1. Sequence & Hierarchy - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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1. Sequence & Hierarchy

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Out Monkey Trap- Breaking Cycles Rel

Out of the Monkey Trap, Breaking Negative Cycles for Relationships and Therapy
by Ronald Mah

Strategic theory has fundamental premises about how negative behavior within a family happens in a sequence of behaviors that cycle over and over.  Dysfunctional behaviors happen in a sequence or hierarchy.  An action or comment elicits another behavior, which in turn triggers another reaction that draws another response in an unending cycle.  Strategic principles hold that any interruption in the cycle of behaviors creates the potential for new and more functional responses.  A more functional but still dysfunctional behavior may be elicited in an incremental process to achieve functionality.  Positive behavior results when members of a family can chose to or be lead in therapy to interrupt the toxic hierarchy of behaviors.  Individuals, couples, or families that present for therapy often have been in dysfunctional patterns of behavior that have cycled over and over for years. Actuality, the dysfunctional patterns of behavior may have cycled over generations and hundreds of years when they are from the culture of origin.  These dysfunctional patterns may not be dysfunctional per se, but dysfunctional because they are no longer reflective of the current circumstances, context, or society the individual, couple, o family now exists in.  In other words, the patterns may have been more or less functional in the previous society, but no longer are functional because of immigration or the evolution of society… or because of marriage! Occasionally (far too infrequently!), an individual, couple, or family will present at the first experiences of dysfunctionality.  For example, the individual, partners, or family members may have hurt another or each other emotionally, and come to therapy early before the pattern has repeated too often.  These can be very fulfilling clients to work with.  They are often very receptive and compliant to therapy, because they do not yet have the depth of injury, bitterness, resentment, and withdrawal that have replicated pain for years in an older relationship.  However, such individuals, couples, or families probably did not need a particularly skillful therapist (or, one at all) in the first place!  A highly skilled therapist however is often needed to help the individual, couple, or family who is stuck intervene or break up the repeated patterns of dysfunction- perhaps, almost in any manner possible.

"In his longitudinal research, Gottman (1999) has looked at circular patterns in terms of the emotional ecology of marriage, finding that marriages are more likely to fail when cycles of negativity predominate over positive interactions.  Authors using varied relational approaches (Bergman & Surrey, 1994; Fishbane, 1998, 2001; Johnson, 1996) have highlighted the experiential dimension of couples' reciprocal patterns in terms of connection and disconnection: 'In an impasse, both people feel increasingly less connected, more alone and isolated, and less able to act effectively in the relationship' (Stiver, quoted in Bergman & Surrey, 1994, p. 5).  Over time, 'an impasse begins to have a repetitive spiraling quality,' and the partners' become less and less able to keep from going down the same path.  There is a feeling of being trapped or taken over by this habitual, stereotypical movement, less sense of freedom. . .  a feeling of being locked into a power struggle'' (Bergman & Surrey, p. 5)" (Scheinkman and Fishbane, 2004, page 280).  Genevieve and Dillard were trapped and had trapped their children as well.  Geoff was trying to escape from the family dysfunction but was headed towards other external dysfunctional behaviors as a delinquent, while Jenny was developing internal dysfunctional behaviors.  Not only was this family caught in a psychically destructive pattern, but Geoff and Jenny were at risk to further replicate the dysfunctionality in their subsequent relationships and families.  Therapy could have focused on interrupting the family cycle through blocking each of the children responding to the couple's stress.  This would not be individual therapy directed to remedying either of the children's problematic behaviors in isolation, but within their roles for family functioning as diversions to adult conflict.  If therapy curtailed their intervening when their parent's problems got out of hand, then the couple's conflict would possibly continue to intensify to a point of explosion and/or sufficient crisis to require one of the two adults making real change.  Or, therapy could focus on intervening and improving the couple's relationship so that neither child would feel the stress and any resultant need to act out.  Entry into the system can be through any point… through any opening or through any of several member-to-member relationships.

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3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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