The Many (Hidden) Faces of A Family

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Dave:  This is another story about defiance. I am referring to any behavior pattern that shields the Self from distortion as ‘defiance’. Thus OCD, anorexia, depression, ADHD can be viewed as a form of defiance. Defiance results from a collapse of fealty, loss of faith in leadership. Defiance pressures leadership to be more mature, more responsible. Reminder: Fealty is the loyalty those of lesser power owe to those with more power in exchange for caring.

It is important to understand in the effort to repair, there is pain behind the pain, a problem behind the problem a family brings to the clinic. We want to get some sense of what it is and how it relates to the present dilemmas. As I have noted the world of background pain is not a world of clearly definable concrete reality; it has the emotionally ambiguous quality of a dream world. It is a world that disappears in the bright light of reason. The crucial question is this: if defiance is the result of a collapse of fealty, what is the hidden pain or problem that results in this loss of faith in the family authority? The pain may be in a story, but more likely, the pain is in the process, in the living patterns. However, the family is not able to see these, and may not be glad to hear what the therapist’s intuition apprehends.   Concrete conclusions are usually a distortion.

In the following paragraphs I  sketch some of the troubles in the parenting unit that stimulate and perpetuate defiance. The family is not likely to define these background problems. The Unknown-4therapist may not see them, initially. Some of what we are talking about depends on intuition. Intuition is based on residuals of the therapist’s experience in relation to the family’s story. The following components are meant to help see into the system; to support intuitive seeing. This essay is a bit longer and heavier going than other posts. I hope it makes sufficient sense. I am writing for the therapist mind in the reader. Therapist is a role that anyone can play. Amateurs are sometimes as effective as professionals.

