5. Dysfunctional Rules & Rituals - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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5. Dysfunctional Rules & Rituals

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Mirror Mirror- Self-Esteem Relationships

Mirror Mirror… Reflections of Self-Esteem in Relationships and Therapy
by Ronald Mah

Every relationship, couple, family, or system has rules about communication and behavior: who may speak up, when, and how.  Some of these rules are explicit and recognized by all members of the system.  Other rules are implicit, and are generally only recognized when they are broken.  For example, the therapist may find that a couple will continue to follow such rules in therapy.  Their prior couple therapist asked Terry how she felt about Bert stopping off at the bar on the way home without telling her.  Previous sessions and her body language seemed to indicate she clearly did not like it.  However, rather than overtly express her upset and her criticism of his behavior, Terry had responded in an abstract form.  "Well, sometimes a person needs to take a break.  And, one has to understand that.  Some people might have to deal with not knowing what's going on.  It can be hard not to know what's going on with your partner."  Besides giving Bert an excuse, Terry never used Bert's name or the personal pronouns "I," "you," "me," "he," "his," or "him."  Rather than specifically identifying Bert as the actor, his behavior, and its effects on her, Terry vaguely referred to "a person."  She spoke of a non-specific "one" as opposed to identifying herself as being challenged.  The generic "some people" rather herself have to deal with things.  "It" instead of Terry as the spouse had a hard time not knowing what is going on with a hypothetical "your partner," rather than the real Bert.  Although previously Terry and Bert were a couple with intentions to stay together that motivated their dysfunctional communication rules, even though they now had no intention to be together they nevertheless continued following problematic rules and rituals.

A relationship rule that binds the communication and interaction may be that direct confrontation of the intimate other person has to be avoided.  The rule requires indirect communication, vague hints, and generic commentary rather than explicit statements of feelings, desires, and requests for change.  A rule against direct communication may be a generational consequence of an alcoholic or other dysfunctional family system where commenting directly on or criticizing dysfunctionality was prohibited.  The dynamic described is often characteristic of individuals with family-of-origin history of alcoholism, drug abuse, and/or controlling parents.  The reality of the family was too intolerable to discuss openly.  Implicit rules that result tend to be extremely powerful and problematic.  Identifying implicit rules initiates an essential process of eliminating the dysfunction rules as well as clarifying well-intended rules.  

In addition to rules, every couple, family, or system also has rituals that members are required to follow. Rituals are sets and patterns of behavior ostensibly created to provide stability and continuity.  They may serve to satisfy spiritual or emotional needs of the members, strengthen bonds, and educate members.  In addition, rituals become demonstrations of respect or submission to authority or the system, affirmation of affiliation, and serve to gain acceptance or approval by the system.  Rituals can take on a life and energy on their own, providing fulfillment and pleasure with participation.  Similar to rules, some rituals are implicit rather than explicit.  Some are harmful, while others serve the system.  Giving each other a kiss before going to sleep is a ritual that serves the couple or family by helping them feel connected.  It increases communication and self-esteem.  Rituals can give security to its members.  The therapist should identify existing rituals.  The individual, couple, or couple can be encouraged to continue and to create positive rituals that facilitate better communication and cohesion.  Harmful rituals need to be dissected for their original development and adjusted or eliminated.  Since rituals can convey respect, submission, affiliation, and may be required for acceptance, dysfunctional systems can powerfully bind members to harmful rituals.  For example, Bert as a pre-teen and teenager felt compelled to gain his father's acceptance by joining him in his "manly" rituals of drinking and disparaging women.  Drinking and going to bars were old rituals embedded in his psyche.  Terry's mother self-soothed when depressed by cooking and baking elaborate meals and desserts… and eating.  Often feeling emotionally abandoned by Terry's workaholic and alcoholic father, Terry's mother poured her energy into food-based rituals.  Requiring Terry and her other children to indulge in these food orgy rituals with her helped her blunt the pain… and avoid taking responsibility for her self-soothing behaviors.  She could say she was just doing it for the benefit of the children.  Terry duplicated these food rituals and as a result, was by her own calculations about 50 pounds overweight.  Terry and Bert would accost each other for their respective negative rituals, but without therapy neither understood why they were so important to each of them.

