Dysfunctional Family Communication: Countering Tangents

Source: Flickr, Humanoids Arguing by Vic, C.C. by 2.0

This is another of my series of posts on win-win strategies for family communication. Strategies and counterstrategies for discussing volatile family dynamics make up a big part of my self help book.

One basic rule in dysfunctional families is not to talk about important but touchy issues, and the tendency in these situations is for family members to employ various strategies designed basically to get other family members to shut up about them. Some of these strategies are actually subtle. They can be as simple as merely (but covertly) changing the subject when discussing any topic that has been “banned.”

One easy way to do this occurs in situations in which there are a whole bunch of similar issues that are all inter-related and intertwined with one another. One can switch from one to the other by going off on a tangent, and then to yet another with a different tangent, and so on – all without appearing to change the subject. When this is done, however, no discussion of any important aspect of the problem is ever completed, and the problem remains unresolved.

An illustrative example is discussions about family conflicts over traditional gender roles. Talk can focus on careers, parenting, sexuality, dependency, or whether women should or should not defer to their husbands. Discussions over religious conflicts, as another example, can center on interpretation of a wide variety of seemingly related but somewhat ambiguous Biblical passages.

One can easily jump from one of these issues to another because each area often contains elements that are also relevant to the other ones. For instance, when it comes to which spouse defers to which spouse, who’s opinion should matter more when disciplining the children, Mom’s or Dad’s? How about when one spouse’s career would be enhanced by a move to another city, but this would adversely affect the career of the other spouse? The mix-up of issues like these allows people to go off on a tangent that is related to – yet different from – the main theme the metacommunicator (the person trying to discuss how the family interacts) is trying to clarify.

In this post, I will briefly discuss a useful counter-strategy to employ under these circumstances for keeping family metacommunication on track in order to get to the bottom of a single issue.

The trick here is to remember the definition of a tangent from your old geometry class in high school: it is a line that sort of shoots off from a circle. If you trace the tangent line backwards, it always goes right back into the circle. Analogously in metacommunication, the “circle” is a main theme that ties all the different tangents together, such as traditional versus more modern gender roles or religious differences. Any tangent someone goes off on can be thought of as just another example of the main theme –  symbolized by the circle. 

As an example, let us take a hypothetical situation in which there is a conflicted relationship between a mother and a daughter who come from a typical highly dysfunctional family – one characterized by ongoing conflicts over many major gender issues that they are both trying to deal with: the females getting involved with men who are drunk, abusive, and/or cheating; whether or not they should leave relationships with such men; expressing anger at such men; mothers who do not protect their children from abusive men or from witnessing domestic violence; conflicts over being tied down by children leading to neglect and invalidation of them; enabling children who don’t take care of themselves; depending financially on either unreliable men or good providers who mistreat women, and so on and so forth.

There are indeed families characterized by all of the above conflicts – over several generations. If there are several sisters, aunts, great aunts and female cousins acting out several of these themes, one can see how easy it would be to subtly avoid focusing in depth on any one theme, or for that matter, on any one relationship.

So what might tie all of these gender-related themes together as they play out in metacommunication (communication about the way two people are communicating) about problematic behavior patterns between a mother and her adult daughter who has children of her own?

Here we can make use of the concept described in a previous post: intrapsychic conflict leading to ambivalence leading to mixed and/or contradictory messages. A central theme that can be useful here: Anything the mother says to her daughter regarding any of the above behaviors can be translated into a message to the daughter to either “act (or relate to the issues) like me” or “do not act (or relate to the issues) like me.” Because the mother is ambivalent, both of these contradictory messages usually appear within the very same conversation. Or often in the same sentence!

In this case, a good strategy might be for the daughter to express confusion about what the mother is trying to tell her in terms of following or not following mom’s example no matter which aspect of the gender dysfunction is brought up. She might say something like, “Gee Mom, sometimes it sounds like you are criticizing me for doing the same things you do, while at other times it sounds like you are criticizing me for not doing them. I’m confused about what you think is the right strategy when, for example, my ex-husband keeps calling me on the phone several times a day.”

A typical dysfunctional conversation might go something like this:

Mother: “I told you to block his phone number and stop talking to him.”

Daughter: “But you let Dad keep bugging you all the time.”

Mom: “Well, I do that for your sake ’cause I know you still care a lot about him, so it’s better if we are civil to each other.”

Daughter: “But wouldn’t that also apply to my sons from my ex?”

Mother: “Well you don’t seem to want to be bothered with your kids’ feelings half the time anyway.”

In this example, the mother has subtly changed the subject from how to handle an ex-husband to the daughter’s parenting practices. If the daughter were to engage the mother on that issue, the mother might then talk about how the daughter is still financially dependent on her ex and needs to support herself better so she can get rid of him. Nothing would ever be resolved.

The counter-strategy, as mentioned, is to take each tangent the mother goes off on and reconnect it to the circle or main theme. Any criticism the mother makes of the daughter on any of these inter-related subjects can be used as yet another example of how the mother’s statements confuse the daughter in regards to whether or not she should follow her mother’s example.

If the daughter starts with the statement above describing her confusion about whether or not mother thinks the daughter should emulate her, and the issue of the stalking ex comes up, the daughter would not say, “But you let Dad keep bugging you all the time.” She would instead say, “I’m confused when you say that, cause that sounds like you are saying I shouldn’t let my ex keep bugging me like you put up with Dad.”

If mother then brings up her having put up with Dad for the patient’s sake, that of course contradicts mom’s initial advise for the daughter to cut off her ex when there’s a child involved. The daughter might then bring up that seemingly contradictory advice as a way to get back to the circle once again. 

The daughter would be ill-advised to come right out and accuse her mother of being hypocritical, as that would usually lead to the mother becoming defensive. Instead, she could blame” her own confusion about what the mother is trying to say:

“Well I’m again kinda confused now. Are you saying I should handle it like you did for the sake of my sons, or that I should do the opposite of what you did and cut off my ex?”

Of course, any strategy I recommend can have good results, but it can also backfire.

The mother might at that point be struck by how she is giving the daughter double messages, which might then allow her to take pause and start to discuss why she herself might be confused on these issues – a good result. On the other hand, the daughter’s use of the strategy might make Mom feel guilty and want to change the subject yet again. 

Mom might then try the counter-strategy of saying that her situation with the daughter’s father is somehow different than the daughter’s situation with her ex. Naturally, in some ways every situation is somewhat different, but in doing this she would be ignoring all the ways in which their situations are similar.

Figuring out the next move on the daughter’s part might require the services and advice of a knowledgeable therapist. A therapist, using his or her knowledge and experience, can help a patient custom tailor an effective counter-move.



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