are typically more subtle, less overt.

But, alas, guys are still guys. And what I  liked about the video is that it suggested that men need to value their inner dog. The dog inside most guys deserves respect, or at least tolerance. Amusement is a good response, too.  To me, the most troublesome guys are the ones who deny their inner beast. I’ve seen many, many couples where the guy adopts a tame(ed) persona, but who does damage to the relationship in the form of an affair. He doesn’t acknowledge his beast to himself–or, God forbid, his partner–and ends up having crazy sex with a co-worker or someone he picked up at a bar. These “nice guys” rarely acknowledged their sexual or emotional hunger to their partner, or, if they tried, it didn’t go well.

True, the (too) “nice man” is  made, not born. And sometimes, his partner has–often inadvertently– aided and abetted the creation of this nice guy. But, in the couples that I see, the too-nice, too-polite guy proves, ultimately, an unsatisfying partner. (I’m going to use heterosexual language here, but I’ve observed the same phenomenon in same-sex partners.)  In the couples I see,  the woman of the too-nice guy is either furious at him, and kicking the stuffing out of him, or  depressed and isolated within the relationship. Often, these women are unconsciously longing for a man strong enough to respond when challenged, who cares enough to fight, who respects himself enough to take his woman on, when needed. I know this is true, because, as the couple grows during the therapy, and the husband becomes bolder and more “himself”, the wife typically likes this new guy and wants to keep him.

images-3Sometimes women in these relationships have, without intending, signaled to their partner that they didn’t want “too much” of him:  They may come to the relationship not fully trusting men, because of historical reasons related to their own family. Perhaps the men in their  family  were unreliable, or absent, or violent. ( Violence is a terrible distortion of the “inner beast” that we’re talking about.) Or these women may worry that the man will get the “upper hand” if given too much leeway.  Control issues. These are common scenarios I  see in my office with the (too) nice guy, who then operates under the mistaken belief that burying his needs, including his animal nature,  is a basic requirement to maintain  a harmonious household. As we suspect,  continuously buried feelings is the recipe for  ultimate disharmony.

In the video, the “nice man”‘s animal nature was presented as primarily sexual. But that’s only one part, and, in my view, not even the most important. The “nice man” from my therapy office, who comes in with marital problems and/or post-affair, doesn’t allow himself–and is often not allowed–the freedom and latitude  that come with enjoying one’s own self. The animal that I want to see in a man embodies  wants, needs, passion, compassion, being able to both win and lose, and, in general, the freedom to be oneself. To me, both personally and professionally, this is a guy you can trust.   That’s the REAl nice man,  in my book.








Reflections On the Nice Quiet Man

DK and Raluca Jacono (Raluca is a wonderful therapist/ friend of DK): We both responded similarly to the Nice Man video. ( See video “What Nice Men Don’t Say To Nice Women” from previous post on  9/5).

We simultaneously appreciated and disliked it. Why? Videos of this sort tend to simplify things, but that is always a problem in representing human relationships. It is difficult to capture relational complexity thus reductionism is needed. Hidden, veiled, erotic fantasies are likely only one bit of the “existential” libido living in the cellar of each human. They are not out in the open. Sexuality is merely a part of a bigger picture including eroticism and love. The three go together. In the inclusive bigger picture they are simultaneously interactive and always destabilizing on multiple levels. The video is too focused on hidden sex fantasies, too much Freud-colored simplification, too much psychoanalytic pseudo-clarity and causality. Too much linear cause-effect thinking.

We will try to do an augmented multi-dimensional view, but it will be over-simple in its own way. We are working on a relational perspective of the Nice Man.

We think it is part of our job as therapists to spread some psychoeducation too, and in fact this video is a great piece of psychoeducation. Looking at it more times helped us like it better. So it is important to pay attention to the dynamics of this kind of repressed/suppressed inner life. But what is its more dynamic dialectic?

unknown-2The video suggests that when his erotic fantasies are made known, hers will appear as well and that will lead to greater relational satisfaction, more vibrant relationship rhythms and intimacy. However in the film each appears to have concealed fantasies involving domination and submission; that is “control”. Here is something interesting from Paz’s excellent, but not transparent book, The Double Flame, Sex and Eroticism. He says, “Unlike the libertine, who simultaneously seeks the most intense pleasure and the greatest moral insensitivity, the lover is constantly driven by contradictory emotions…like all the great creations of humanity, love is twofold: it is the supreme happiness and the supreme misfortune….”