Many individuals, couples, families, and systems have secrets.  Secrets are often truths that everyone is aware of at some level, but no one feels safe to communicate.  Some secrets are held by individuals to avoid discomfort that acknowledgement of the secret would create.  For example, everyone in the family knows or has experienced that a particular person who has an issue.  The person has a characterological flaw or behavior that impede successful functioning, but no one acknowledges it.  Bert in the previous example has trouble with controlling his or her alcohol use.  Or, Terry is depressed and overeats.  However in their relationship or family, no one mentions an issue since acknowledging it could hurt the person's feelings and/or create tension from the possibility of the conflict.  In their prior couple therapy, Terry and Bert had not found a way to breach difficult secrets despite the harm they caused.  As is quite common, the previous therapist often got covert messages from them- virtually instructions to not bring up or confront certain uncomfortable issues.  It may be an overt statement such as "I don't want to talk about it," or "It's not important."  The message may be subtler: a shift in body posture, averted eyes, or a clever almost imperceptible change of topic.  Whenever the therapist gets a cue to not go there, he or she should strongly consider going there sooner or later.  Bert's drinking and Terry's overeating were secrets that required close examination.  Working on both issues would have been essential as they significantly affected their relationship.  Moreover, working on these issues would also uncovered deeper critical issues individually and for the couple that they were not yet ready to address.  Held secrets cost energy and pain, resulting in illogical and dysfunctional behavior to maintain tenuous systemic balance.  The therapist must avoid being recruited into the individual, relationship, couple, or family's secret holding expectations.  In fact, he or she should aggressively challenge secrets to facilitate adoption of logical behaviors for systemic balance for the relationship, couple, or family, or for intrapsychic balance for an individual.  Failure in their earlier couple therapy to challenge these secrets allowed Terry and Bert's unaddressed issues to fester, accumulate, and intensify until they finally exploded in relationship destruction.

When individuals are emotionally connected, they gain security as in the relationship.  They are invested in each other.  With safety and trust, individuals can interact cooperatively through processes of gain and loss.  Able to compromise and negotiate, they do not feel a need to obliterate the other person when disappointed or not getting their way.  Instead they jointly try to develop rapport that enhances the healthy growth of their relationship.  "A partner who does not feel connected to his or her partner can often feel isolated, and he or she may seek ways to get the other partner's attention whereby seeking to meet this mistaken goal.  The relationship can become one of insecurity.  Partners who don't feel connected may find themselves playing the 'Pay attention!' game or the 'It's all your fault!' game" (Mozdzierz & Lottman, 1973) (McCurdy, 2007, page 286-88).  The therapist may directly train the individual, partners, or family members to interact differently.  The therapist may try a paradoxical intervention, for example by having an individual exaggerate or practice the problematic symptom or behavior.  The therapist can prescribe "having one partner provide more positive attention to the other; planning time together; setting up dates again; and ultimately not ignoring each other but focusing on what they love about each other (Hawes, 1989; Mozdzierz & Lottman)."  A person may need individual assistance to improve interpersonal skills along with relationship work.  Clear expressive communication along with attuned receptive skills allows an individual feel more connected and predict getting in a relationship with a sense of togetherness.  Unfortunately for many relationships, a person often already has characteristic roles in communication dyads and triads before joining in a relationship.  These are learned attempts at connection from the family-of-origin and often replicated in subsequent relationships or systems.  Many of the roles expressed in dysfunctional dynamics due to the illogical rules, rituals, problematic stances or games, and family secrets.  Rather than intimate connection or togetherness, in the family-of-origin and again in new relationships these dynamics result in pseudo-intimacy, false unity, and problematic functioning.

Superficial harmony and avoidance of conflict eventually become untenable in the relationship.  The therapist will discover various important and damaging differences between internal experience and external expression.  The individuals' interactions often have inconsistencies between what they feel and think and what they say or do.  The Satir model believes in resolving differences between people from a congruent place of interacting.  Each individual needs to be true to him or herself and speak and act in a genuine fashion.  Therapy as described by Banmen (2002) can draw upon Satir's principles and five recommended ways for the relationship to address differences:

1. Conflict as a solution.  This method of handling differences includes physical or verbal fights and disagreements.  It is an either/or position with only one right possibility.  It often builds on the polarity of right and wrong.  In the hierarchical model, it becomes a power struggle.  As might seem obvious, the Satir model does not advocate this approach to resolving conflict within, between, nor among people.

2. Denial as a solution.  Even though differences exist, people using denial either verbally or non-verbally have decided to avoid the differences.  For example, people never share or discuss their religious or political views because of potential disagreements or conflict.  They withhold their views and might, instead, withdraw from each other and avoid intimacy and closeness.