  1. The unconscious problem of broken faith becomes rigidly fixed and more severe when the conflict is based on something symbolic in the family’s background. For example, there may be an unacknowledged catastrophe fantasy; a fear of craziness based on the fact a family member a generation back, had a psychotic break and was considered to be schizophrenic. Therefore, in the family mythology someone else is likely to be schizophrenic. Or, perhaps, Father is 38, his father died at age 39. Thus Father has an unspoken fantasy-based fear he will die soon. Mother’s parents divorced when she was twelve after 14 years of marriage. When her daughter reaches 12 she may anticipate that her husband is going to leave her. These high voltage ambiguous facts feed the family’s fantasy life, create hidden phobias and influence the family’s decision-making and values. However, these fragments are not conscious enough to be included in the history. The result is over-caution in the family, related to a fear the catastrophe will occur again.
  2. The parents have unacknowledged emotional hunger.   Both of the following are symptomatic: 1.Over-functinong mothers of both genders manage all problems. Their gratification comes from taking care of others. But the over-functioning mother does not know how to accept loving from others. 2. Father is emotionally distant, and does not believe in “counseling.” His problem with “counseling” is that it exposes the hunger we speak of. As long as the hunger remains unacknowledged and unnamed, it need not be felt. The hunger we refer to is not easily acknowledged; efforts to gratify it may be received with hostility. It can be painful to learn of it.
  3. There is a sadistic component in the parents’ interactions. Father is a nice man with a sense of humor, but his small jokes cause your shoulders to tighten. Your body response is stimulated by his covert sadism. The mother takes pleasure in her daughter’s behavior. She sneers when she complains about her daughter. “She has to stay out late with her precious Hunger and sadism are often linked. The link is sometimes viewed as envy. Positive thinking and a fixed smile are symptomatic of covert hunger/sadism. The therapist’s point of view may be trivialized; another symptom of this mode of operating.
  4. A political position or a diagnosis takes precedence over personhood. The family or someone in the family may have a commitment to a political or religious position which amplifies the rigidity in their personal living; such as born-again Christianity, feminism, anti-feminism, or alcohol recovery. Or life is organized around a diagnosis. For example, mother has fibromyalgia, father has obsessive-compulsive disorder, or Bobby has attention deficit disorder. The rigidity that goes with the thinking patterns comes between the persons in the family, so that the cause or disorder takes precedence over personal relatedness.
  5. The family does not know how to play. They lack the ability to pretend or to be amused by themselves. Concrete thinking and the absence of imagination are culturally invisible symptoms of not knowing how to play. Any political or religious position, as noted above, can have the effect of concretizing values and interfering with the spontaneity health requires.
  6. The family is unable to stop playing. This is the flip side of the above dynamic. These families have a playful quality, perhaps too playful. There is no “off” switch to their playfulness. A witty remark is always required, thus, no one or nothing is taken seriously. The children’s behavior demands maturity from the parents, but, because all is trivial, no one is able to take and hold a position.
  7. Intimacy is viewed as compromising integrity. Some families have a limited capacity for intimacy. Showing love is a weakness. While they believe intimacy collapses individuation, we believe the growth true individuation represents is not likely when there is no intimacy. Unusual integrity in the parent can result in more defiance in the kids. This is a common characteristic in a family with defiance; their shared anger at the community is the bond that unites them. However, intimacy between persons is absent from the family, as if they are phobic of, or allergic to intimacy. On another level, a well-organized family may acknowledge their love for one another, but be stiff and duty bound. “She knows I love her. I don’t have to tell her.” This statement represents the fact of loving, based on the long term relationship and the biological linkage through the children. It is different from the life enriching feeling of being loved.
  8. The parents are unbending or unyielding, committed to consistency. There is too much “no,” not enough “yes”, not enough negotiation that allows new experiences or leads to changing perceptions. The one who says “no” is always correct. Obviously, if you don’t do anything, you won’t make mistakes. If you don’t spend money you won’t make bad purchases. “Yes” is taking a chance. Any attempt to live, risks getting it wrong. Getting it wrong is not the same as death. And Emerson told us that “consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds”. A common dynamic emerges when adolescents begin to individuate from the family. Parents have the fantasy that if they keep a tight reign on the child, life will be smoother, when in fact, the tight rein leads to more bucking. Adolescent defiance begins as a healthy part of development. We believe it is important to notices naughty behavior, it is not always necessary to do something about it. “Peek-a-boo, I see you,” is good enough. It lets the adolescent know you are watching.   Ignoring is one of the parental sins. But it is tempting to ignore what we feel we can do nothing about.
  9. The parents were parentified in their family of origin. These parents were 50 since they were five, and they have been parents for so long they are “biologically” unable to do anything wrong. For example, in a moment of insight, in the fifth interview, the father of an angry defiant son surprised us when he discovered his jealousy of his son for being able to be defiant. Father complained he was so good as a child, he never got any credit for misbehaving. The dynamic here is that he is covertly defiant but lacks the courage to do what his son does. The therapist suggested to the father, both tenderly and playfully, “Your son might feel better if you got a tattoo.”
  10. The family image takes precedence over family spirit. These families do the right thing, belong to the right groups, are well respected in the community, but when they appear for therapy the only family member who appears alive is the defiant child. This child will not settle for the plastic existence of the rest of the family, making explicit the duplicitous nature of the family. From the outside they are an appealing, successful family by all standards. Internally they are disconnected and remain together only to support the image. The community may force the image on the family when they have “VIP” status, such as pastor, police officer, teacher or physician. The family may be cornered by the way they are seen. Thus the defiant child may be attempting to free the parents from the demands of their reputation.
  11. The family is isolated. This isolation may be due to chronic illness, alcoholism, poor resources, family violence or shame. Isolation may also result from “VIP” status. The isolation is both protective and problematic, as noted above.

images-3It is important to know that what I just described exist outside of a family’s awareness. This is where a therapeutic presence grounded in clinical experience becomes so important. These features are components of our model for how defiance-activating processes work, based in our experience. The clinician must be alert to the process dynamics to get a clearer sense of the terrain. Awareness of how these family members interact not only with each other but also with the community gives the therapist a clearer sense of the function the defiant symptom serves. These underlying dynamics become clear as the therapist gets to know them better. As engagement deepens the therapist is able to see differently.


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