The lover is driven by contradictory emotions. Why? Love is fire, a passion, pressuring outside of control. Desire destabilizes. Thus emotional control requires the suppression of desire.

Sex, Eroticism and Love are dynamically linked and interactive. Sex is about procreation. Eroticism about pleasure, ceremony, playfulness. Love connected to both, is about finding the spirit of the other, enjoying the spirit of the other. Growth results in a freely creative responsible person, in being a freely playful person. A person who knows how to be crazy, open to surprising himself. A person whose involvement helps others be more fully engaged. There is where it starts again and it becomes interesting.

Initially, I (DK) voted against posting The Nice Man because I thought it too simplistic, the nice man sits on dark erotic urges and fantasies. Sure he does, but also the nice man can be a man who is afraid of sex, afraid of the larger category of intimacy. Why afraid of images-3intimacy? Because we might get lost in it, lose track of who we are. Our learning about intimacy comes from being in a relationship in which we are small and the other(Mother) is large. Too much. Mother is too big and she will swallow me. The nice man may be frightened of unleashing another of her demeaning rage episodes Or, he may end up overwhelmed by feeling responsible for her unsatisfied emotional hunger. Remember Amy Begel’s post Create The Partner You Desire (March 25)  where she pointed to how we create the partner we need.  See if you can factor that idea into the Nice Man.

So the sex eroticism love spiral has something to do with intimacy. But what is “intimacy”? We can take the easy (and/or truthful) way out and say it is not definable, or we can play with possible definitions, all valid in their own way. Narcissism and Intimacy (Marion F. Solomon) is an excellent thoughtful book about marriage and marital therapy; it has twelve chapters. Five chapters discuss Narcissism in detail from several perspectives. Of interest, intimacy is mentioned three times in the book (once in the title) but never defined.

The point is that intimacy is a subjective experience, not easily represented in a word construct. Likewise the word “love”. “Intimacy” is one of the most powerful symbols of interpersonal relationships. But its meaning is elusive. Intimacy might be the ability of two (or more) to maintain enough distance so that closeness is facilitated. And the other way around. This kind of intimacy is most of the time mutually enriching. Sometimes intimacy is mistakenly thought to appear with a certain kind of soul stripping, of pornographic (self) analysis or disclosure. Freedom of speech, for instance, does not necessarily facilitate intimacy. Intimacy is beyond language.

images-3What is a way to be intimate amidst sexual alienation? The solutions are problematic. Disclosure is often sado-masochistic. Voyeurism does not allow the experience of relationship, it stares at relationship. Nakedness alone does not induce intimacy, while intimacy clothes nakedness with the personhood of the people involved.

Some definitions or descriptions of intimacy:

  1. The world goes away in relation to you.
  2. Naked together.
  3. Defenses at rest, crazy together.
  4. I am fully me in relation to you being fully you. The intersubjective view of maturity goes something like this: we have a need to recognize the other as like us, but distinct. I am the center of a universe, and you are part of my universe. But I understand you to be the center of a different universe of which I am but a part (Jessica Benjamin, Bonds of Love). I love the mystery that is my intimate partner.

This is a bit of a tangle.  We hope there is sufficient sense in it.




From “The School of Life”: “What Nice Men Don’t Say To Nice Women”

AB: Here’s a rather provocative post from Alain de Botton’s “School of Life”.  We were a bit ambivalent about posting it. I don’t like the ending; it’s too literal. It concretizes the idea of uninhibited sex in a rather problematic way, for me at least. But I think this post opens up some of the ideas that I wrote about in the Alan and Sarah vignette  from the “Lousy Sex Life” post  (see post from 8/8). In that story, it suggested that a couples’ sexual duet is most  often an expression of the the larger landscape of the relationship. See what you think.

And now for some dessert:  Please enjoy this song by the wonderful singer Gregory Porter. It’s called Be Good.


