18. Authoritarian & Permissive Familes - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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18. Authoritarian & Permissive Familes

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Roles Rigidity Repair in Relationships

Roles, Rigidity, Repair, and Renovation in Relationships and Therapy
by Ronald Mah

Authoritarian families maintain a rigid style and set of rules with highly punitive consequences for violations.  They prioritize control and high to complete predictability.  Following tradition and precedent enforces predictability and the family achieves a core need for stability.  Flexibility or change is counter-indicated by definition.  New is revolutionary and creates an anxiety of anticipated anarchy.  Depressed children tend to have dominating and controlling parents.  Such parents are less likely to involve the child in decision-making processes.  Controlling behaviors include "dictating the child's life goals, limiting the self-expression of the child, determining the child's choice of friends, and usually preferring actions that were most convenient for the adult.  The children were not able to express themselves, and instead submitted and felt helpless" (Pruitt, 2007, page 72).  An authoritarian model may be the norm from some cultures.  For example, Simadi et al. (2003, page 469) reference that "…some Arab sociologists have considered the Arabic family as a dictatorial system with regard to the decision-making process, in which the father or any other male member has the total authority over the family, particularly young members and females (Dahir, 1993; Sharabi, 1977)."  They continued however that it might be unfair to generalize such a description about the Arab family.  The assumption is that a dictatorial social interaction would undermine the egos of family members.  It would also affect the degree of satisfaction and achievement among siblings and/or between parents and children.  Yet, multi-generational extended family models also can have support for achieving satisfaction and achievement, as well as ego development.

Within authoritarian models, there may be greater or lesser sensitivity to individual needs and feelings, along with greater or lesser flexibility to meet those members' desires.  Greater sensitivity and flexibility would be considered authoritative parenting rather than authoritarian parenting.  In common with authoritarian parenting, authoritative parenting provides boundaries, but also includes sensitivity missing in authoritarian parenting.  Simadi et al, note that the Arabian family is not in a static state.  It may have greater problems and more conflicts than a family in developed countries, because of ongoing transitions in Arab society from a traditional to a more liberal state.  In addition, immigration from rural to urban areas complicates things as there are more and different cultures influencing the family.  Adherence to rigid rules and prescribed behaviors assume that the individuals and the family have the same unchanged environmental demands of prior generations.  Traditional response would be successful or relatively functional and not need to adapt if environmental change has not occurred.  However, by definition and reality traditional response is for traditional circumstances, and would misfit or fail for evolved or adapted circumstances.  The extreme authoritarian or rigid response denies both the reality of failure and new realities.  Or, it attempts to reverse environmental change.  Only some evolved or adapted response would be appropriate or successful for evolved or adapted circumstances.  

A dominating or controlling partner may have similar effects on his or her partner.  Such a partner may come from a family or cultural model of authoritarian relationships.  A military family could be an example.  Robert Duval plays the father of such a family in "The Great Santini," a movie based on a Pat Conrad book.  As a teen approaching manhood, Ben Meechum struggles to win the approval of Duval's character "Bull" Meechum, his demanding alpha male father- an aggressively competitive Marine Corps pilot.  Bull had developed controlling needs from alcohol, drug, or other out-of-control experiences at some point.  His way is the only way.  The controlling behavior and systemic atmosphere of oppression and insensitivity would have detrimental cognitive, emotional, psychological, and spiritual effects on others as shown on his children and his wife in the movie.  An individual client (candidates in the Meechum family would include Ben and Bull's long-suffering wife) that presents depression and anxiety, dependent personality behaviors, is unduly deferential, conflict-avoidant, and so on may benefit from couples therapy.  Individual work and support may be helpful, but will nevertheless need to be practiced and asserted in the individual's relationships.  The most intimate and primary relationship would ordinarily be the couple.  In the couple and couples therapy, a controlling partner may revert to authoritarian demands and rigid expectations.  The therapist should challenge that partner over his or her alliance to tradition or "shoulds" versus to the effectiveness of behaviors or the quality of the relationship.  Following authoritarian models, he or she may attempt to deny reality or force the reality to change to his or her desired version of the world/relationship.  He or she denies that behaviors or the relationship is not working, and try to force the partner to acquiesce.  The therapist should attempt to invoke and evoke greater sensitivity to the experience of the relationship and of the partner to counter-balance ineffective traditions or rigid expectations/demands.  Unfortunately, for someone such as the Great Santini, Bull's self-ascribed nickname or alter ego, entering therapy for relationship, couple, or family work would be inconceivable.  Neither would he allow anyone in the family to seek outside help.  That would risk losing control of family members and his control of reality.

On the other hand, over-sensitive or parents/partners that fail to set clear expectations and boundaries create permissive functioning or families.  Clear and reasonable boundaries give safety and security to children in families and to partners in relationships.  Without the comfort of knowing and expecting that more powerful and wise parents will stop or curtail self-harming behavior, children are left on their own to navigate a complex world.  As opposed to the authoritarian family where they are afraid to express themselves, children in a permissive family are more likely to express themselves, but express with anxiety.  Without clear boundaries from the partner, an individual in a couple cannot be confident that he or she is being intrusive or supportive, annoying or affirming, and especially being appreciated and welcomed versus being devalued and rejected.  Feedback is essential to stabilizing relationships.  Otherwise left on his or her own, navigating the couple or family, relationships, and the world becomes full of selfish anxiety.  "The permissive family atmosphere is characterized by family members with narcissistic viewpoints toward individual member's rights, schedule unpredictability, authority struggles, and unrestrained expressions of feelings.  The core purpose of the permissive family atmosphere is complete 'exploration through intuition' (Lee & Balswick, 1989, p. 95)" (Morris and Blanton, 1998, page 30).  One does not know if one has transgressed until after intuition is proved wrong, and only if an overt negative consequence occurs.  The partner or other family member may note a mistake without giving any feedback.  One is left uncertain that the partner or other family member has saved the situation for a later calculation of accumulated resentments that justify some passive-aggressive retaliation.  

Democratic families, in contrast are "characterized as including open communication channels, freedom of expression from all family members, respect for each other's rights, negotiation and flexibility in rule enforcement, among others" (Morris and Blanton, 1998, page 30).  These families adapt through a process of family consensus.  Growth and change are accepted and facilitated in these families.  Boundaries are expressed clearly and adapted according to developmental changes and as needed.  A rule or boundary previously appropriate and beneficial but becomes no longer relevant will be eliminated or changed to meet current demands.  A child will have rules and boundaries about sleep, play, and chores that evolve with maturity.  Partners will have rules and boundaries in the beginning stages of dating that change over the course of the relationship.  Some become unnecessary while new expectations may need to be codified in an expressed rule and boundary.  Finances and budgeting for personal discretionary spending and vacations may require variations in the financial developmental course of the relationship for example.  Saving for future needs as twenty-ish couples should differ from as thirty and forty-ish with college age children or as fifty and sixty-ish couples anticipating retirement needs.  Adaptation and flexibility based on sensitivity is a hallmark of healthy relationships, couples, or families.

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