Excerpts from Must Read Books & Articles on Mental
Books, Part X
The Pragmatics of Human Communication- Paul
Watzlawick, et al.
Chapter III, Pathological Communication, pp. 72-117
Each of the axioms just described implies, as corollaries, certain inherent pathologies
that will now be elaborated. In our opinion, the pragmatic effects of these axioms can be
illustrated best by relating them to disturbances that can develop in human communication.
That is, given certain principles of communication, we shall examine in what ways and with
what consequences these principles can be distorted. It will be seen that the behavioral
consequences of such phenomena often correspond to various individual psychopathologies,
so that in addition to exemplifying our theory we will be suggesting another framework in
which the behavior usually seen as symptomatic of mental illness may be viewed.
The Impossibility of Not Communicating
Mention has already been made in the foregoing of the dilemma when it was pointed out
that mentally ill patients sometimes behave as if they tried to deny that they are
communicating and then find it necessary to deny also that their denial is itself a
communication. But it is equally possible that the patient may seem to want to communicate
without, however, accepting the commitment inherent in all communication. For example, a
young woman bounced into a psychiatrist's office for her first interview and cheerfully
announced: "My mother had to get married and now I am here." It took weeks to
elucidate some of the many meanings she had condensed into this statement, meanings that
were at the same time disqualified both by their cryptic format and by her display of
apparent humor and zestfulness. Her gambit, as it turned out, was supposed to inform the
(1) she was the result of an illegitimate pregnancy;
(2) this fact had somehow caused her psychosis;
(3) "had to get married," referring to the shotgun nature of the mother's
wedding, could either mean that Mother was not to be blamed because social pressure had
forced her into the marriage, or that Mother resented the forced nature of the situation
and blamed the patient's existence for it;
(4) "here" meant both the psychiatrist's office and the patient's existence on
earth, and thus implied that on the one hand Mother had driven her crazy while on the
other hand she had to be eternally indebted to her mother who had sinned and suffered to
bring her into the world.
This, then, is a language which leaves it up to the listener to take
his choice from among many possible meanings which are not only different from but may
even be incompatible with one another. Thus, it becomes possible to deny any or all
aspects of a message. If pressed for an answer to what she had meant by her remark, the
patient above could conceivably have said casually: "Oh, I don't know; I guess I must
be crazy." If asked for an elucidation of any one aspect of it, she could have
answered: "Oh no, this is not at all what I meant. . . ." But even though
condensed beyond, immediate recognition, her statement is a cogent description of the
paradoxical situation in which she finds herself, and the remark "I must be
crazy" could be quite appropriate in view of the amount of self-deception necessary
to adapt herself to this paradoxical universe. For an extensive discussion of negation of
communication in schizophrenia, the reader is referred to Jay Haley (60, pp.
89-99), where there is a suggestive analogy to the clinical subgroups of schizophrenia.
The converse situation exists in Through the Looking Glass when
Alice's straightforward communication is corrupted by the Red and the White Queens'
"brainwashing." They allege that Alice is trying to deny something and attribute
this to her state of mind:
"I'm sure I didn't mean-" Alice was beginning, but the Red Queen interrupted
"That's just what I complain of! You should have meant! What do you suppose is
the use of a child without any meaning? Even a joke should have a meaning--and a child is
more important than a joke, I hope. You couldn't deny that, even if you tried with both
"I don't deny things with my hands," Alice objected.
"Nobody said you did," said the Red Queen. "I said you couldn't if you
"She is in that state of mind," said the White Queen, "that she wants to
deny something--only she doesn't know what to deny!"
"A nasty, vicious temper," the Red Queen remarked; and then there was an
uncomfortable silence for a minute or two.
One can only marvel at the author's intuitive insight into the pragmatic effects of
this kind of illogical communication, for after some more of this brainwashing he lets
Alice faint. The phenomenon in question, however, is not limited to fairy tales or
mental illness. It has much wider implications for human interaction. Conceivably the
attempt not to communicate will exist in any other context in which the commitment
inherent in all communication is to be avoided. A typical situation of this kind is the
meeting of two strangers, one of whom wants to make conversation and the other does not,
e.g., two airplane passengers sitting next to each other. Let passenger A be the one
who does not want to talk. There are two things he cannot do: he cannot physically leave
the field, and he cannot not communicate. The pragmatics of this communicational context
are thus narrowed down to a very few possible reactions:
"Rejection" of Communication
Passenger A can make it clear to passenger B, more or less bluntly, that he is not
interested in conversation. Since by the rules of good behavior this is reproachable, it
will require courage and will create a rather strained and embarrassing silence, so that a
relationship with B has not in fact been avoided.
Acceptance of Communication
Passenger A may give in and make conversation. In all probability he will hate himself and
the other person for his own weakness, but this shall not concern us. What is significant
is that he will soon realize the wisdom of the army rule that "in case of capture
give only name, rank, and serial number," for passenger B may not be willing to stop
halfway; he may be determined to find out all about A. including the latter's thoughts,
feelings, and beliefs. And once A has started to respond, he will find it increasingly
difficult to stop, a fact that is well known to "brainwashers."
Disqualification of Communication
A may defend himself by means of the important technique of disqualification, i.e., he may
communicate in a way that invalidates his own communications or those of the other.
Disqualifications cover a wide range of communicational phenomena, such as
self-contradictions, inconsistencies, subject switches, tangentializations, incomplete
sentences, misunderstandings, obscure style or mannerisms of speech, the literal
interpretations of metaphor and the metaphorical interpretation of literal remarks, etc.
A splendid example of this type of communication is given in the opening scene of
the motion picture Lolita when Quilty, threatened by the pistol-wielding Humbert, goes
into a paroxysm of verbal and nonverbal gibberish while his rival tries in vain to get
across his message: "Look, I am going to shoot you!" (The concept of motivation
is of little use in deciding whether this is sheer panic or a clever defense.) Another
example is that delightful piece of logical nonsense by Lewis Carroll, the poem read by
the white Rabbit:
They told me you had been to her,
And mentioned me to him:
She gave me a good character,
But said I could not swim.
He sent them word I had not gone
(We knew it to be true):
If she should push the matter on,
What would become of you?
I gave her one, they gave him two,
You gave us three or more;
They all returned from him to you,
Though they were mine before.
And so on for three more stanzas. If we now compare this with an excerpt from an
interview with a normal volunteer subject who is obviously uncomfortable in answering a
question put to him by the interviewer but feels that he should answer it, we find that
his communication is suggestively similar both in its form and in the paucity of its
Interviewer: How does it work out, Mr. R., with your parents
living in the same town as you and your family?
Mr. R: Well we try, uh, very personally I mean . . . uh, I prefer
that Mary [his wife] takes the lead with them, rather than my taking the lead or what. I
like to see them, but I don't try too much to make it a point to be running over or have
them . . . they know very definitely that . . . oh, it's been always before Mary and I
ever met and it was a thing that was pretty much just an accepted fact--in our family I
was an only child--and they preferred that they would never, to the best of their ability,
not, ah, interfere. I don't think there is . . . in any case I think there is always a-an
underlying current there in any family, I don't care whether it's our family or any
family. And it is something that even Mary and I feel when we . . . both of us are rather
perfectionists. And, ah, yet again, we're very . . . we are . . . we are st- rigid and . .
. we expect that of the children and we feel that if you got to watch out--I mean, if ah .
. . you can have interference with in-laws, we feel, we've seen others with it and we've
just . . . it's been a thing that my own family tried to guard against, but ah . . . and,
uh, like here--why we've . . . I wouldn't say we are standoffish to the folks.
