9. Authority & Power Indicators - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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9. Authority & Power Indicators

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Roles Rigidity Repair in Relationships

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

Discrepancy between some asserted reality and actual behavior in a relationship, couple, or family among other characteristic is a provocative characteristic indicating considering a structural approach.  In the University of California, Berkeley Anthropology 110 class in the spring of 1975 on primate social behavior (personal experience of author), the professor described a troop of baboons and their foraging behavior.  The observing anthropologists following generally accepted theory anticipated that the alpha male baboon would lead the troop.  True to their expectations, each morning the troop would rouse itself and after a period of seemingly aimless activity, follow the alpha male baboon off in whatever direction he chose to forage in this or that olive grove.  The alpha male was the leader.  However, upon closer examination, the anthropologists discovered a more complex dynamic.  As the troop roused itself, the alpha male would start to "lead" off in one direction.  After taking a few steps, he would turn his head to see if the troop was following him.  If they were not, he would "change" his mind and "decide" to head off towards another grove of olive trees to forage.  Again, after a few steps, he would glance back to see if he was being followed.  If the troop was still lounging about, he would again "change" his "choice" and "lead" in another direction.  This process repeated over and over, until when traipsing off with his fourth or fifth direction, the alpha female got up and started to "follow" him.  Thereupon, the entire troop got to their feet and proceeded to follow "him."

As happens often in human families, the expressed patriarchy was a functional matriarchy.  The expressed hierarchy was different from the functional hierarchy.  Milena, a therapist told about her elderly Polish nana who empathically preached to her children, grand-children, and great grand-children to, "Remember, Papa (her husband, the great-grandpa patriarch) is the head of the family.  You must always do what the head of the family says.  Papa is the head of the family.  You must listen to him and respect him, and above all do what he says.  Don't you ever forget, Papa is the head of the family… and I'm the neck!  And the neck tells the head which way to turn and look!"  Other individuals of various ethnicities or nationalities, including several therapists have communicated similar dynamics from their families-of-origin.  The functional leader may not always overtly challenge the expressed leader.  To do so, would reveal the dynamics and possibly risk retribution.  As a result, the functional leader may "pick the battles" and let many otherwise benign or less urgent decisions go unchallenged, especially if they are not in his or her domain.  Many families have implicit parallel structures of leadership or territoriality where one individual or the other holds dominion.  A common gender stereotype is the male being in charge of financial matters, but deferring to the decisions of the female regarding the children- and vice versa.  However, there may be compelling circumstances where parent or partner without dominion will instigate covert interventions to alter a decision.  For example, the mother may slip some money to a child after the father has denied him or her.  This subverting of the roles may be acceptable and condoned by all members, but can also be experienced as a fundamental betrayal between partners.  In some situations, there may be an expressed equality in the relationship, or an expressed hierarchy (commonly, patriarchal) but the family actually is a functional or operational matriarchy.  The functional operation of relationship, couple, or family processes can be obscured by personal, social, and cultural assumptions and requirements.  

"Rank (1982) found that women tend to devaluate their power and men tend to overestimate theirs.  Stamp (1985) suggested that women's devaluation of power is a way of providing reassurance to their husbands' egos and self-esteem.  Shulk and Kapoor (1990) found that 'wife-dominated' families were the least happy, compared with families that are husband dominated and in which decision making is shared.  Couples who reported their decision making was equal were also found to be the happiest (Aida & Falbo, 1991)" (Rabin and Shapira-Berman, 1997, page 321).  Are so-called "husband dominated" families in fact, expressed patriarchies but actually functional matriarchies or functionally egalitarian as indicated by the shared decision making?  Many ostensibly patriarchal cultures include relationships that are functionally or operationally matriarchal.  In addition, the oldest son in some cultures reigns higher than the mother in the hierarchy of the family.  Thus, the mother may be lower than not just her husband, but also to all the sons.  The daughters would be the lowest of all in the hierarchy.  The therapist needs to be aware of various implicit structural models and their reality in the relationship, couple, or family.

When asked about their family structure, Juliette said that she believed in a traditional male lead family with the mother taking on a strong supportive role.  Her husband Mathis found this amusing if not outright outrageous.  He said that although, "I might be the boss, she's the boss' boss!"  The therapist should challenge and reveal this "secret" functional or operational hierarchy.  All members of the relationship, couple, or family may accept the functional hierarchy.  However, the implicit functional role dynamics may be based on manipulation and/or intimidation.  In a couple with expressed equity of power and control, a "difficult" partner can covertly or overtly coerce or intimidate the other into giving up power and control.  The other partner may acquiesce and take a lower hierarchal position to avoid conflict for example.  A "victim" or self-injuring (physical, emotional, psychological) individual can also manipulate a partner into giving in him or her.  The manipulated partner fears that his or her partner's disappointment that a decision that does not go his or her way will result in debilitating depression, anxiety, acting out (including substance abuse), over-eating, etc.  The manipulated partner is effectively disabled from asserting personal needs.  The insidious beauty of this process is that the meek "passive" partner can still claim innocence and deny being controlling and manipulative.  The therapist can expose expected versus implicit roles and covert processes for the couple to consider.  Revealing dysfunctional reality and establishing a "real" functional structure that matches with the expectations and values of both partners would be goals of therapy.