3. Compromise as a solution.  When people compromise, both parties give in and both win and lose as they choose something that possibly neither wants, but both feel they can accept.  It is sometimes a 50/50 settlement.  Very often, in therapy, this level of dealing with differences is the beginning of reconnecting with each other.

4. Resolution as an answer.  At this level of dealing with differences, both parties win.  The resolution usually takes place at a deeper level of connectedness, at the level of yearnings.  Here, people accept each other, both with positive intentions and good will.  Often, resolving major differences needs a third party to help the individuals work through some of the disappointments, anger, fear, and hurt that might be lingering.

5. Growth as an outcome.  Finally, when we look at how differences help people grow, we find that through understanding, acceptance, and risk-taking, clients can learn to incorporate some of their differences into their lives.  Here, I usually share an example with my clients of some aesthetic differences between my wife and me. "I liked opera and she liked ballet.  Now, we both like opera and ballet."  In therapy, differences often trigger the survival needs and, therefore, differences become a life/death issue between couples or among family members (page 12-13).

Compromise, resolution, and growth require developing greater communication skills.  When a relationship goes into conflict, both or all participants must try to communicate under stress.  In calmer situations when they are getting along without differences of opinion, communication may flow easily.  Of course, that is not why individuals enter therapy.  No one comes to therapy because they can stay communicate clearly and calmly under stress.  Stress is an inherent circumstance in life and particularly when two individuals invest so much emotionally, spiritually, as well as economically with one another as a couple or in a family.  Or remain entwined because of co-parenting demands such as Terry and Bert.  Individuals become stressed whenever anything happens that threatens the sense of safety, intimacy, and trust in the relationship.  Certain communication patterns can have contradictory levels of messages.  This confuses the recipient of communication as to what he or she has heard and how he or she is supposed to respond.  Incongruent communication camouflage manipulating messages to seek what a person wants and experiences yet hide them at the same time.  An individual who gives incongruent messages tries to get the other person to do as he or she desires while hiding any personal vulnerability.  In contrast, "…congruent communications, has no contradictions between its layers.  Senders do not consciously or unconsciously expect the receiver to make inferences about what they did not say, or to perceive contradictions between verbal and non-verbal messages.  Congruent communicators share their thoughts and emotions about themselves without projecting them onto others and thus avoid manipulation" (Moore and Kramer, 1999, page 430).  The therapist will find congruent communicators receptive to skills development.  However, it is likely that the individual, couple, or family coming to therapy may tend to be incongruent communicators.  Getting Terry and Bert to be respectively congruent within themselves becomes a key goal of therapy.  There are several characteristic incongruent communication styles that the therapist should be on the lookout for.

A child or individual may face difficult to extraordinary stresses in his or her family-of-origin.  He or she will develop ways for managing and for survival.  Satir described several coping stances internalized from the struggle.  Habitual patterns that manifest in interactions with others are 1) placating, 2) blaming, 3) super-reasonable, and 4) irrelevant.  "Coping stances are modes of surviving under emotional stress.  They are not personality categories.  Most people have one major coping stance that they use when they are under stress.  Many people actually use all four coping stances depending on the circumstances and relationships in which they find themselves" (Banmen, 2002, page 17-18).

Placater:  A placater tries to make him or herself appear insignificant or inconspicuous relative to an aggressive person.  By minimizing or putting oneself down, while simultaneously inflating the aggressor's ego, the placater hopes to deflect the intimidating anger.  He or she also hopes placating behavior gains him or her some credit, deference, or shield from later assault (Moore and Kramer, 1999, page 432-33).  Placating may be overt- "I'm sorry.  I messed up.  I should have known better.  Sorry… I'm really sorry."  He or she may try to be the aggressor's advocate- "Nick should have backed off.  He knew that it was a big deal to you.  You tried to give him slack, but he pushed you.  Nick should have known that you were getting upset."  The placater may claim acceptance of the behavior- "Well, you know how indecisive I am.  I'm glad I didn't have to make the decision.  Thanks for choosing for me."  Placaters may have long histories of being dominated without recourse.  Children often cannot struggle against intimidating parents, nor can other disempowered individuals in other non-negotiable hierarchal circumstances.  Giving in or deferring becomes the only means to surviving.  This pervasive stance may be indicative of dependent personality issues.