It is not surprising that this kind of communication is typically
resorted to by anybody who is caught in a situation in which he feels obliged to
communicate but at the same time wants to avoid the commitment inherent in all
communication. From the communicational point of view there is, therefore, no essential
difference between the behavior of a so-called normal individual who -has fallen into the
hands of an experienced interviewer and of a so-called mentally disturbed individual who
finds himself in the identical dilemma: neither can leave the field, neither can not
communicate but presumably for reasons of their own are afraid or unwilling to do so. In
either case the outcome is likely to be gibberish, except that in the case of the mental
patient the interviewer, if he be a symbol-minded depth psychologist, will tend to see it
only in terms of unconscious manifestations, while for the patient these communications
may be a good way of keeping his interviewer happy by means of the gentle art of saying
nothing by saying something. Similarly, an analysis in terms of "cognitive
impairment" or "irrationality" ignores the necessary consideration of context
in the evaluation of such communications. Let us once more point to the fact
that at the clinical end of the behavioral spectrum, "crazy" communication
(behavior) is not necessarily the manifestation of a sick mind, but may be the only
possible reaction to an absurd or untenable communication context.
The Symptom As Communication
Finally, there is a fourth response passenger A can use to defend himself against B's
loquacity: he can feign sleepiness, deafness, drunkenness, ignorance of English, or any
other defect or inability that will render communication justifiably impossible. In all
these cases, then, the message is the same, namely, "I would not mind talking to you,
but something stronger than I, for which I cannot be blamed, prevents me." This
invocation of powers or 'reasons beyond one's ' control still has a rub: A knows that he
really is cheating. But the communicational "ploy" becomes perfect once a person
has convinced himself that he is at the mercy of forces beyond his control and thereby has
freed himself of both censure by significant others as well as the pangs of his own
conscience. This, however, is just a more complicated way of saying that he has a
(psychoneurotic, psychosomatic, or psychotic) symptom. Margaret Mead, in describing the
difference between American and Russian personalities, remarked that an American might use
the excuse of having a headache to get out of going to a party but the Russian would
actually have the headache. In psychiatry, Fromm-Reichmann, in a little-known paper,
pointed out the use of catatonic symptoms as communication, and in 1954 Jackson indicated
the utility of the patient's use of hysterical symptoms in communicating with his family.
For extensive studies of the symptom as communication the reader is referred to Szasz and
This communicational definition of a symptom may seem to contain a moot
assumption, namely that one can convince oneself in this way. Instead of the rather
unconvincing argument that everyday clinical experience fully supports this assumption, we
should like to mention McGinnies' experiments on "perceptual defense". A subject
is placed in front of a tachistoscope, a device by which words can be made visible for
very brief periods of time in a small window. The subject's threshold is determined for a
few trial words and he is then instructed to report to the experimenter whatever he sees
or thinks he sees on each subsequent exposure. The list of test words is composed of both
neutral and "critical," emotionally-toned words, e.g., rape, filth, whore. A
comparison between the subject's performance with the neutral and with the critical words
shows significantly higher thresholds of recognition for the latter, that is, he
"sees" fewer of these words. But this means that in order to produce more
failures with the socially tabooed words, the subject must first identify them as such and
then somehow convince himself that he was unable to read them. Thus he spares himself the
embarrassment of having to read them out loud to the experimenter. (In this regard, we
should mention that, in general, psychological testing must consider the communicational
context of these tests. There can hardly be any doubt, for instance, that it must make
quite a difference to the subject and his performance whether he has to communicate with a
shriveled old professor, a robot, or a beautiful blonde. In fact Rosenthal's recent
careful investigations into experimenter bias have confirmed that complex and highly
effective though as yet unspecifiable communication transpires even in rigidly controlled
Let us recapitulate. Communication theory conceives of a symptom as a
nonverbal message: It is not I who does not (or does) want to do this, it is something
outside my control, e.g., my nerves, my illness, my anxiety, my bad eyes, alcohol, my
upbringing, the Communists, or my wife.
The Level Structure of Communication
(Content and Relationship)
A couple in conjoint marriage therapy related the following incident. The husband,
while alone at home, received a long-distance call from a friend who said he would be in
the area for a few days. The husband immediately invited the friend to stay at their home,
knowing that his wife would also welcome this friend and that, therefore, she would have
done the same thing. When his wife came home, however, a bitter marital quarrel arose over
the husband's invitation to the friend. As the problem was explored in the therapy
session, both the husband and wife agreed that to invite the friend was the most
appropriate and natural thing to do. They were perplexed to find that on the one hand they
agreed and yet ..somehow disagreed on what seemed to be the same issue.
In actual fact there were two issues involved in the dispute. One
involved the appropriate course of action in a practical matter, that is, the invitation,
and could be communicated digitally; the other concerned the relationship between the
communicants--the question of who had the right to take initiative without consulting the
other--and could not be so easily resolved digitally, for it presupposed the ability of
the husband and wife to talk about their relationship. In their attempt to resolve
their disagreement this couple committed a very common mistake in their communication:
they disagreed on the metacommunicational (relationship) level, but tried to resolve the
disagreement on the content level, where it did not exist, which led them into
pseudo-disagreements. Another husband, also seen in conjoint therapy, managed to discover
by himself and to state in his own words the difference between the content and the
relationship levels. He and his wife had experienced many violent symmetrical escalations,
usually based on the question of who was right regarding some trivial content matter. One
day she was able to prove to him conclusively that he was factually wrong, and he replied,
"Well, you may be right, but you are wrong because you are arguing with
me." Any psychotherapist is familiar with these confusions between the content
and relationship aspects of an issue, especially in marital communication, and with the
enormous difficulty of diminishing the confusion. While to the therapist the monotonous
redundancy of pseudo-disagreements between husbands and wives becomes evident fairly
quickly, the protagonists usually see every one of them in isolation and as totally new,
simply because the practical, objective issues involved may be drawn from a wide range of
activities, from TV programs to corn flakes to sex. This situation has been masterfully
described by Koestler: "Family relations pertain to a plane where the ordinary rules
of judgment and conduct do not apply. They are a labyrinth of tensions, quarrels and
reconciliations, whose logic is self-contradictory, whose ethics stem from a cozy jungle,
and whose values and criteria are distorted like the curved space of a self-contained
universe. It is a universe saturated with memories--but memories from which no lessons are
drawn; saturated with a past which provides no guidance to the future. For in this
universe, after each crisis and reconciliation, time always starts afresh and history is
always in the year zero."
The phenomenon of disagreement provides a good frame of reference for
the study of disturbances of communication due to confusion between content and
relationship. Disagreement can arise on the content or the relationship level, and the two
forms are contingent upon each other. For instance, disagreement over the truth value of
the statement "Uranium has 92 electrons" can apparently be settled only by
recourse to objective evidence, e.g., a textbook of chemistry, for this evidence not only
proves that the uranium atom does indeed have 92 electrons, but that one of the
contestants was right and the other wrong. Of these two results, the first resolves the
disagreement on the content level, and the other creates a relationship problem. Now,
quite obviously, to resolve this new problem the two individuals cannot continue to talk
about atoms; they must begin to talk about themselves and their relationship. To do this
they must achieve a definition of their relationship as symmetrical or complementary: for
example the one who was wrong may admire the other for his superior knowledge, or resent
his superiority and resolve to be one-up on him at the next possible occasion in order to
re-establish equality. Of course, if he could not wait until that next occasion, he could
use the "to hell with logic" approach and try to be one-up by claiming that the
figure 92 must be a misprint, or that he has a scientist friend who has just shown that
the number of electrons is really quite meaningless, etc. A fine example of this technique
is supplied by Russian and Chinese party ideologists with their hair-splitting
interpretations of what Marx "really" meant in order to show what bad Marxists
the others are. In such struggles words may eventually lose their last vestige of content
meaning and become exclusively the tools of one-upmanship, as stated with admirable
clarity by Humpty Dumpty:
"I don't know what you mean by 'glory,"' Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't--till I tell you. I meant
'there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'
"But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument,"' Alice objected.
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it
means just what I choose it to mean-neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master-that's
all." (Last italics ours)
This, then, is merely another way of saying that in the face of their disagreement the
two individuals have to define their relationship as either complementary or symmetrical.