Some families present children and/or families for therapy when the fundamental issues lie with problems in the parent's relationship.  There are often children such a Soni who can disrupt the family structure through the threat of their misbehavior.  Temperamentally difficult children or acting out teenagers can intimidate the parents into making the "right" choice.  The parents may choose the way preferred or selected by the youth in order to avoid conflict and being punished by outrageous behavior.  This creates a functional or operational hierarchy with the child at the top rather than the parents.  The child may be a classic "IP" or "identified patient" while in actuality he or she is acting the family dysfunction.  The dysfunction may be due primarily from the couple's problems as it was with Kelissa and Breland.  Pruitt (2007) cited studies that found that teenagers in some families were drawn to the sadness as a result to the parents' profound loss of hope and optimism and deep despair.  They felt the deep needs within the parents and family and were drawn to try to help.  Children took on different roles. "…including mother's 'confidant' with whom she shared secrets; a parentified child who tried to lift the spirits of a sad parent; or a triangulated child who was a go-between in an ambivalent marital relationship.  The authors suggest that the child's depression may reflect a sense of failure to lift the family despair.  Some families with a depressed child or adolescent report serious family dysfunction and negative life events, including family conflict; parent-child conflict; marital conflict, especially about parenting; parental death, divorce, or separation; and child maltreatment or physical abuse (e.g., Beck & Rosenburg, 1986; Burbach & Borduin, 1986; Forehand et al., 1988; Trad, 1987, as cited in Kaslow & Racusin, 1994).  Depressed teens report less secure attachment to their parents than do nondepressed psychiatric patients and nonpsychiatric controls, and there is a notable negative correlation between severity of depression and security of attachment to parents (Armsden, McCauley, Greenberg, Burke, & Mitchell, 1990; Beck & Rosenburg, 1986; Burbach & Borduin, 1986; Forehand et al., 1988; Trad, 1987, as cited in Kaslow & Racusin, 1994)" (Pruitt, 2007, page 71-72).  

Children and teenagers may need individual or family therapy.  However the therapist should also consider separating out the "IP" (identified patient) child from the therapy- that is, re-negotiating or asserting the family or child-focused therapy to become couple's therapy.  This is an aggressive therapeutic move that surprisingly, many couples or at least one member of the couple often welcomes.  In such situations, the child has been brought inappropriately into the couple's dyad as a pawn in their battle.  A couple brought their 4-year-old girl into therapy upon the recommendation of her preschool for hyper and defiant behavior.  The little girl Ramona although pretty feisty, was not particularly hyper or that defiant.  However, in the first session, the disagreements and animosity between the parents was obvious.  The mother Shantae had "appropriated" the child raising domain, asserting that her husband Jerome did not care and was not loving to the children.  Shantae would "rescue" Ramona from his "harsh" discipline regularly.  He experienced this as undercutting him and harming his relationship with the children.  The words and phrases, "always…" "never…" "all the time…" resounded in the room!  At the end of the session, after observing Ramona in the room playing and interacting with each parent, the therapist, asserted that couple's therapy was the modality to handle both their conflicts and their co-parenting issues.  Addressing couples issues would address the little girl's issues.  Jerome agreed immediately, saying that he's wanted couple's therapy for years.

The couple relationship and parent-child relationships tend to be mutually influential.  Positive marital relationship quality is associated with positive parent-child relationship quality, while negative marital quality is associated with negative parent-child relationship quality.  Specifically, there is inter-relationship between "marital and child-related tensions, once again suggesting that what occurs in one subsystem might impact upon another family subsystem" (Rinaldi and Howe, 2003, page 443-44).  Problems or upset in the couple may negatively affect children's perceptions that adversely affect parent and child dynamics.  Children who see their parents act out negative couple's issues may duplicate similar interactions with their siblings.  Conversely, children's conflicts may also make couple's conflict more intense and difficult.  "…parental ratings of parent–child reasoning, verbal aggression, and avoidance strategies were all positively correlated with marital reasoning, verbal aggression, and avoidance strategies.  This finding further supports the notion of an insider rater argument in understanding consistency of perceptions across subsystems.  Moreover, these findings clearly support the notion of spillover effects across family subsystems and are in line with McGuire et al. (1996) who found that children with high hostile and low warmth sibling relations rated their sibling and parent–child relations more negatively and, as well, their parents rated their marriages more negatively.  Also supportive of spillover effects is Katz and Gottman's (1996) work in which marital hostility was linked to specific negative parent–child relations.  In sum, our findings add to the increasing body of research that provides support for the spillover hypothesis of links between family subsystems.  These types of findings conjointly strengthen the notion of interconnectedness of family subsystems, which has implications not only theoretically as already discussed, but also practically.  The occurrence of spillover will influence how destructive conflict in one subsystem is targeted from an intervention approach" (Rinaldi and Howe, 2003, page 455).

For some individuals, coming to therapy for oneself or for the couple's relationship, is not considered personally or culturally appropriate.  In some societies, the woman is not able to assert any personal needs or complaints.  That would be considered selfish.  However, she is allowed to assert complaints or activate around the children's welfare.  The consequence is that a woman's personal expression of need has to be termed in terms of the child's needs.  In other cultures, for example, military or police sub-culture, it may also not be acceptable for the tough guy to come to therapy for individual or couple's issues.  However, it would be more acceptable to come for rescuing an acting out child or teen.  In general, therapy for their child is often much more acceptable for parents.  Anything for the kid!  The therapist negotiated and explained to the couple the dangers of making the child the "IP" when it was really their issues.  The couple, but especially the father agreed.  The initial restructuring of removing the little girl from therapy was accomplished in therapy room.  This restructuring offered the model for restructuring the couple and family dynamic at home as well— that is to remove Ramona from Shantae and Jerome's conflicts.  This discussion of hierarchy in the couple reflects common gender roles and stereotypes that may have relevance in addition to individual personality and history.  In same sex couples, gender roles and stereotypes should still be examined for relevance, whether or not individual personality and history may be important.  It would not be safe to assume that gender roles and stereotypes are or are not relevant for same sex couples.  Specifically, some version of expressed or functional hierarchy discrepancies may be relevant for same sex couples.

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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