Blamer:  Blamers try to gain power and control and increase self-esteem by putting down others.  The blamer tries to make the other person feel guilty.  Blaming is different from disagreeing because it also involves power over the other person.  The targeted person acknowledges being blamed with a dysfunctional response by either placating the blamer or blaming back (Moore and Kramer, 1999, page 432). Blaming can be directly insulting- "You really screwed up, you idiot."  Or, it can be condescendingly subtle- "Oh, I forgot that you get too stressed to think straight.  Poor baby."  It can be more convoluted and clever- "It's amazing how a college degree can inflate ones confidence.  The degree was called a B.S. wasn't it?"  The bite can be muted sounding like resignation rather than accusatory- "Oh well, you got what you deserved."  A potential variation or offshoot of the placating blaming stances is the victim stance.  The victim gives in continually like the placater.  He or she is likewise dominated and intimidated, fundamentally unable to assert his or her true feelings or thoughts.  Any power and control that the victim and placater gain is through the magnanimity or permission of the more powerful adversary.  Like the blamer, the victim asserts that the other is more powerful and makes the choices in the relationship.  "Poor me" is their joint refrain.  The scapegoat stance would similar to a victim stance.

Super-reasonable: Hyper-logical and operating without emotion like a computer, the super-reasonable person has a strong compulsion for self-control and controlling others.  Power and control derives from asserting (or faking) that he or she knows everything.  Asserting oneself as superior, this has the effect of making anyone interacting with him or her either appear ignorant or accept being less than.  This is similar to a blamer since both assert superiority over his or her partner.  The blamer or victim asserts a moral superiority based on inferior treatment, while the super-reasonable asserts intellectual superiority.  The super-reasonable person may assert superiority by prefacing his or her communication with, "The fact of the matter is…" "Let me explain…" "If you could understand, then…" "This is how it is…" The assertion may be implicitly egotistical and bragging- "I carefully examined all the possibilities, and I concluded…"  "I've studied the situation and…"  "When you've spent as much time as I have with this, you'd know that…"  Or, coldly and overtly condescending or dismissive- "You're too emotional to see what is happening."  "Once you've gotten more experience, you wouldn't be so easily mislead."  It can be presented as false benevolence- "I know how hard it is to accept the facts, but you need to for your own good." "I don't want you to hurt yourself because you got all caught up emotionally in this."  Super-reasonable individuals present attitudes and behavior arguable identical to narcissistic personality disorder.   Narcissistic individuals also assert superiority and find being made "wrong" intolerable.

Irrelevant: The irrelevant person does not believe he or she can gain any self-worth through expressing his or her opinions.  As a result, he or she is evasive when confronted.  Instead, the irrelevant person spends his creativity, intelligence, and energy in trying to sidetrack the other person.  Inappropriate responses are not contextually related to the words or actions of the other person.  The recipient of out of place messages becomes perplexed and often loses his or her focus trying to figure out, "What does that have to do with what I'm talking about?" (Moore and Kramer, 1999, page 433).  Misdirection to provocative anxiety can be particularly effective- "Uh, I'm your mom so I need to tell you something…"  Feigned confusion can be a tactic- "What?  You mean me?  Last week?  I was trying to find a book… no, it was a dvd.  That was you?  You sure?"  The communication may be internal- "Well, I'm not going to win anyway.  It's too much.  So I may as well try something else.  I didn't really want it anyway."  This stance may be similar to the distracter role from alcoholic family system roles.  The distracter draws the family's attention away from the stressful issues of their lives through any number of attention grabbing behaviors ranging from humorous to charming to sensational.  He or she does this for the benefit of the family so they may not suffer the distress or despair of their functioning.  The irrelevant stance is similar except that the individual seeks to distract others from his or her responsibility.

The therapist may experience an individual defaulting to his or her habitual coping stance under stress in the session much as he or she does in conflict with the other person.  The process of therapy can be inherently stressful, and will be more stressful when confronted over issues by his or her another person or the therapist.  Banmen (2002) offered guidance in working with individuals who present each of these stances.

Clients, who use the placating stance as their way of coping under stress, can easily be reached through their feelings.  Clients like this are often depressed, see themselves as victims, and feel helpless and hopeless.  By relating to the client through their feelings, rapport is built and therapy can begin.

Clients, who use the blaming stance as their way of coping under stress, can easily be reached through their expectations.  The therapist focuses on what the client wants instead of how he feels.  By doing this, rapport can be built quickly and easily.