Definition of Self and Other
Now suppose that the same statement about uranium is made by one physicist to another. A
very different kind of interaction may arise from this, for most probably the other's
response will be anger, hurt, or sarcasm-"I know you think I am a complete idiot, but
I did go to school for a few years . . ." or the like. What is different in this
interaction is the fact that here there is no disagreement on the content level. The truth
value of the statement is not contested; in fact, the statement actually conveys no
information since what it asserts on the content level is known to both partners anyway.
It is this fact--the agreement on the content level--that clearly refers the disagreement
to the relationship level, in other words, to the metacommunicational realm. There,
however, disagreement amounts to something that is pragmatically far more important than
disagreement on the content level. As we have seen, on the relationship level people do
not communicate about facts outside their relationship, but offer each other definitions
of that relationship and, by implication, of themselves. These definitions have
their own hierarchy of complexity. Thus, to take an arbitrary starting point, person P may
offer the other, O, a definition of self. P may do this in one or another of many possible
ways, but whatever and however he may communicate on the content level, the prototype of
his metacommunication will be "This is how I see myself." It is in the nature of
human communication that there are now three possible responses by O to P's
self-definition, and all three of them are of great importance for the pragmatics of human
O can accept (confirm) P's definition of self. As far as we can see, this confirmation of
P's view of himself by O is probably the greatest single factor ensuring mental
development and stability that has so far emerged from our study of communication.
Surprising as it may seem, without this self-confirming effect human communication would
hardly have evolved beyond the very limited boundaries of the interchanges indispensable
for protection and survival; there would be no reason for communication for the mere sake
of communication. Yet everyday experience leaves no doubt that a large portion of our
communications are devoted precisely to this purpose. The vast gamut of emotions that
individuals feel for each other--from love to hate--would probably hardly exist, and we
would live in a world devoid of anything except the most utilitarian endeavors, a world
devoid of beauty, poetry, play, and humor. It seems that, quite apart from the mere
exchange of information, man has to communicate with others for the sake of his own
awareness of self, and experimental verification of this intuitive assumption is
increasingly being supplied by research on sensory deprivation, showing that man is unable
to maintain his emotional stability for prolonged periods in communication with himself
only. We feel that what the existentialists refer to as the encounter belongs here, as
well as any other form of increased awareness of self that comes about as the result of
working out a relationship with another individual. "In human society," writes
Martin Buber, "at all its levels, persons confirm one another in a practical way, to
some extent or other, in their personal qualities and capacities, and a society may be
termed human in the measure to which its members confirm one another. . . . The basis of
man's life with man is twofold, and it is one--the wish of every man to be confirmed as
what he is, even as what he can become, by men; and the innate capacity of man to confirm
his fellowman in this way. That this capacity lies so immeasurably fallow constitutes the
real weakness and questionableness of the human race: actual humanity exists only where
this capacity unfolds."
The second possible response of O in the face of P's definition of himself is to reject
it. Rejection, however, no matter how painful, presupposes at least limited recognition of
what is being rejected and, therefore, does not necessarily negate the reality of P's view
of himself. In fact, certain forms of rejection may even be constructive, as for instance
a psychiatrist's refusal to accept a patient's definition of self in the transference
situation in which the patient may typically try to impose his "relationship
game" on the therapist. The reader is here referred to two authors who within their
own conceptual frameworks have written extensively on this subject, Eric Berne and Jay
The third possibility is probably the most important one, from both the pragmatic and the
psychopathological viewpoints. It is the phenomenon of disconfirmation, which, as we will
see, is quite different from that of outright rejection of the other's definition of self.
We are drawing here partly on the material presented by R.D.Laing of the Tavistock
Institute of Human Relations in London, in addition to our own findings in the field of
schizophrenic communication. Laing quotes William James, who once wrote: "No more
fiendish punishment could be devised, even were such a thing physically possible, than
that one should be turned loose in society and remain absolutely unnoticed by all the
members thereof". There can be little doubt that such a situation would lead to
"loss of self," which is but a translation of the term "alienation."
Disconfirmation, as we find it in pathological communication, is no longer concerned with
the truth or falsity--if there be such criteria--of P's definition of himself, but rather
negates the reality of P as the source of such a definition. In other words, while
rejection amounts to the message "You are wrong," disconfirmation says in effect
"You do not exist." Or, to put it in more rigorous terms, if confirmation and
rejection of the other's self were equated, in formal logic, to the concepts of truth and
falsity, respectively, then disconfirmation would correspond to the concept of
undecidability, which, as is known, is of a different logical order.
Sometimes--admittedly rarely--literal undecidability may play an
outstanding part in a relationship, as can be seen from the following transcript from a
conjoint therapy session. The couple concerned had sought help because their sometimes
violent quarrels left them deeply worried about their mutual failure as spouses. They had
been married for twenty-one years. The husband was an eminently successful business man.
At the beginning of this interchange, the wife had just remarked that in all these years
she had never known where she stood with him.
Psychiatrist: So what you are saying is that you don't get the clues from your
husband that you need to know if you are performing well.
Psychiatrist: Does Dan criticize you when you deserve criticism--I mean, positive or
Husband: Rarely do I criticize her . . .
Wife: (overlapping): Rarely does he criticize.
Psychiatrist: Well, how--how do you know ...
Wife: (interrupting): He compliments you. (Short laugh.) You see, that is the befuddling
thing ... Suppose I cook something and I burn it--well, he says it's really "very,
very nice." Then, if I make something that is extra nice--well, it is "very,
very nice." I told him I don't know whether something is nice--I don't know whether
he is criticizing me or complimenting me. Because he thinks that by complimenting me he
can compliment me into doing better, and when I deserve a compliment, he--he is always
complimenting me--that's right, . . .so that I lose the value of the compliment.
Psychiatrist: So you really don't know where you stand with someone who always compliments
. . .
Wife: (interrupting): No, I don't know whether he is criticizing me or really sincerely
What makes this example so interesting is that although both spouses are evidently
fully aware of the pattern they are caught in, this awareness does not help them in the
least to do something about it.
To quote Laing: "The characteristic family pattern that has
emerged from the study of disturbed families does not so much involve a child who is
subject to outright neglect or even to obvious trauma, but a child whose authenticity has
been subjected to subtle, but persistent, mutilation, often quite unwittingly. The
ultimate of this is . . . when no matter how [a person] feels or how he acts, no matter
what meaning he gives his situation, his feelings are denuded of validity, his acts are
stripped of their motives, intentions and consequences, the situation is robbed of its
meaning for him, so that he is totally mystified and alienated."
And now a specific example that has been published in greater detail
elsewhere. It is taken from a conjoint psychotherapy session with an entire family
composed of the parents, their twenty-five year-old son Dave (who was first officially
diagnosed schizophrenic while in military service at age twenty and had afterward lived at
home until about a year before this interview, when he had been hospitalized), and their
eighteen-year-old son, Charles. When the discussion focused on how the patient's weekend
visits strained the family, the psychiatrist pointed out that it seemed as if Dave were
being asked to bear the intolerable burden of the whole family's solicitude. Dave thus
became the sole indicator of how well or poorly things went over the weekend.
Surprisingly, the patient immediately took up this point:
Dave: Well, I feel that sometimes my parents, and Charles also, are very
sensitive to how I might feel, maybe overly sensitive about how I feel, cause I don't--I
don't feel I raise the roof when I go home, or . . .
Mother: Mhm. Dave, you haven't been like that either since you had your car, it's
just--but before you did.
Dave: Well, I know I did . . .
Mother: (overlapping): Yeah, but even--yeah, lately, the last twice since you had
Dave: Yeah, OK, anyhow, ah (sigh), that's-ah, I wish 1 didn't have to be that way, I
guess, 'it'd be nice if I could enjoy myself or somethin' (sighs; pause)
Psychiatrist: You know, you change your story in mid-stream when your mother is nice to
you. Which . . . is understandable, but in your position you just can't afford to do it.
Dave: (overlapping): Mhm.
Psychiatrist: It makes you kookier. Then you don't even know what you're thinking.
Mother: What did he change?
Psychiatrist: Well, I can't read his mind so I don't know what he was going to say
precisely--I have a general idea, I think, just from experience . . .