The Many (Hidden) Faces of A Family

DK:  This is another story about defiance. I am referring to any behavior pattern that shields the Self from distortion as ‘defiance’. Thus OCD, anorexia, depression, ADHD can be viewed as a form of defiance. Defiance results from a collapse of fealty, loss of faith in leadership. Defiance pressures leadership to be more mature, more responsible. Reminder: Fealty is the loyalty those of lesser power owe to those with more power in exchange for caring.

It is important to understand in the effort to repair, there is pain behind the pain, a problem behind the problem a family brings to the clinic. We want to get some sense of what it is and how it relates to the present dilemmas. As I have noted the world of background pain is not a world of clearly definable concrete reality; it has the emotionally ambiguous quality of a dream world. It is a world that disappears in the bright light of reason. The crucial question is this: if defiance is the result of a collapse of fealty, what is the hidden pain or problem that results in this loss of faith in the family authority? The pain may be in a story, but more likely, the pain is in the process, in the living patterns. However, the family is not able to see these, and may not be glad to hear what the therapist’s intuition apprehends.   Concrete conclusions are usually a distortion.

In the following paragraphs I  sketch some of the troubles in the parenting unit that stimulate and perpetuate defiance. The family is not likely to define these background problems. The Unknown-4therapist may not see them, initially. Some of what we are talking about depends on intuition. Intuition is based on residuals of the therapist’s experience in relation to the family’s story. The following components are meant to help see into the system; to support intuitive seeing. This essay is a bit longer and heavier going than other posts. I hope it makes sufficient sense. I am writing for the therapist mind in the reader. Therapist is a role that anyone can play. Amateurs are sometimes as effective as professionals.

