Back when I was a graduate student in social work I took a class about communication and mental illness. The class was fascinating in describing how some forms of communication were thought to trigger mental illness. One harmful type of communication we discussed in class is called the double bind message. A double bind message is one where the person says one thing but their body language and/or tone and inflection mean something else entirely. The classic example is a mother who says "I love you" to her child but then stiffens up when the child tries to hug her. When the child reacts to the mother’s body language by withdrawing the parent can then blame the child for their "cold" response.
Other examples of double bind messages come from the mother-in-law jokes we hear about but often come from very real relationships. "You are such a beautiful girl, if only you would lose some weight" is a common compliment wrapped up in an insult. One zinger I would receive from my own mother-in-law was, "You really know how to live within your means." Or she might say, "You are so independent" but with enough sneer and venom for one to understand that she didn’t think this was a good thing. And how about the classic double bind message, "You can do what you want." It seems innocuous enough but when this statement is said with a turned back and arms crossed, you know that it really means "You can do what you want but if it doesn’t meet my approval, you will be sorry."
In the 1950’s Gregory Bateson and colleagues came up with a theory that such double bind messages could literally drive someone into mental illness and particularly schizophrenia. They went so far as to label such communication as "crazy making." What we know now is that mental illnesses such as schizophrenia are most likely due to neurological, biological and genetic causes and not due to family communication patterns. But it doesn’t mean that these harmful ways of communicating do not take a toll on or exacerbate the symptoms of all types of mental illness.
In a 2006 issue of Psychotherapy in Australia, author and psychotherapist, Paul Gibney maintains that even after fifty years since the double bind theory was proposed; it still offers insights into dysfunctional families. Gibney concludes that double bind messages are still crazy-making after all these years. It is a very intriguing read into the history of the theory and how therapists still use this theory today to identify pathological communication patterns of families in treatment.
There are three components to a double bind message and they include:
- The recipient of the message is part of a relationship where he or she feels it is imperative to understand what is being communicated so that an appropriate response may be given.
- The recipient of the double bind message is caught in a dilemma of having to decipher two different expressed meanings of the same message which are quite often contradictory to one another.
- The recipient of the double bind message is also unable to directly comment upon the discrepancy between the verbal message and the message conveyed by tone, inflection, or body language.
As Jeremy Sherman writes in a Psychology Today article entitled, Double Binds: A Rock and Hard Place Force Spontaneous Change, a double bind message is a ""three-way, no-win situation that amounts to you’re damned if you do; you’re damned if you don’t, and you’re damned also if notice that you’re damned either way."
The other aspect to this form of communication is that the sender of double bind messages is usually someone who holds some power over the recipient. In a fascinating article by Dr. Al Siebert published on the web site, Successful Schizophrenia, the double bind messages of psychiatry are explored. Siebert describes how patients in psychiatric facilities are quite often subjected to double bind messages which may make their mental health worsen. For example, the mentally ill patient quite often has to admit that they are mentally ill in order to be considered well enough to leave the hospital. If the patient says that they are not mentally ill then they are deemed as "crazy."
Double bind messages are also usually a part of abusive relationships. Batterers quite often will give a message that they want to be close to their partner. Yet when closeness is attempted, the abuser will give the opposite message that they can’t get close because they identify something wrong with their partner. The victim can never seem to get it "right" in order to please the abuser. In fact asking for clarification of these conflicting messages will quite often result in being battered.
There are many types of dysfunctional relationships where double bind messages are more of the norm than healthy ways of communicating. It can take a definite toll on one’s mental health as you feel powerless to know the true meaning behind someone’s words. Double bind messages can make you begin to doubt your own thoughts, feelings, and reality. This type of harmful communication can have a profound effect upon your ability to trust and develop healthy relationships.
We would really like to hear from you now. Have you ever been the recipient of double bind messages? What did it feel like? Do you think it is possible to recover from such a dysfunctional mode of communication? How have you been changed by the experience? Tell us your story. We are listening.
I am a mother, a writer, and now an MS patient