Dave: (interrupting): Well, it's just, just the story that I'm the sick one in the family
and so this gives everyone else a-a chance to be a good Joe and pick up Dave's spirits whether
Dave's spirits are necessarily down or not. That's what it amounts to
sometimes, I feel. In other words, I can't be anything but myself, and if people don't
like me the way they am--ah, the way I am--then I appreciate when they--tell me
or something, is what it amounts to.
The patient's slip of the tongue illuminates his dilemma: he says
"I can't be anything but myself," but the question remains, is myself
"I" or "they"? Simply to call this an evidence of "weak ego
boundaries" or the like ignores the interactional fact of disconfirmation just
presented, not only in Dave's report on his weekend visits but by the mother's immediate
disconfirmation in the present example (statements 1-5) of the validity of Dave's
impression. In the light of both present and reported disconfirmation of his self, the
patient's slip emerges in a new aspect.
Levels of Interpersonal Perception
At last we are ready to return to the hierarchy of messages that is found when
analyzing communications on the relationship level. We have seen that P's definition of
self ("This is how I see myself . . .") can be met with one of three possible
responses by O: confirmation, rejection, or disconfirmation. Now, these three responses
have one common denominator, i.e., through any one of them O communicates "This is
how I am seeing you."
There is, then, in the discourse on the metacommunicational level, a
message from P to O: "This is how I see myself." It is followed by a message
from O to P: "This is how I am seeing you." To this message P will respond by a
message asserting, among other things, "This is how I see you seeing me," and O
in turn by the message "This is how I see you seeing me seeing you." As already
suggested, this regress is theoretically infinite, while for practical purposes it must be
assumed that one cannot deal with messages of a higher order of abstraction than the last
one mentioned. Now, it should be noted that any one of these messages can be subjected by
the recipient to the same confirmation, rejection, or disconfirmation described above, and
that the same holds, of course, for O's definition of self and the ensuing simultaneous
metacommunicational discourse with P. This leads to communicational contexts whose
complexity easily staggers the imagination and yet which have very specific pragmatic
Not very much is as yet known about these consequences, but very promising
research in this area is being carried out by Laing, Phillipson and Lee, who have given us
permission to quote here some of their results from an unpublished paper. Disconfirmation
of self by the other is mainly the result of a peculiar unawareness of interpersonal
perceptions, called imperviousness and defined by Lee as follows:
What we are concerned with is the aspect of awareness and unawareness. For smooth,
adequate interaction to occur, each party must register the other's point of view. Since
interpersonal perception goes on on many levels, so, too, can imperviousness go on on many
levels. For there exists for each level of perception a comparable and analogous level of
possible imperception or imperviousness. Where a lack of accurate awareness, or
imperviousness, exists, the parties in a dyad relate about pseudo-issues. . . . They
attain an assumed harmony which does not exist, or argue over assumed disagreements that
similarly do not exist. It is this which I find to be the characteristic situation within
a distrubed family: they are constantly building harmonious relationships on the shifting
sands of pseudo-agreements or else have violent arguments on the basis of
Lee then goes on to show that imperviousness can exist on the first level of the
hierarchy, that is, to P's message "This is how I see myself" O responds,
"This is how I see you," in a way which is not congruent with P's
self-definition. P may then conclude that O does not understand (or appreciate, or love)
him while O, on the other hand, may assume that P feels understood (or appreciated, or
loved) by him (O). In this case, O does not disagree with P, but ignores or misinterprets
P's message, and thus is consistent with our definition of disconfirmation. A second-level
imperviousness can be said to exist when P does not register that his message has not
gotten through to O; that is, P does not convey accurately "This is how I see you
seeing [in this case, misunderstanding] me." At this level, then, imperviousness to
From their study of disturbed families, Lee describes an important
conclusion about the pragmatics of this kind of communication:
The typical pattern is that the parental imperviousness exists on level No. 1, while
the child's imperviousness exists on level NO. 2. That is, typically the parent fails to
register his child's view, while the child does not register that his view has not been
(and perhaps cannot be) registered.
Most often the parent appears to remain impervious to the child's view
because he feels it is uncomplimentary to him, or because it does not fit his value
system. That is, the parent insists that the child does believe what he (the parent) feels
the child "should" believe. The child, in turn, fails to recognize this. He
believes that his message has gotten through and has been understood, and acts
accordingly. In such a situation he is bound to be confused by the subsequent'
interaction. He feels as if he continuously runs into an invisible solid glass wall. This
results in his experiencing a continuous sense of mystification which leads to dismay and
eventually to despair. Ultimately he feels that life just does not make any sense.
Such a child, during the course of therapy, finally realized this state
of affairs, and stated his dilemma this way: "Whenever I disagree with my mother she
seems to say to herself, 'oh, I know what you are saying out loud, but I know that isn't
what you really think inside,' and then she proceeds to forget what I have just
A rich variety of clinical illustrations of imperviousness at the relationship level as
just described can be found in Laing and Esterson:
|Some Attributions Made by Parents about Patient
||Often depressed and frightened
|Her real self is vivacious and cheerful
||Kept up a front
|No disharmony in family
||Disharmony so complete that impossible to tell her parents anything
|They have never kept her on a string
||By sarcasm, prayer, ridicule, attempted to govern her life in all
|Has a mind of her own
||True in a sense, but still too terrified of father to tell him her real
feelings, still feels controlled by him
The Punctuation of the Sequence of Events
"He laughed because he thought that they could not hit him--he did not
imagine that they were practicing how to miss him"- Bertoldt Brecht
A few examples of the potential complications inherent in this phenomenon have already
been presented in the preceding chapter. They show that unresolved discrepancies in the
punctuation of communicational sequences can lead directly into interactional impasses in
which eventually the mutual charges of madness or badness are proffered.
Discrepancies in the punctuation of sequences of events occur, of course, in all those
cases in which at least one of the communicants does not possess the same amount of
information as the other but does not know this. A simple example of such a sequence would
be the following: P writes a letter to O proposing a joint venture and inviting O's
participation. O replies in the affirmative, but the letter is lost in the mail. After a
while P concludes that O is ignoring his invitation and resolves to disregard him in turn.
O, on the other hand, feels offended that his answer is ignored and also decides not to
contact P any more. From this point their silent feud may last forever, unless they decide
to investigate what happened to their communications, that is, unless they begin to
metacommunicate. Only then will they find out that P did not know O had replied, while O
did not know that his reply had never reached P. As can be seen, in this example a
fortuitous outside event interfered with the congruency of punctuation.
One of the authors experienced this phenomenon of discrepant
punctuation when he once applied for an assistantship with a psychiatric research
institute. At the appointed hour he reported to the director's office for his interview
and the following conversation took place with the receptionist:
Visitor: Good afternoon, I have an appointment with Dr. H. My
name is Watzlawick [VAHTsla-vick].
Receptionist: I did not say it was.
Visitor: (taken aback and somewhat annoyed): But I am telling you
Receptionist: (bewildered): Why then--did you say it wasn't?
Visitor: But I said it was!
At this point the visitor was "certain" that he was being made the object of
some incomprehensible but disrespectful joke, while, as it turned out, the receptionist
had by then decided that the visitor must be a new psychotic patient of Dr. H's.
Eventually it became clear that instead of "My name is Watzlawick" the
receptionist had understood "My name is not Slavic," which, indeed, she had
never said it was. It is interesting to see how even in this brief interchange in a rather
impersonal context the discrepant punctuation, here due to a verbal misunderstanding,
immediately led to mutual assumptions of badness and madness.
Generally speaking, it is gratuitous to assume not only that the other
has the same amount of information as oneself but that the other must draw the same
conclusions from this information. Communication experts have estimated that a person
receives ten thousand sensory impressions (exteroceptive and proprioceptive) per second.