  1. The unconscious problem of broken faith becomes rigidly fixed and more severe when the conflict is based on something symbolic in the family’s background. For example, there may be an unacknowledged catastrophe fantasy; a fear of craziness based on the fact a family member a generation back, had a psychotic break and was considered to be schizophrenic. Therefore, in the family mythology someone else is likely to be schizophrenic. Or, perhaps, Father is 38, his father died at age 39. Thus Father has an unspoken fantasy-based fear he will die soon. Mother’s parents divorced when she was twelve after 14 years of marriage. When her daughter reaches 12 she may anticipate that her husband is going to leave her. These high voltage ambiguous facts feed the family’s fantasy life, create hidden phobias and influence the family’s decision-making and values. However, these fragments are not conscious enough to be included in the history. The result is over-caution in the family, related to a fear the catastrophe will occur again.
  2. The parents have unacknowledged emotional hunger.   Both of the following are symptomatic: 1.Over-functinong mothers of both genders manage all problems. Their gratification comes from taking care of others. But the over-functioning mother does not know how to accept loving from others. 2. Father is emotionally distant, and does not believe in “counseling.” His problem with “counseling” is that it exposes the hunger we speak of. As long as the hunger remains unacknowledged and unnamed, it need not be felt. The hunger we refer to is not easily acknowledged; efforts to gratify it may be received with hostility. It can be painful to learn of it.
  3. There is a sadistic component in the parents’ interactions. Father is a nice man with a sense of humor, but his small jokes cause your shoulders to tighten. Your body response is stimulated by his covert sadism. The mother takes pleasure in her daughter’s behavior. She sneers when she complains about her daughter. “She has to stay out late with her precious Hunger and sadism are often linked. The link is sometimes viewed as envy. Positive thinking and a fixed smile are symptomatic of covert hunger/sadism. The therapist’s point of view may be trivialized; another symptom of this mode of operating.
  4. A political position or a diagnosis takes precedence over personhood. The family or someone in the family may have a commitment to a political or religious position which amplifies the rigidity in their personal living; such as born-again Christianity, feminism, anti-feminism, or alcohol recovery. Or life is organized around a diagnosis. For example, mother has fibromyalgia, father has obsessive-compulsive disorder, or Bobby has attention deficit disorder. The rigidity that goes with the thinking patterns comes between the persons in the family, so that the cause or disorder takes precedence over personal relatedness.
  5. The family does not know how to play. They lack the ability to pretend or to be amused by themselves. Concrete thinking and the absence of imagination are culturally invisible symptoms of not knowing how to play. Any political or religious position, as noted above, can have the effect of concretizing values and interfering with the spontaneity health requires.
  6. The family is unable to stop playing. This is the flip side of the above dynamic. These families have a playful quality, perhaps too playful. There is no “off” switch to their playfulness. A witty remark is always required, thus, no one or nothing is taken seriously. The children’s behavior demands maturity from the parents, but, because all is trivial, no one is able to take and hold a position.
  7. Intimacy is viewed as compromising integrity. Some families have a limited capacity for intimacy. Showing love is a weakness. While they believe intimacy collapses individuation, we believe the growth true individuation represents is not likely when there is no intimacy. Unusual integrity in the parent can result in more defiance in the kids. This is a common characteristic in a family with defiance; their shared anger at the community is the bond that unites them. However, intimacy between persons is absent from the family, as if they are phobic of, or allergic to intimacy. On another level, a well-organized family may acknowledge their love for one another, but be stiff and duty bound. “She knows I love her. I don’t have to tell her.” This statement represents the fact of loving, based on the long term relationship and the biological linkage through the children. It is different from the life enriching feeling of being loved.
  8. The parents are unbending or unyielding, committed to consistency. There is too much “no,” not enough “yes”, not enough negotiation that allows new experiences or leads to changing perceptions. The one who says “no” is always correct. Obviously, if you don’t do anything, you won’t make mistakes. If you don’t spend money you won’t make bad purchases. “Yes” is taking a chance. Any attempt to live, risks getting it wrong. Getting it wrong is not the same as death. And Emerson told us that “consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds”. A common dynamic emerges when adolescents begin to individuate from the family. Parents have the fantasy that if they keep a tight reign on the child, life will be smoother, when in fact, the tight rein leads to more bucking. Adolescent defiance begins as a healthy part of development. We believe it is important to notices naughty behavior, it is not always necessary to do something about it. “Peek-a-boo, I see you,” is good enough. It lets the adolescent know you are watching.   Ignoring is one of the parental sins. But it is tempting to ignore what we feel we can do nothing about.
  9. The parents were parentified in their family of origin. These parents were 50 since they were five, and they have been parents for so long they are “biologically” unable to do anything wrong. For example, in a moment of insight, in the fifth interview, the father of an angry defiant son surprised us when he discovered his jealousy of his son for being able to be defiant. Father complained he was so good as a child, he never got any credit for misbehaving. The dynamic here is that he is covertly defiant but lacks the courage to do what his son does. The therapist suggested to the father, both tenderly and playfully, “Your son might feel better if you got a tattoo.”
  10. The family image takes precedence over family spirit. These families do the right thing, belong to the right groups, are well respected in the community, but when they appear for therapy the only family member who appears alive is the defiant child. This child will not settle for the plastic existence of the rest of the family, making explicit the duplicitous nature of the family. From the outside they are an appealing, successful family by all standards. Internally they are disconnected and remain together only to support the image. The community may force the image on the family when they have “VIP” status, such as pastor, police officer, teacher or physician. The family may be cornered by the way they are seen. Thus the defiant child may be attempting to free the parents from the demands of their reputation.
  11. The family is isolated. This isolation may be due to chronic illness, alcoholism, poor resources, family violence or shame. Isolation may also result from “VIP” status. The isolation is both protective and problematic, as noted above.

images-3It is important to know that what I just described exist outside of a family’s awareness. This is where a therapeutic presence grounded in clinical experience becomes so important. These features are components of our model for how defiance-activating processes work, based in our experience. The clinician must be alert to the process dynamics to get a clearer sense of the terrain. Awareness of how these family members interact not only with each other but also with the community gives the therapist a clearer sense of the function the defiant symptom serves. These underlying dynamics become clear as the therapist gets to know them better. As engagement deepens the therapist is able to see differently.


