3. Compulsive Anticipation- Dynamics - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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3. Compulsive Anticipation- Dynamics

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Ghost Guest Family Past

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

Many if not most of individuals in therapy bring not only a history of dysfunctional relationships with another or specifically, with a partner or one or more family members, but also bring in a multitude of ghosts and demons from their earlier experiences in childhood.  While these are primarily from the family of origin, they can also be from other young experiences such as school, sports, and community activities, and cultural training.  There are often major transference, counter-transference, and/or projection issues between members of a couple (actually, in any relational dyad or group).  One's partner (for example, Jorge in this case or Pauly in the first vignette) is seen as the new abuser, the continuing emotionally unavailable intimate relationship, the still smothering and controlling person, or the abandoning and rejecting love object among other old and familiar hurtful roles experienced previously in childhood.  Or, current or recent experiences in life evoke the frightening symbolism of traumatic, abusive, and highly stressful experiences in childhood as it did for Anita or Salome.  A person will anticipate the prior "script" in his or her relationship.  As a result, may sometimes compulsively create the same dynamics in the current relationship, even against the other person's wishes.  Anita's adamant refusal to being made subservient like her mother as manifested in refusing to serve dinner frustrated and angered Jorge.  Feeling rejected, he was snap at and scold Anita.  For Anita, this just proved her fears that he was abusive and controlling.  The therapist often needs to help individuals find the early life experiences that are evoked in the current relationship.   Early life experiences include the cultural experiences of the individuals.  Family-of-origin work can be perceived as essentially cross-cultural work.  Does the original family-of-origin culture: attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviors work effectively in the new culture of the current relationship?  Has the two distinct cultures been integrated into a successful functional new culture?  Implicit family and cultural messages often cannot be negotiated for adaptation, inclusion, exclusion, or integration without first bringing them into overt discussion.

Jenkins presented a schematic to illustrate how explicit communication often has accompanying implicit communications that are critical to the couple's interactions.

(Jenkins, 2006, page 117)

The implicit communications from one person to another are often the key communications.  However, since the indirect style is subject to misinterpretation, implicit communication can set off a chain of problematic exchanges that causes a relationship to degenerate.  Indirect communication may come from cultural models and/or a family model.  If the communicator and the recipient are not in sync with each other, then intention of communication is often missed.  Often, two individuals are mutually out of sync with each other.  Communication intention from the first to the second person is misunderstood as well as communication from the second to the first person.  The two sets of implicit communication often have foundations in each person's family-of-origin.  The communication may be largely understood with insignificant to highly distinctive meanings for common language and behavior.  Hoang (2005) uses the metaphor of two languages- Spanish and Italian, which are related languages with common words to prompt the couple to explore each partner's family-of-origin experiences.  She tells the couple, "Once upon a time, you were each born into a family- your two different families of origin.  It was like one family spoke Spanish, and lived the Spanish way, and the other spoke Italian and lived the Italian way.  Then, you both left your families, and got together.  Gradually, you began to accuse each other, 'You don't understand me!' but you didn't say, 'Of course, it's because you didn't grow up in my country, or speak my language!'  Instead, you tried to guess at what the other one meant, and you got more difficulties and misunderstandings.  You tried to get each other to change, and that led to even more anger and disappointment.  You learned a new language, and a new way of living together: blaming, criticising, no-talking, fighting.  That seemed to be the way you communicated best.  In fact, you didn't have any other way.  Maybe now that you're in therapy, you could try some 'translation work' first, and then you can decide whether a multicultural society is the way your couple relationship (couple-ship) might work best" (Hoang, 2005, page 65).  The therapist directs the two or more still hopefully invested individuals to get beyond developing better communication skills to look at how their family-of-origin attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviors- i.e., the mismatch of their respective family cultures create the context for their problems.  Hoang feels this is important because she believes"…in Bowen's 'differentiation of self as a long-term means of recognizing and managing the emotional world, while achieving intimacy and closeness within a relationship (Hoang, 2005, page 66).  Failure to identify and distinguish the self in the relationship from the historical self from childhood precludes accurate interpretation of emotional processes.

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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