17. AuthoritarianTraditions & Patterns - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
Go to content

Main menu:

17. AuthoritarianTraditions & Patterns

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

Cyclical behavior patterns, stuck patterns of behavior, stereotyped perception/lack of perceptual flexibility, lack of cognitive insight, and the presence of unacknowledged implicit values can come from authoritarian or authoritative traditions or patterns from the family-of-origin or cultural standards.  These characteristics may be arguably functional in the indigenous society or community of the culture.  There may be a cross-cultural or multi-cultural problem in a relationship when there is misfit between the individuals' respective cultural traditions.  The individuals can have sensitivity to some previous pattern, for example about power and hierarchy being duplicated in the relationship.  "Vulnerabilities can also emanate from ongoing organizational and power arrangements within the couple's relationship itself, in which one partner is in a subordinate position relative to gender, race, social class, cultural and educational background, or earning ability.  Balance of power is a fundamental issue in couples' relationships (Goldner, 1989; Goodrich, 1991; Walsh, 1989; Walsh & Scheinkman, 1989; Walters et al., 1988); when there is a skew in the relationship, with one partner holding authority or dominance over the other, one or both partners may feel vulnerable.  The partner in a one-down position, often the woman in a heterosexual relationship may feel devalued or without a voice and not quite understand why.  In abusive relationships, male partners may become violent when they feel vulnerable, regaining a position of dominance and control through threats or force (Goldner, Penn, Sheinberg, & Walker, 1990).  Because power differentials between partners are often unarticulated, mystification adds to the couple's confusion and distress.  In the therapy process, in addition to identifying the individual vulnerabilities of each partner, the therapist must address the couple's organization in terms of the balance of power implicit in their arrangement" (Scheinkman and Fishbane, 2004, page 282).

Benedict Wellington Thomas IV, known to one and all as Benny came from a lineage of historical and economic aristocracy.  While there were British aspects to his patriarchal values, he grew up with upper-class aristocratic models of male dominance and female submission from his father and mother, maternal and paternal grand-parents, and great-grandparents and associated elder cousins and great uncles and aunts.  He had been in the United States since graduate school in the late 1970s and had married a Vassar girl- a form of American aristocracy, and had become fairly Americanized.  However, he held firmly to the upbringing he had experienced relative to marriage and raising children.  Although Elizabeth accepted being the second-wheel in the partnership, she was a more independent thinker and did not agree with all of his decisions.  In particular, she did not like how he expected their boys to be automatons academically and socially.  She also had interests of her own that Benny expected her to set aside when he wanted her to take her wifely spot beside him at social, business, and political functions.  Benny was not pleased when she challenged him or worse yet, dared to contradict his edicts on what was proper for the children.  

Elizabeth's parents were not dissimilar to his as far as being American aristocracy, but they were and she was much more liberal about male-female equality and child discipline.  While she was growing up, Elizabeth saw her mother defer in most situations with her father, but when her mother felt strongly about something she would bring it up with her husband.  They would work it out.  Her father was opinionated but he respected mother's ideas, feelings, and perspectives.  He could be convinced and if not convinced, he was willing to compromise.  His discipline was based on setting boundaries while being sensitive to his children's feelings and needs.  Characterized as authoritative parenting, Elizabeth's father had a similar sensitivity to his wife.  Elizabeth, although never a bra-burning feminist expected collaboration from Benny around important issues that mattered to her.  However rather than being sensitive, when he felt challenged for one reason or another he reverted to authoritarian attitudes and behavior.  With the children, he became rigid, demanding, and punitive.  He openly said that he did not care what they felt, they would do as he said.  This often prompted Elizabeth to intervene on behalf of the children.  Benny experienced this as Elizabeth defying his authority as the patriarch- his aristocratic and God-given right to set boundaries, limits, rules, and expectations.  Elizabeth found trying to engage him in any discussion of pros and cons or alternative perspectives difficult, if not impossible.  His way was the right way and the only way.  Elizabeth's attempts to engage in American-style co-parenting compromise activated his authoritarian instincts.  It was not just his upper lip that was stiff!

In such cases, the strategic intervention to break an unconscious cycle of multi-cultural battles is first to identify the patterns along with their origins.  After that, the therapist helps the individuals to assess the functionality of the respective traditions for the new and evolving demands of their relationship and household.  "So, Benny… how's that working for you?"  His response would surely be that everything would be fine if only Elizabeth would listen to him.  "So, Benny… how's making Elizabeth listen to you working for you?"  Implicit with the response would be for the therapist to reaffirm his authoritarian role and somehow "make" Elizabeth comply.  The therapist should assert that is outside the therapeutic role.  Their challenge may be framed in a multi-cultural and cross-cultural situation.  The first option presented would be of for one to give in to the other which has already proven untenable.  The second option since the first does not work would be to work out a new model of partnership and parenting.  The third option with the failure of the first two options or unwillingness to try the second option, is to terminate the relationship.  Only when embedded authoritarian values and behaviors are shown to be unworkable- not that they are somehow wrong or somehow valid ("good" or "bad," "right" or "wrong"), might the authoritarian individual consider negotiating new standards for behavior for current needs.  

There are other potential indicators for considering strategic principles for assessment besides:

Cyclical behavior patterns

Stuck patterns of behavior

Stereotyped perception/lack of perceptual flexibility

Lack of cognitive insight

Presences of unacknowledged implicit values

Authoritarian traditions or patterns

Assessment and strategic principles for therapy extend beyond this discussion.  The indicators discussed can be seen as generic indications of relationship problems from different theoretical orientations.  Strategic strategies would not be the exclusive approaches to creating change, but may be worth considering.

continue to Chapter 18
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
Back to content | Back to main menu