A Child’s Defiance: Looking Beneath The Surface

DK:  In an earlier post, Defiance in the Family: A Rebellion in the Name of Health,  I described our idea that Defiance occurs as a result of a collapse of fealty, or a loss of faith in leadership. The defiance occurs as a way to get the parents to rise up and become the grown up parents needed to help the kids grow up. Thus, defiance begins as an effort to restore failing family health or family morale. Of course none of this occurs by intention. It is in the nature of families, of relational systems.

images-3So what causes the disruption in the family leadership? There are obvious explicit answers;  no money, depression, illness, marital disruption, alcoholism. But there are other causes that exist at the symbolic or process level. These are factors that tend to be out of the awareness of families, but it is possible to call them into awareness. But bringing them into awareness means using less reasonable tools like imagination, therapeutic attention and intuition.

In The Symbolic Meaning of a Child’s Symptoms I used a case illustration to identify some of the pain behind the pain or the problem behind the problem. I want to take you a little further into my obscure reality. Keep in mind that in the matter of human experience, objectivity is largely an illusion.

I assume that all we refer to as “psychopathology ” is founded in relationship experience until proven otherwise.  This is an unconventional way of looking at the world of human emotional experience. Most clinicians don’t look at things in this way. Or, they may sense this is the case, but do not have the language to make use of their intuitions.

From our perspective there is a problem that occurs when parents bring a child to modern day mental health clinic. There, the clinician assesses the child. Our society gives boundless permission to talk about children, but very limited freedom to comment on parental behavior, or images-6the marital relationships. So the assessment, then the treatment focuses on the child. If it is a Psychiatric Clinic the psychiatrist may feel obliged to start the child on a medication by the end of the second interview. Starting the medications says, “You shouldn’t feel like this, or you shouldn’t be like this.” Starting the medication also suggests the problem is in the child. This behavior is symptomatic of a medical disorder and the symptoms will be modulated with the medication. Conventional Psychiatric thinking directs attention to individual persons and their symptoms. Psychiatric language is not good at thinking about or attending to context or to relationships.

Although a psychiatrist, I am writing not as a psychiatrist but as a therapist. My goal is to have an effect on your consciousness, to invite you to consider the nature of symbolic experience. Changing consciousness has an effect on what it is possible to see and to think.   A different way of thinking does not make other ways of thinking wrong. And, keep in mind, there is little or no certainty attached to this way of thinking.

This is going to be a little obscure. Take your time with it. “A symbol is only a true symbol when it is inexhaustible and unlimited in its meaning, when it utters in its (odd, magical) languages of hint and intimation something that cannot be set forth, that does not correspond to words. It has many faces and many thoughts and in its remotest depths remains inscrutable…It is formed by organic process…and thus constitutionally different from complex and reducible allegories, parables, and similes…Symbols cannot be stated or explained, and, confronted by their secret meaning in its totality are powerless (Tarkovsky, 1986).”

That might be a little hard to take. But it is a crucial idea. Symbolic experiences have an effect, but the true symbol evades description. It took me a long time to come to understand and appreciate this.

In conventional psychiatry there is little or no effort to appreciate what is going on in the relational system that might create the ground for a child’s behavior. Often it is not obvious, but subtle, suggestive. It isn’t immediately apparent but depends upon caring and attention.

I look for pain and the results of pain. So when we are attempting to understand the effects of context we look for the pain behind the pain.

images-7What we are putting across in this blog is that there is a common error in conventional mental health practices. The kid is defiant. He is being a ‘bad-boy” If he can be straightened out with CBT, by sending parents to parenting classes or teaching the child “skills”, good. But here’s a problem: the problem behind the problem, the pain behind the pain goes unacknowledged and continues to pressure family members and the pressured family puts implicit pressure on the child.

Most often the reasons for the problem are not entirely clear. In my next post I am going to offer some ideas about the origins of defiance, of the pain behind the pain of the problems behind the problem. The language of therapy is a different from the language of Psychiatry. Psychiatry is a practical language which attempts to say what it means and mean what it says. The language of psychiatry restricts possibility. In its effort to be clear, it limitations on what can be known. The language of therapy is more like the language of poetry, it opens up possibility. It reveals logic hidden in language. Changing how we think means changing the way we use language. The language is not definitive, it is suggestive, inferential.

When I start with a case, I sense the distress, and notice abnormalities, aberrations, but it is not clear what to add to it. How to see how they fit the situation. I have to develop a relationship. In the next post I will describe some of the factors behind the behavior.