Obviously, then, a drastic selection process is necessary to prevent the higher brain
centers from being swamped by irrelevant information. But the decision about what is
essential and what is irrelevant apparently varies from individual to individual and seems
to be determined by criteria which are largely outside individual awareness. In all
probability, reality is what we make it or, in Hamlet's words, ". . . there is
nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." We can only speculate that at
the root of these punctuation conflicts there lies the firmly established and usually
unquestioned conviction that there is only one reality, the world as I see it, and that
any view that differs from mine must be due to the other's irrationality or ill will. So
much for our speculations. What we can observe in virtually all these cases of
pathological communication is that they are vicious circles that cannot be broken unless
and until communication itself becomes the subject of communication, in other words, until
the communicants are able to metacommunicate. But to do this they have to step outside the
circle, and this necessity to step outside a given contingency in order to resolve it will
be a recurrent theme in later parts of this book.
Cause And Effect
We typically observe in these cases of discrepant punctuation a conflict about
what is cause and what is effect, when in actual fact neither of these concepts is
applicable because of the circularity of the ongoing interaction. To return once more to
Joad's example, we can see that nation A arms because it feels threatened by nation
B (that is, A sees its own behavior as the effect of B's), while nation B calls A's
armaments the cause of its own "defensive" measures. Richardson points to
essentially the same problem as he describes the arms race that began to escalate about
The war-like preparations of the Entente and of the Alliance were both increasing. The
usual explanation was then, and perhaps still is, that the motives of the two sides were
quite different, for we were only doing what was right, proper and necessary for our own
defense, whilst they were disturbing the peace by indulging in wild schemes and
extravagant ambitions. There are several distinct contrasts in that omnibus statement.
Firstly that their conduct was morally bad, ours morally good. About so national a dispute
it would be difficult to say anything that the world as a whole would accept. But there is
some other alleged contrast as to which there is some hope of general agreement. It was
asserted in the years 1912-14 that their motives' were fixed and independent of
our behaviour whereas our motives were a response to their behaviour and were
From the pragmatic viewpoint there is little if any difference between the interactions
of nations or of individuals once discrepant punctuation has led to different views of
reality, including the nature of the relationship, and thus into international or
interpersonal conflict. The following example shows the same pattern at work on the
Husband: (to therapist): From long experience I know that if I
want peace at home I must not interfere with the way she wants things done.
Wife: That is not true--I wish you showed a little more initiative
and did decide at least something every once in a while, because . .
Husband: (interrupting): You'd never let me do this!
Wife: I'd gladly let you--only if I do, nothing ever happens, and
then I have to do everything at the last moment.
Husband: (to therapist): Can you see? Things can't be taken care of
if and when they come up--they have to be planned and organized a week ahead.
Wife: (angrily): Give me one example in the last few years when you
did do something.
Husband: I guess I can't--because it is better for everybody,
including the children, if I let you have your own way. I found this out very early in our
Wife: You have never behaved differently, right from the start you
didn't--you have always left everything up to me!
Husband: For heaven's sake, now listen to this (pause, then to
therapist)--I guess what she is talking about now is that I would always ask her what she
wanted--like "where would you like to go tonight?" or "what would you like
to do over the weekend?" and instead of seeing that I wanted to be nice to her, she
would get mad at me . . .
Wife: (to therapist): Yeah, what he still doesn't understand is
that if you get this "anything-you-want-dear-is-all-right-with-me" stuff month
after month, you begin to feel that nothing you want matters to him. . . .
The same mechanism is contained in an example reported by Laing and Esterson, involving
a mother and her emotionally disturbed daughter. Shortly before her hospitalization the
daughter had made a very ineffectual physical attack on her mother.
Daughter: Well, why did I attack you? Perhaps I was looking for
something, something lacked--affection, maybe it was greed for affection.
Mother: You wouldn't have any of that. You always think it's soppy.
Daughter: Well, when did you offer it to me?
Mother: Well, for instance if I was to want to kiss you, you'd say,
"Don't be soppy."
Daughter: But I've never known you let me kiss you.
This leads to the important concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy which, from
the interactional viewpoint, is perhaps the most interesting phenomenon in the area of
punctuation. A self-fulfilling prophecy may be regarded as the communicational equivalent
of "begging the question." It is behavior that brings about in others the
reaction to which the behavior would be an appropriate reaction. For instance, a person
who acts on the premise that "nobody likes me" will behave in a distrustful,
defensive, or aggressive manner to which others are likely to react unsympathetically,
thus bearing out his original premise. For the purposes of the pragmatics of human
communication, it is again quite irrelevant to ask why a person should have such a
premise, how it came about, and how unconscious he may be of it. Pragmatically we can
observe that this individual's interpersonal behavior shows this kind of redundancy, and
that it has a complementary effect on others, forcing them into certain specific
attitudes. What is typical about the sequence and makes it a problem of punctuation is
that the individual concerned conceives of himself only as reacting to, but not as
provoking, those attitudes.
Errors in the "Translation" Between Analogic and
In trying to describe these errors, an anecdote from Daniele Vard's novel The
Gate of Happy Sparrows comes to mind. The hero, a European living in Peking during the
twenties, receives lessons in Mandarin script from a Chinese professor and is asked to
translate a sentence composed of three characters that he correctly deciphers as the signs
for "rotundity," "sitting," and "water." In his attempt to
combine these concepts into an affirmative statement (into digital language, as we would
say) he decides on "Somebody is taking a sitz bath," much to the disdain of the
distinguished professor, for the sentence is a particularly poetic reference to a sunset
Like Chinese writing, analogic message material, as already mentioned,
lacks many of the elements that comprise the morphology and syntax of digital language.
Thus, in translating analogic into digital messages, these elements have to be supplied
and inserted by the translator, just as in dream interpretation digital structure has to
be introduced more or less intuitively into the kaleidoscopic imagery of the dream.
Analogic message material, as we have seen, is highly antithetical; it
lends itself to very different and often quite incompatible digital interpretations. Thus
not only is it difficult for the sender to verbalize his own analogic communications, but
if interpersonal controversy arises over the meaning of a particular piece of analogic
communication, either partner is likely to introduce, in the process of translation into
the digital mode, the kind of digitalization in keeping with his view of the nature of the
relationship. The bringing of a gift, for instance, is undoubtedly a piece of analogic
communication. However, depending on the recipient's view of his relationship with the
giver, he can see it as a token of affection, a bribe, or a restitution. Many a husband is
dismayed to find himself suspected of an as yet unconfessed guilt if he breaks the rules
of their marriage "game" by spontaneously presenting his wife with a bunch of
What is the digital meaning of growing pale, trembling, sweating, and
stammering when displayed by a person under interrogation? It may be the ultimate proof of
his guilt, or it may merely be the behavior of an innocent person going through the
nightmarish experience of being suspected of a crime and realizing that his fear may be
interpreted as guilt. Psychotherapy is undoubtedly concerned with the correct and the
corrective digitalization of the analogic; in fact, the success or failure of any
interpretation, will depend both ori the therapist's ability to translate from the one
mode to the other and on the patient's readiness to exchange his own digitalization for
more appropriate and less distressing ones. Even where the translation appears to be
adequate, digital communication on the relationship level may remain curiously
unconvincing. This fact is caricatured in the following "Peanuts" cartoon:
In an unpublished report, Bateson hypothesizes that
another of the basic mistakes made when translating between the two modes of communication
is the assumption that an analogic message is by nature assertive or denotative, just as
digital messages are. There is, however, good reason to believe that this is not so. He
When one octopus or one nation puts on a threatening gesture, the other might conclude
"he is strong" or "he will fight," but this was not in the original
message. Indeed, the message itself is non-indicative and may be better regarded as
analogous to a proposal or a question in the digital world.
In this connection it should be remembered that all analogic
messages are invocations of relationship, and that they are therefore proposals
regarding the future rules of the relationship, to use another of Bateson's definitions.
By my behavior, Bateson suggests, I can mention or propose love, hate, combat, etc., but
it is up to you to attribute positive or negative future truth value to my proposals.
This, needless to say, is the source of countless relationship conflicts.
