2. Scripts & Ghosts in Relationships - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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2. Scripts & Ghosts in Relationships

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Ghost Guest Family Past

Ghosts and Guests of Family Past in Relationships and Therapy
by Ronald Mah

Each person develops over the shared experiences various key expectations and templates in his or her relationship with important other people- in particular, the intimate partner.  Important events including abandonment or abuse versus exhilarating validating or supportive behaviors will usually have greater influence in framing personal scripts.  Little did Pauly know that his was a role in Salome's personal script although ironically he could accept his tentative role in Hester's personal script.  Hester was a dumb animal, but Salome was an intelligent human being!  Yet, he was drawn into the role she had for him.  Analogous to a theatrical play, the members of the relationship play out their roles as determined by some relational playwrights.  The scripts or templates that develop during the course of the relationship will strongly influence the individual's expectations as to whether his or her needs will be met by the other person in the relationship.  Negative expectations in particular influence what he or she feels should be the characteristics of the relationship.  "Schemata are often at the heart of couples' conflicts (Dattilio, 2005a).  Schemata are typically patterns that individuals impose on reality or experience to help them explain it, mediate perception, and guide their responses (Young, Klosko, & Weishaar, 2003).  So often during the course of couple therapy, rigid schemata on the part of one or both spouses surface and interfere with progress in modifying negative interaction patterns within the relationship.  Although some of these schemata have their origin in various experiences that occurred during the course of the present relationship, others are drawn from experiences that an individual had prior to the current relationship" (Dattilio, 2006, page 360).

In individual therapy, the person often will present experiences and stories about the transgressions of the important person or persons in his or her life.  In couple therapy, one or both partners may complain about the other.  Or, in family therapy, everyone complains about everyone else (usually however, the parents have the loudest or most compelling voices).  Prior experiences earlier in the relationship are cited to predict current and future behaviors.  For example, Samit may believe that his wife is self-centered and thus, anticipates that she will once again ignore his needs when they have an argument about something he is upset about.  For some men as it was for Samit with his very traditional Muslim background, this may coincide with internalized family and/or cultural schemata about all or most women.  This can be from a paternal model or from prior intimate relationships in his life as it was for Samit.  Unlike some other men in his mosque who were from more liberal traditions and were also more Americanized, his family was from a remote rural area outside of metropolitan much less Western influences.  Unchallenged application of such models will distort the individual's interpretation of a person's behavior, character, and motivations.  The scripts and the "play" itself may be revivals of ongoing and historical versions of relationships from the family-of-origin.  If schemata are deeply embedded from family-of-origin experiences during the individual's formative years, the other person- specifically a partner and subsequently, the therapist will find them very difficult to alter.  "Belief systems that hail from one's family of origin tend to be very strongly and consistently reinforced and have been internalized during an extremely vulnerable period of life (Dattilio, 2005b; 2006), typically developing when a child is most impressionable.  Parents and other primary caretakers have a powerful influence on the development of children's belief systems, particularly when beliefs are conveyed in the context of strong cultural underpinnings" (Dattilio, 2006, page 360).

Family theory that incorporates previous generational influences asserts that an individual develops a foundation for interpersonal interactions and relationships from his or her family-of-origin.  Problems that occurred or existed in the family-of-origin extend into the individual's new relationship with another close person, a partner, and a newly formed relationship or family.  Arguments and fights or other conflict may have derivative symbolism and occur with greater intensity during dating, the progression of the relationship, and eventual commitment and raising children.  An individual may have not otherwise experienced these influences until the advent of the intimate relationship.  He or she may or may not be aware of the legacy of family-of-origin influences on perception, attitudes, and behavior.  Or, they may be aware and overtly attempting to apply them to the relationship.  The individual may be unable to curtail them impact of family-of-origin influences when they are dysfunctional or assert more intensely than anticipated.  This can occur even when an individual has no or very limited continued contact with the family-of-origin.  The individual carries the family-of-origin forth within his or her psychic templates.  Beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, self-esteem, and interactional patterns may be functional or dysfunctional for the new relationship (Topham, et al., 2005, page 103).

When two individuals experience their lives and relationship in a similar manner, there is a greater likelihood of relationship satisfaction.  Interpretation is more consistent between such partners.  Misinterpretation and inaccurate assumptions about what happened, intention, and consequences would both be predictive of and consequential of relationship dysfunction.  "I" versus "you" experiences of the relationship predict differentially from shared "we" experiences.  "Three studies have examined characteristics of conjointly produced narratives. Buehlman, Gottman, and Katz (1992) used data from a conjoint marital interview to predict the couple's subsequent marital status.  Both linguistic (e.g., the coded level of "we-ness" expressed) and thematic (e.g., Glorifying the Struggle.) features of the narratives were found to be associated with marital status 3 years later.  Similarly, Veroff, Sutherland, Chadiha, and Ortega (1993) reported that newlywed couples who were coded as using more relationship-oriented (rather than individual) emotional expression in their narratives were more satisfied with their marriage when followed up 2 years later.  Finally, Oppenheim, Wamboldt, Gavin, Renouf, and Emde (1996) found that couples whose conjoint narratives of their child's birth were more emotionally coherent and expressive had higher concurrent and longitudinal marital satisfaction" (Wamboldt, 1999, page 38).