Clients, who use the super-reasonable stance as their way of coping under stress, can easily be reached through their perceptions.  These clients seem to be in their heads, rational, reasonable, logical, factual, and poorly connected with their feelings.  To engage these clients beyond their super-reasonable stance, the therapist might first explore their body reactions and their expectations before they can connect with their feelings.

Clients, who use the irrelevant stance as their way of coping with stress, are difficult to reach.  Body sensations, touch, and physical activities such as going for a walk with them are three ways to start making contact with people who use the irrelevant stance.  I often start working with them in terms of their context.  In that moment of time, that usually means having them explore their immediate surroundings, namely my office.  Inviting them to comment of the space, the furniture, the colors, and the office contents helps them to settle down, build some boundaries, and build some trust.  This seems to work especially well with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder) clients who would be considered to be using the irrelevant stance in the Satir model (page 18-19)

Therapy addressing a coping stance of an individual is both challenged by and benefits the other intimate person.  Since the coping stance serves to protect ones vulnerability, the individual may be reluctant to reveal him or herself in front of the other person, as opposed to the therapist alone.  On the other hand if he or she can reveal him or herself, the other person may gain understanding and empathy for the first individual's vulnerability in the process.  Relationships and therapy are further complicated when a person combines more than one negative coping stance in communication.  Blaming and being super-reasonable can be combined- "A more reasonable person wouldn't make that mistake."  "It's not really your fault.  You never learned how to deal with stress calmly and logically.  Placating and blaming combination- "Sure… sure, it's ok with me.  Really.  You couldn't help yourself."  Two people with incongruent communication styles can trigger negative communication responses from each other.  For example, blame can go back and forth.

"You knew better than to bring that up again" ignites

"You just can't handle being told you messed up" which draws,

"I can handle messing up fine, but you just have to rub it in" which triggers,

"Oh sure, Mr. Holier-than-thou!"

and on and on.

Two super-reasonable people will likewise argue back and forth, but focusing instead on nuances of logic that descend into pseudo-logic and self-serving rationalizations.  A blaming message can ignite an irrelevant response.  The blamer says, "You really let me down," which draws the irrelevant response, "My mother said dad did that to her too."  A super-reasonable message can evoke a placating response.  "Look at the facts.  That doesn't make any sense," evokes "Oh… oh, I see now.  I get it… you're right."  A placating message can evoke a blaming response.  "I'm sorry.  I won't do it again" ignites "Why do you put me through this crap?  Don't you know any better?"  Or, partners may engage in some other combination of incongruent communication.  

There are some combinations of interactions that can be highly damaging to relationships:  Rescue, Coalition, Lethal games.  In the Rescue game one family member or member in a relationship placates (agrees), another blames (disagrees), and another distracts.  In the Coalition game two members placate (agrees), another blames (disagrees); or one member placates, and two others blames.  In the Lethal game everyone placates (agrees) at the expense of his or her own needs.  These games as described involve three or more members, but remain relevant to relationship dynamics since many couples draw children into their issues.  One partner is usually on the outside with the other partner and a child pairing up or collaborating.  One of the most important motivations for Terry and Bert to go into therapy again was their realization that the children were being drawn into unhealthy games in the parents' battles.  Fortunate for all of them and to their credit, Terry and Bert despite their differences realized how toxic this was for the children when they found the children joining them in harmful games.  Therapeutic strategy seeks to block fruitless cycles of incongruent communication and negative games.  The therapist works to get individuals to express themselves genuinely.  The Growth game is the goal of therapy for the relationship, couple, or family.  In the Growth game each person stays true to him or herself in agreeing or disagreeing.  Each person is included and no one neglects his or her own needs.  The Growth game is the only healthy game for the relationship, couple, or family.  It builds individual self-esteem while not harming another member's self-esteem.  The therapist often has to not just set the new requirements for a Growth game and congruent communication, but also assertively enforce it while establishing a safe therapeutic environment.  Since individuals may have strong habituated styles, they may not readily adapt their communicative interactions.  The therapist may find using interpretation and reframing someone's messages a necessary intermediate step to the relationship change.  Sensitivity to underlying vulnerabilities of the individual enables the therapist to speak for him or her.  As he or she facilitates compassion and understanding- that is positive receptivity by another, the first person may feel safe enough to venture more congruent communication.  If one individual can be nudged or enticed to risk vulnerability, it may allow the other person to also take the risk.  An embryonic Growth game may be initiated in therapy that may continue at home or other situations.

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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