Digital language, as explained in the preceding chapter, has a logical
syntax and is therefore eminently suited for communication on the content level. But in
translating analogic into digital material, logical truth functions must be introduced,
which are absent in the analogic mode. This absence becomes most conspicuous in the case
of negation, where it amounts to the lack of the digital "not." In other words,
while it is simple to convey the analogic message "I shall attack you," it is
extremely difficult to signal "I will not attack you," just as it is difficult
if not impossible to introduce negatives into analogue computers.
In Koestler's novel Arrival and Departure, the hero, a young man
who escaped from his Nazi-occupied homeland and whose face has been disfigured by torture,
is in love with a beautiful girl. He has no hope that she will reciprocate his feelings,
and all he wants is to be with her and stroke her hair. She resists these innocent
advances, thereby arousing both his desperation and his passion, until he overpowers her.
She lay turned to the wall, her head in a strangely twisted position, like a doll's
head with a broken neck. And now at last he could caress her hair, gently, soothingly, as
he had always meant to. Then he realized that she was crying, her shoulders shaking in
dry, soundless sobs. He went on fondling her hair and shoulders and muttered:
"You see, you wouldn't listen to me."
She suddenly lay rigid, interrupting her sobbing:
"What did you say?"
"I said all I wanted was that you shouldn't go away and that you should allow me to
stroke your hair and to give you iced drinks . . . Really, that was all I meant."
Her shoulders shook in a slightly hysterical laughter. "By God, you are the biggest
fool I have ever seen."
"Are you angry with me? Don't. I didn't mean to."
She drew her knees up, shrinking away from him, curling up against the wall. "Leave
me alone. Please go away and leave me quiet for a while." She cried again, more
quietly this time. He slid down from the couch, squatting on the carpet as before, but he
got hold of one of her hands which lay limply on the cushion. It was a lifeless, humid
hand, hot with fever.
"You know," he said, encouraged because she didn't withdraw her hand, "when
I was a child we had a black kitten which I always wanted to play with, but she was too
frightened and always ran away. One day with all sorts of cunning I got her into the
nursery, but she hid under the cupboard and wouldn't come out. So I dragged the cupboard
away from the wall, and got more and more angry because she wouldn't let me fondle her,
and then she hid under the table and I upset the table and broke two pictures on the wall
and turned the whole room upside down and chased the kitten with a chair all around the
room. Then my mother came in and asked me what I was doing, and I told her I only wanted
to fondle that stupid kitten, and I got a terrible thrashing. But I had told the truth . .
Here the desperation of being rejected and unable to prove that he does not mean to
harm leads to violence.
Now if, as Bateson did, one watches animal behavior for such
contingencies, one finds that the only solution to this problem of signaling negation lies
first in demonstrating or proposing the action to be denied, and then in not carrying it
to its conclusion. This interesting and only apparently "irrational" behavior
can be observed not only in animal interaction but on the human level as well.
We have observed a very interesting communication pattern for the
establishment of trust relationships between humans and bottlenosed porpoises. While this
may be a ritual developed "privately" by only two of the animals, it still
provides an excellent example for the analogic communication of "not." The
animals had obviously concluded that the hand is one of the most important and vulnerable
parts of the human body. Each would seek to establish contact with a stranger by taking
the human's hand into his mouth and gently squeezing it between his jaws, which have sharp
teeth and are powerful enough to bite the hand off cleanly. If the human would submit to
this, the dolphin seemed to accept it as a message of complete trust. His next move was to
reciprocate by placing the forward ventral portion of his body (his most vulnerable part,
roughly equivalent in location to the human throat) upon the human's hand, leg, or foot,
thereby signaling his trust in the friendly intentions of the human. This procedure is,
however, obviously fraught with possible misinterpretation at every step.
On a poetic level, an essentially similar form of relationship, here
between man and the transcendental, is expressed in the opening lines of Rilke's first
Duino Elegy, where beauty is experienced as the negation of inherent, ever possible
Who, if I cried would hear me among the angelic orders? And even if one of them
suddenly pressed me against his heart, I should fade in the strength of his stronger
existence. For Beauty's nothing but the beginning of Terror we are still just able to
bear, and we adore it so because it serenely disdains to destroy us. (italics
As the dolphin example suggests, ritual may be the intermediary
process between analogic and digital communication, simulating the message material but in
a repetitive and stylized manner that hangs between analogue and symbol. Thus we can
observe that animals such as cats routinely establish a complementary but nonviolent
relationship through the following ritual. The "one-down" animal (usually the
younger or the one outside his own territory) throws himself on his back, exposing his
jugular vein, which is taken in the jaw of the other cat with impunity. This method of
establishing an "I shall not attack you" relationship seems to be understood by
both; what is even more interesting, this coding has been seen to be successful in
interspecies (e.g., cats and dogs) communication as well. Analogic materials are often
formalized in the rituals of human societies, and as such material is canonized it
approaches symbolic or digital communication, revealing a curious overlap.
On a pathological plane, the same mechanism seems to be operative in
sexual masochism. It would appear that the message "I shall not destroy you" is
only convincing (and only allays, at least temporarily, the masochist's deep fear of
terrible punishment) by means of the analogic denial inherent in the ritual of humiliation
and punishment that he knows will eventually but certainly stop short of the imagined
Those familiar with symbolic logic may by now appreciate that it is
probably not necessary to prove the absence of all logical truth functions in analogic
material but only a critical few. The logical truth function alternation (nonexclusive or),
construed to mean "either one or both," can be seen to be similarly absent from
analogic language. While it is easy to convey the meaning "one or the other or both
will do" in digital language, it is not immediately obvious how this logical relation
could be inserted into analogic material; indeed, it probably cannot. Symbolic logicians
have pointed out that to represent all the major truth functions (negation, conjunction,
alternation, implication, and equivalence), two--negation and alternation (or, similarly,
negation and conjunction)--are sufficient and, of the five, necessary to represent the
remaining three. According to this reasoning, although we know almost nothing specific
about the pragmatic importance of the absence of the other truth functions in analogic
material, we can conclude that since these are but variations of "not" and
"or" they will not escape similar difficulties of translation.
Bateson and Jackson have hypothesized the importance of analogic versus
digital coding in hysterical symptom formation. According to them, a converse process from
those we have been discussing takes place, a retranslation, as it were, from already
digitalized message material back to the analogic mode:
A converse--but much more complex--problem arises in regard to hysteria. No doubt this
word covers a wide range of formal patterns, but it would appear that at least some cases
involve errors of translation from the digital to the analogic. Stripping the digital
material of its logical type markers leads to erroneous symptom formation. The verbal
"headache" which was invented as a conventional excuse for not performing some
task may become subjectively real and be endowed with real magnitudes in the pain
If we bear in mind that the first consequence of a breakdown in
communication is usually a partial loss of the ability to metacommunicate digitally about
the contingencies of the relationship, this "return to the analogic" appears as
a plausible compromise solution. Again, there is little difference between the
behavior of individuals and nations. When serious tension arises between two countries the
customary step is to break off diplomatic relations, and consequently to resort to
analogic communications like mobilizations, troop concentrations, and other analogic
messages of this kind. What is so absurd about this procedure is that digital
communication (diplomatic procedure) is broken off at the exact moment when it is more
desperately needed than ever before. The "hot line" between Washington and
Moscow may be prophylactic in this regard, even though its official rationale is only that
of speeding up communications in times of crisis.
The symbolic nature of conversion symptoms and, generally, their
affinity with dream symbolism has been realized since the days of Libault, Bernheim, and
Charcot. And what is a symbol if not the representation, in real magnitudes, of something
that is essentially an abstract function, an aspect of a relationship. Throughout his
work, C. G. Jung shows that the symbol appears where what we would call
"digitalization" is not yet possible. But it seems to us that symbolization also
takes place where digitalization is no longer possible and that this typically happens
when a relationship threatens to grow into socially or morally tabooed areas such as
Potential Pathologies of Symmetrical and Complementary
To avoid a frequent misunderstanding, it cannot be emphasized too strongly
that symmetry and complementarity in communication are not in and by themselves
"good" or "bad...... normal" or "abnormal," etc. The two
concepts simply refer to two basic categories into which all communicational interchanges
can be divided. Both have important functions, and from what is known about healthy
relationships we may conclude that both must be present, although in mutual alternation or
operation in different areas. As we will try to show, this means that each pattern can
stabilize the other whenever a runaway occurs in one of them, and also that it is not only
possible but necessary for two partners to relate symmetrically in some areas and
complementarily in others.
