“Self-Questioning”: An Important Ingredient In Family Health

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Dave: Here are some final reflections on my recent posts regarding the Martin family. (See posts from 9/23 and 9/25).

In this series of postings I have described and illustrated a rather subtle, yet insidious family pattern characterized by  invisible (unconscious) demands for false togetherness, the demand that all family members pretend to think the same. This enforced “togetherness”  has a formidable, unyielding tone, suggesting it is not to be questioned. The family in my illustration, the Martins, was stabilized by the fact that John is a problem, perpetually breaking rules. His behavior was viewed as defiant by the parents, when in my view it seemed fairly innocent; what kids do when they are growing and trying to figure out how to be a person.  Enforced group-think inhibits growth.

Mother is a woman who knows how to “act” as though composed, calm. After being married to an assaultive madman, she married a tacit, reasonable images-7Corrections Officer or prison guard. I did not sense he was abusive to her, but he was silent and distant, qualities which constitute a type of emotional regulation to a woman with her history, whose self is likely to stay hidden around any man. Naturally, the new husband does not like her to be upset, and together they imposed prison-like rules on John. Probably not physically threatening—but domineering—questioning not allowed. Spontaneity not allowed.

As I said, my interview pattern destabilizes fixed, dogmatic ideas. The destabilization is subtle; parallel,  not directly confronting. Talking with me ever-so slightly destabilized the foundations of pseudo-togetherness  on which a family’s narrative is based—it is inevitable. I had no investment in defining John as a problem. This enforced unity arising out of the couple’s living patterns stabilized the world for this tightly choreographed odd couple.  This kind of rigidly organized “togetherness” neutralizes the impact of chaos, crisis and uncertainty that characterizes modern living.

It is of interest that in the post-interview hallway monologue she did not say a word about John, except for the short sentence I quoted. She talked only about his father, the destructive crazyman who was her ex-husband. This  systematic unity is based in a narrative that serves to keep anxiety/craziness/ confusion/ambiguity at bay; and in this case to stabilize the marriage. In retrospect the family interview had virtually no momentum, no spontaneity.

unknown-2Of course I seem to have developed my own alternative systematic characterization. I am characterizing a unified view, but I like to think my characterization is more dynamic, “collideroscopic”, if you can stand a pun. Thus it is a destabilizing characterization, it has ambiguous words in it. Puns and irony are made of playful ambiguous words. My view is open-ended. Instead of reducing anxiety my pattern of questioning increases anxiety in the interest of creating the possibility for change. I was disappointed they did not return. I have the feeling the step-father called it off. He was the family’s thought monitor.


I am promoting an elusive idea. It is an idea that challenges common assumptions. It demonstrates how a family can be dependent on a growing child’s symptoms to stay together. It creates a unity which does not nurture, it restricts. The parents can be united by John’s misbehavior whatever it is. Mother is anxious and fearful of raising a copy of her ex-husband. Her current husband’s harshness is covert. It is likely he manages her with withdrawal, with silence. She is phobic, terrified of a man’s anger whatever form it takes, whether overt or covert.

They came seeking help. I give the man credit for coming to my office, 50 miles from their home. In order to get help in my framework, the people who become patients have to learn to question themselves. Becoming a patient means learning to use a relationship in order to question oneself. I think Mrs. Martin was in a state of perpetual self-questioning, always on the edge of chaos. Mr. Martin’s mindset made self-questioning unnecessary, irrelevant.

unknown-2I’m reminded of some dynamics which we find in our current political scene.   There are strong conservative populist movements afoot in the political dynamics of the U.S. and Western Europe. Here in the U.S. the spokesman for one kind of  populist movement, a presidential candidate, is a role model for deflecting responsibility and avoiding serious self-questioning.

I am writing about something I consider elusive, I hope I have brought sufficient clarity to the topic. I think of this blog as a forum;  a place to meet and share ideas. I invite your comments, your questions, your critique.


  1. As I read through your article, I make associations with various situations in which I was face to face with clients, husband, father. I recognize these kind of worries: the fear of men’s anger, the choice of a relating with distant men, the illusive consensus, the disappointment of them not being willing to come back, be impacted and question themselves. All of these include some small doses of loss. I quess I ask myself: when faced with such losses is it better to grieve or better to keep disrupting the pattern. I think I found an answer, reading this article: it is appropriate for the therapist to grieve about such losses and it is appropriate for the identified patient to keep being disruptive in that way, till the pressure of change is irreversible and they have to deal with what they were avoiding.

    I also realize, now considering it, the real efforts we make in life seem to be “avoiding” to confront ourselves with our major pains. It is not an effort to face them, feel them, express them. That’s a relief. And ironically, our biggest fear.

  2. I wonder if the presidential candidate with the „i didnt do it“ inner life of a 4 year old would have developed different if his pretty wife(s) would have found a way to make him take the garbage out every evening.

    You are right – questioning onself in a constructive way is not related to the Gods.

  3. When watching the current debates in our Austrian politics but also the US campain, I cant stop the feeling of being a kid among two passionate parents amidst a dirty divorce. Its her fault, its his fault.

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