Each person experiences the relationship from more than the interactions within it.  The functionality of the relationship can largely depend on the compatibility of expectations each participant brings from his or her family-of-origin.  If each person has positive schemata, sets of expectations, values, and behaviors, or a script that is comparable to the other's family-of-origin templates and models, the relationship or "play" will tend to be in sync.  "…there was a consistent pattern of associations between how the men and women described the relatively trustworthiness of their family of origin and their own reports about their family of origin relationships…individuals who rate their families, in general, and relationships with their parents, specifically, in more positive ways were coded as expressing their origin family environments as more safe, predictable, and masterable" (Wamboldt, 1999, page 50).  Wampler (2003, page 512) suggests that a family-of-origin orientation may not be necessary for all clients.  Working through family-of-origin issues either in individual or conjoint therapy may be necessary before lasting changes would be possible for the couple in which both partners are insecure.  "When both partners are secure, present-oriented therapeutic approaches may be more effective…"  Present centered approaches may not be effective if the partners' respective family-of-origin scripts have a compelling negative match.  The two partners can experience the same interaction from two diametrically opposed perspectives.  The family-of-origin issues would need to be addressed.

Jorge wanted his wife to serve him at the dinner table.  Anita resisted.  It became a huge battle between them.  The therapist may focus on the current situation and get involved immediately in problem solving.  This may prove ineffective however if other influences on immediate issues are not considered.  "Research on whether attachment style… relates to current couple interaction has the potential for further understanding of some of these important issues… how a person talks and thinks about past family-of-origin relationships has important implications for the current couple relationship" (Wampler et al., 2003, page 498).  Therapy may start with simultaneously or quickly examining past relationships that may have significant impact on the relationship and circumstances.  The therapist explored the origin and meaning of the behavior for Jorge and Anita both consciously and unconsciously.  In Jorge's family-of-origin- a traditional Mexican immigrant family, his parents had traditional roles with the father working outside the home, and the mother responsible for child rearing and household maintenance.  His mother showed her love and respect for her husband by serving him dinner.  Jorge wanted to feel loved and respected as his father was loved and respected by his mother.  In Anita's family-of-origin- also a Mexican immigrant family, her father was dominating, controlling, and abusive.  He had to be served first, catered to or else he could fly into violent abusive rages.  Anita did not want to be controlled and intimidated by her partner as her father terrorized her and her mother.  Anita interpreted Jorge's request to be served dinner, not as a request for love and respect but as an oppressive act of subjugation.  She refused, "Serve yourself.  I'm serving the kids."  Jorge experienced her refusal as unloving and disrespecting of him.  Both partners were driven by uninvited guests and ghosts from their families-of-origin: Jorge's loving and respectful mother and his loved dad, and Anita's dominating abusive father and her oppressed mother, plus the loved and respected Jorge he wished to be and the powerful respected equal partner Anita wanted to be.

Jorge and Anita shared the dinner table story basically in agreement on what behavior and verbalization occurred.  Each partner wanted the therapist to name him or her as the righteous one.  The therapist may have tried to negotiate the dinner behavior, but realized that the practicality of meal process was not the issue.  The therapist prompted Jorge and Anita, each in turn to uncover the family-of-origin experiences that colored perception of the dinner dynamic.  Expectation, meaning, and symbolism were uncovered.  When Jorge identified that being served dinner symbolized being loved and respected, he could ask Anita directly for love and respect.  He also could acknowledge his insecurity and need for validation from her.  When Anita identified that she felt she was being ordered to serve Jorge, she was able to ask Jorge to treat her lovingly and respectfully.  Jorge and Anita were then able to recognize that they had the same needs and were essentially asking for the same things: love and respect.  Once they got there, they could discuss the implicit meaning of their behaviors and communication and readily negotiate the concrete behaviors that served their now explicit emotional needs.  What did they eventually decide to do about Anita serving Jorge dinner?  It did not matter.  The fight was never about serving or being served dinner.  It had been about love and respect, breaking oppressive family patterns, and perpetuating nurturing patterns.  Therapy was not about problem-solving how dinner was conducted, but about identifying the uninvited guests and ghosts and getting back into their places, so that two partners could work out their relationship.

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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