Like any other pattern of communication, these two have their potential pathologies, which
will first be described and then illustrated with clinical material. We have already
suggested that in a symmetrical relationship there is an ever-present danger of
competitiveness. As can be observed both in individuals and in nations, equality seems to
be most reassuring if one manages to be just a little "more equal" than others,
to use Orwell's famous phrase. This tendency accounts for the typical escalating quality
of symmetrical interaction once its stability is lost and a so-called runaway occurs,
e.g., quarrels and fights between individuals or wars between nations. In marital
conflicts, for instance, it is easy to observe how the spouses go through an escalating
pattern of frustration until they eventually stop from sheer physical or emotional
exhaustion and maintain an uneasy truce until they have recovered enough for the next
round. Pathology in symmetrical interaction is thus characterized by more or less open
warfare, or schism, in Lidz's sense.
In a healthy symmetrical relationship the partners are able to accept
each other in their respective "suchness," which leads to mutual respect and
trust in the other's respect and amounts to realistic, reciprocal confirmation of their
selves. If and when a symmetrical relationship breaks down, we habitually observe the
rejection rather than disconfirmation of the other's self.
In complementary relationships, there can be the same healthy, positive confirmation of
each other. The pathologies of complementary relationships, on the other hand, are quite
different, and tend to amount to disconfirmations rather than rejections of the other's
self. They are, therefore, more important from a psychopathological point of view than the
more or less open fights in symmetrical relations.
A typical problem arises in a complementary relationship when P demands
that O confirm a definition of P's self that is at variance with the way O sees P. This
places O in a very peculiar dilemma: he must change his own definition of self into one
that complements and thus supports P's, for it is in the nature of complementary
relationships that a definition of self can only be maintained by the partner's playing
the specific complementary role. After all, there can be no mother without a child. But
the patterns of a mother-child relationship change with time. The same pattern that is
biologically and emotionally vital during an early phase of the infant's life becomes a
severe handicap for his further development, if adequate change is not allowed to take
place in the relationship. Thus, depending on the context, the same pattern may be highly
self-confirming at one time and disconfirming at a later (or premature) stage in the
natural history of a relationship. Because of their greater psychiatric flamboyance, the
pathologies of complementary relationships have been given more attention in the
literature than their symmetrical counterparts. Psychoanalysis refers to them as
sadomasochistic and views them as the more or less fortuitous liaison of two individuals
whose respective deviant character formations dovetail with each other. Among more recent
and more interaction-oriented studies are Lidz's concept of marital skew, Scheflen's paper
on the "gruesome twosome", and the concept of "collusion" in Laing's
sense. In these relationships we observe a growing sense of frustration and despair in one
or both partners. Complaints of increasingly frightening feelings of self-estrangement and
depersonalization, of abulia as well as compulsive acting-out are very frequently voiced
by individuals who outside their homes (or otherwise in the absence of their partners) are
perfectly capable of functioning satisfactorily, and who, when interviewed individually,
may appear very well adjusted. This picture often changes dramatically when they are seen
together with their "complements." The pathology of their relationship
then becomes patent. Perhaps the most remarkable study of the pathology of complementary
relationships is the famous paper, "La folie a deux," written by two French
psychiatrists nearly a hundred years ago. How small a claim we have to the originality of
our approach is, for instance, documented by the following passages from this paper. The
authors first describe the patient and then continue:
The above description belongs to the insane person, the agent who provokes the
situation in "delire a deux." His associate is a much more complicated person to
define and yet careful research will teach one to recognize the laws which are
obeyed by this second party in communicated insanity. . . . Once the tacit
contract that ties both lunatics is almost settled, the problem is not only to examine
the influence of the insane on the supposedly sane man, but also the opposite,
the influence of the rational on the deluded one, and to show how through mutual
compromises the differences are eliminated. (italics ours)
As already mentioned briefly at the beginning of this section,
symmetrical and complementary relationship patterns can stabilize each other, and changes
from the one to the other pattern and back again are important homeostatic mechanisms.
This entails a therapeutic implication, namely that, at least in theory, therapeutic
change can be brought about very directly by the introduction of symmetry into
complementarity or vice versa during treatment. We say "at least in theory"
advisedly, for it is only too well known how difficult it is in practice to induce any
sort of change in rigidly defined systems whose participants, it seems, would "rather
bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of."
To explain the foregoing, here are three exerpts from the so-called
Structured Family Interviews. All three of them are in reply to the interviewer's standard
question to the spouses: "How, of all the millions of people in the world, did the
two of you get together?" It should be made quite clear that the actual historic
information contained in such an account is of only secondary importance, although it may
be relatively accurate and may itself portray a symmetrical or complementary interaction
which took place at that time. But it is not this historic information, often distorted by
selective recall and wishful thinking, that is of interest here. Thus in considering the
first couple one is struck by the symmetry of their interaction while responding to the
interviewer's question. The story of their meeting as told by them, is only the raw
material, so to speak, which they manipulate in accordance with the rules of their game of
"one-upmanship." For them, and for us, it is not important what happened, but
rather who has the right to say what to, and about, the other. In other
words, what is of the essence is not the content but the relationship aspect of their
I) The first is an example of a typical symmetrical interchange.
|Interviewer: How, of all the millions of people in the world, did
the two of you get together?
|Husband: We ... both worked in the same place. My wife ran a
comptometer, and I repaired comptometers, and ...
||Husband speaks first, offering a unilateral summary of the whole story,
thereby defining his right to do so.
|Wife: We worked in the same building.
||Wife restates the same information in her own words, not simply agreeing
with him, but instead establishing symmetry in regard to their discussion of this topic.
|Husband: She worked for a firm which had a large installation, and
I worked there most of the time because it was a large installation. And so this is where
|Husband adds no new information, but simply rephrases the same
tautological sentence with which he began. Thus, he symmetrically matches her behavior of
insisting on his right to give this information; on the relationship level they are
sparring for the "last word." Husband attempts to achieve this by the finality
of his second sentence.
|Wife: We were introduced by some of the other girls up there.
|Wife does not let it drop; she modifies his statement, reasserting her
right to participate equally in this discussion. Though this new twist is just as passive
an interpretation as their "working in the same building" (in that neither is
defined as having taken initiative), she establishes herself as "a little more
equal" by referring to "the other girls," a group in which she was
obviously the insider, not the husband. This pause ends the first cycle of
symmetrical exchange with no closure.
|Husband: Actually, we met at a party, I mean we first started going
together at a party that one of the employees had. But we'd seen each other before, at
||Though somewhat softened and compromising, this is a restatement which
does not let her definition stand.
|Wife: We never met till that night. (Slight laugh)
|This is a direct negation, not merely a rephrasing, of his statement,
indicating perhaps that the dispute is beginning to escalate. (Notice however that
"met" is quite an ambiguous term in this context--it could mean several things
from "laid eyes on each other" to "were formally introduced"--so that
her contradiction of him is disqualified; that is, she could not, if queried, be pinned
down to it. Her laugh also enables her to "say something without really saying it.')
|Husband: (very softly): Mhm.
|Husband puts himself one-down by agreeing with her--overtly; but
"mhm" has a variety of possible meanings and is here uttered almost inaudibly,
without any conviction or emphasis, so the result is quite vague. Even more, the previous
statement is so vague that it is not clear what an agreement with it might mean. In any
case, he does not go further, nor does he assert still another version of his own. So they
reach the end of another round, again marked by a pause which seems to signal that they
have reached the danger point (of open contradiction and conflict) and are prepared to end
the discussion even without closure of the content aspect.
|Inteviewer: But still, I have an image of dozens of people, or
maybe more floating. around; so how was it that the two of you, of all these people, got
||Interviewer intervenes to keep the discussion going.
|Husband: She was one of the prettier ones up there. (Slight laugh)
||Husband makes a strong "one-up" move; this dubious compliment
places her in comparison with the others, with him as the judge.
|Wife: (faster): I don't know, the main reason I started
going with him is because the girls--he had talked to some of the other girls before he
talked to me, and told them he was interested in me, and they more or less planned this
party, and that's where we met
||She matches his condescension with her own version: she was only
interested in him because he was initially interested in her. (The subject around which
their symmetry is defined has shifted from whose version of their meeting will be told and
allowed to stand to who got the trophy, so to speak, in their courtship.)
|Husband: Actually the party wasn't planned for that
||A straightforward rejection of her definition.
|Wife: (interrupting): No, but it was planned for us to
meet at the party. Meet formally, you might say. In person. (Slight laugh) We'd worked
together, but I didn't make a habit of . . . well, I was around sixty women there, and ten
or twelve men, and I didn't make it a habit of--
||After agreeing with his correction, wife repeats what she has just said.
