9. Atonement Debt Guilt Approach - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
Consultant/Trainer/Author
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All Relationships and Therapy are Multi-Cultural- Family and Cross-Cultural Complications
Chapter 9: ATONEMENT/DEBT/GUILT APPROACH
by Ronald Mah





An atonement/debt/guilt approach requires advantaged individuals or populations to feel guilt.  It has a tone of judgment, but not for failing a moral test of values or behavior.  Rather, the guilt is for association with privilege, whether chosen or assigned.  Such individuals often are asked to take responsibility for not just their own, but for the sins and oppression of previous generations and of other members of that advantaged population.  This requirement to feel guilt is asserted whether or not they have overtly or covertly, consciously or unconsciously participated in that prior oppression.  It can come from historical/societal origins and/or from family-of-origin experiences and used to exploit others in the name of anti-racism or equalizing couples dynamics.

Charles, an African-American snapped frequently at George, his white partner for his having experienced racism while growing up.  He implied George needed to feel guilt for the racism of white strangers he had never met before, essentially because his partner was white.  George was confused and conflicted about how he was responsible- much less what he could be guilty of in the relationship, because he had always treated his African-American partner with kindness and respect.  As a progressive activist who was involved in civil rights movements since a teenager in the 1960's, George understood the history and practice of racism in the United States.  He was still susceptible to "white liberal guilt" in his intimate relationship as he had been in his "movement" days.  He then and now was hurt and paralyzed by white guilt with his assignment to the "oppressor" group.  Until coming to therapy, he felt guilty and felt that he needed to atone for his Charles' experiences with racism.  As he tried to pay a racial debt that he had not personally created, he was unaware of his Charles' narcissism… and unaware of his own susceptibility to shame and guilt.  

Hannah implied her partner, Petey needed to compensate for the distress she had suffered from her emotionally harsh father.  Try as Petey might, it was never good enough.  She would lash out at him for perceived betrayals.  Although, Petey empathized with her emotional injuries, he felt unjustly accused and punished for trivial behaviors and especially for someone else's actions.  Neither of them was aware that Hannah's perspective and behaviors were a result of her borderline characteristics.  Nor, were they aware of why Petey was so willing to be guilty.  While Hannah's borderline issues and Petey's guilt instinct had primarily to do with their respective family-of-origin experiences, it is at least arguable that their WASP background accentuated their issues… or that their parents' WASP values intensified their formative childhood stresses.  There was no doubt however that shame and guilt damaged their relationship currently.

When the therapist takes the side of one of the partners as justified and decides that the other person is at fault, a similar dynamic occurs.  In the two couples: Charles and George and , both partners are culpable in a matched dysfunctional dynamic.  Failure to recognize this may cause the thrust of the therapy to become trying to make transgressors accept their guilt.  And, then for them to make atonement and ask for forgiveness.  Unfortunately (or fortunately), many people refuse to accept being the bad guy and therapy gets stuck.  This approach and the victim approach discussed next chapter both propose and promote an unequal status or uneven hierarchy in what is supposed to be the egalitarian relationship.  The therapist may also drop therapeutic neutrality of treating both partners equally and align with one partner, triangulating the other partner as the transgressor.  "Victims" or wronged individuals gain a moral supremacy that creates a self-righteous entitlement to punish transgressors.  If one member in a relationship accepts being the guilty one, he/she also accepts being punished.  At some point, however, even bad guys feel that they have been punished enough and resent the continual punishments from self-righteous victims.  The therapist who fall into this trap end up aligning with "victims" against "transgressors," who subsequently feel ganged up on by partners or family members and the therapist.  They then may feel therapeutically victimized.

continue to Chapter 10
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Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
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