Her nonpersonal formulation has been weakened, and she now relies on a straight
self-definition ("I am this kind of a person . . ."), an unassailable way to
|Husband: (overlapping): She was certainly
backward--bashful type of worker as far as associating with uh, uh strange men on the
place, yeah but the women knew it. (Pause) And I was flirtin' with lots of 'em up there
(slight laugh). Nothing meant by it I guess, but just . . . (sigh) just my nature I guess.
||Husband gives a symmetrical answer based on his "nature," and
another round ends.
This couple sought help because they feared that their constant
bickering might hurt their children. As could almost be predicted from the above excerpt,
they also mentioned difficulties in their sexual relation, where, of course, their
inability to relate complementarily made itself particularly felt.
2) The couple in the next example participated in a research project involving randomly
selected families. It was generally felt by the investigators that they were emotionally
quite distant and that the wife showed a good deal of depression. Their interaction is
typically complementary, with husband in the "one-up" and wife in the
"one-down" position. But, as already explained in the previous chapter, these
terms must not be taken as indicators of relative strength or weakness. Quite obviously,
this woman's amnesia and helplessness make it not only possible for him to play the role
of the strong, realistic male, but they are also the very factors against which his
strength and his realism are quite powerless. Thus we are again confronted by the
interpersonal impact of any emotional symptom in the wider sense.
The excerpt starts a little after the interviewer has asked the
standard question about their meeting and after the husband explained that she had come to
work in an office next to his.
Husband: And--see, when'd you start there?
Wife: W--I haven't any i-
Husband (interrupting):-seems to me it was about, I came in October, the year
before . . . and you probably started about . . . February uh, January or
February--probably February or March 'cause your birthday was in December, that same year.
Wife: Mm, I don't even remember . . .
Husband (interrupting): So I happened to send her some flowers, you see, when our
first date out. And that never--we'd never gone anywhere had we?
Wife: (with short laugh): No, I was very surprised.
Husband And we just went from there. It was about a year later I guess we got
married. Little over a year.
Interviewer: What did you . . .
Husband (interrupting): Although Jane left the company very shortly after that. Mm,
I don't think you worked there over a couple of months, did you?
Wife: You know, I'm sorry, I don't remember a thing about (slight laugh) how long
it was or when I went--
Husband (interrupting): Yeah, a couple of months, and then you went back into
teaching. (Wife: Mhm, mhm) 'Cause we--she found I guess that this war work was not
contributing as much to the war effort as she thought it was, when she went out there.
Interviewer: So you--you went to a school?
Wife: Yes, I'd been working in it, before (Interviewer: Mhm) I went to work there.
Interviewer: And you continued the contact without interruption. (Husband: Oh
yeah) What, uh, beside the fact that your wife is obviously attractive, what else do you
think you have in common?
Husband: Absolutely nothing. (Laughing) We never have--had 'r we--(sharp breath).
3) The third example is taken from the interview of a clinically normal couple who
volunteered for the same type of interview. Here it can be seen how they manage to
maintain a warm and mutually supportive relationship by a flexible alternation of
symmetrical with complementary interchanges. Thus, even though some of the details of
their account could conceivably be felt to be depreciatory of each other, these do not
seem to threaten the stability of their relationship and the mutual confirmation of their
|Interviewer: How of all the millions of people in the world did the
two of you get together?
|Wife: How did we ... ?
|Interviewer: . . . get together.
|Wife: Well ...
||Wife starts to take over, thereby defining her right to do so.
|Husband: (interrupting): Well, I'll tell you (wife laughs, husband
||Husband takes over in a highly symmetrical maneuver. This is softened by
their mutual laughter.
|Wife: Well, well, I'll tell it. Actually, I was working when I got
out of high school, the Depression was on, so I got a job as a-ah, curb girl. I guess they
used to call it then, and was . . .
||Wife again takes over, rephrasing husband exactly, then going a long way
around to define the situation her way.
|Husband: ... drive-in restaurant . . .
||Wife has gotten into trouble because "curb girl" could imply
"street walker." Husband rescues her by making sure it is clear where she was
working and in doing so strongly defines the situation his way. Up to this point,
their interaction is symmetrical.
|Wife: ... working at--in a drive-in restaurant 'til I found another
job. And he was working . . .
||Wife accepts his definition and carefully follows the correction of
connotation he indicated. She accepts the complementary one-down position.
|Husband: I picked her up.
|Wife: Actually, I think he did. (Both laugh)
||Complementary one-down (accepts husband's definition).
|Husband: That's about it.
||Complementary one-up. Thus, the earlier symmetrical escalation has been
cut off by a switch to complementarity and closure is possible; husband sums up and the
|Wife: But he was real bashful. He was the bashful type, and I
||Wife switches to a one-up maneuver about his having picked her up.
|Husband: I've gotten over that--she says--I don't know.
||Complementary one-down. Husband accepts her definition of him as bashful,
i.e., not only that he was not the aggressor, but that she is still the judge of this.
('She says--I don't know')
|Wife: So, so I felt . . .
|Husband: This is all--
|Wife: ... he was harmless, so I--I did go home with him.
|Husband: (overlapping): The fact of the matter is it was more or
less of a dare because I was out with another couple over a weekend and we were discussing
on the way back to town, why, we decided it was high time that I found a steady girl
||Husband carries her interpretation even further, and goes on to say that
he didn't have a girl friend, that his friends were influential in his actions, etc.
|Wife: (laughing): And I just happened to be there--
||While the content sounds self-disparaging and thus complementary one-down,
in this context her statement mirrors husband's behavior in its passivity; wife switches
to symmetry. (Note the necessity of distinguishing between her motivation and the
interpersonal effect, so that symmetry can be based on one-downness as well as other forms
|Husband: So we stopped in at this place to have a root beer or
something of the sort (both laugh) and there she was. So I-ah . . .
||Husband symmetrically states both their phrasings of the situation and
again laughter permits closure.
|Wife: That was it.
||Wife tops it off--just as husband did at the end of the first cycle with
"That's about it."
An entirely different communicational contingency arises in the
area of symmetrical and complementarv interaction if a message defines the relationship as
symmetrical and complementary at the same time. This is probably the most frequent and
important way by which paradox can enter into human communication, and the pragmatic
effects of this form of communicational inconsistency will, therefore, be taken up
separately in Chapter 6.
There are two points to be emphasized in the analysis of the preceding
examples. First, content fades in importance as communicational patterns emerge. A group
of second- and third-year psychiatric residents rated the couple in the third example as
much .,sicker" than other, clinically disturbed, couples. Upon inquiry, it was
obvious that the basis of their judgment had been the relative social unacceptability of
the meeting and the open "sparring" about details. In other words their
erroneous judgment was based on content rather than on the interaction of their account.
More important, it should have become obvious that our analysis was of
successive statements. No given statement in isolation can be symmetrical, complementary
one-up, or whatever. It is the response of the partner that is of course necessary for the
"classification" of a given message. That is, it is not in the nature of any of
the statements as individual entities, but in the relation between two or more responses
that the functions of communication are defined.