Double Bind Theory: Trapped by those we love most

Who I am
Louise Hay

"I want you to do what you want, but don't do it because I told you." These words hide a deception. We all know. In fact, it is likely that on more than one occasion you have heard them from your parents or partner. Or maybe you have uttered them yourself on occasion to put pressure on someone next to you.

This sentence is the epitome of the Double Bind Theory, or also called the Double Bind, a phenomenon that characterizes our interpersonal relationships and that is not only disconcerting, but can hurt us a lot, especially because it comes from the closest people, the most important, the ones we love the most.

What is the double bond theory?

The philosopher Karl Popper, famous for his "forgery theory", one day sent a colleague the following postcard:

Caro M.G .:

Please send me this same postcard again after marking the empty rectangle to the left of my signature with a "yes" or any other sign if, for whatever reason, you think that when I receive the postcard, this space will be still empty.

Your friend, KR Popper

If this letter has nearly paralyzed your mind, don't worry, it's the normal result of confusion. A strategy often used by manipulators and that the anthropologist Gregory Bateson has cataloged as "Double Bind" or "Double Bind".

Paul Watzlavik and Milton H. Erickson deepened this concept from a communicative and relational point of view. The double bind theory is a negative phenomenon that occurs in relationships when an important person offers us a paradox that leaves us with no way out.

The double constraint occurs when:

The person has to do X, but they ask him to do Y as well, which conflicts with X.

In practice, it is when they ask us to do two opposite things, impossible to accomplish. They subject us to two conflicting imperatives, neither of which can be ignored. At this point we feel confused because we are faced with an insurmountable dilemma, because if we satisfy one of the requests we cannot satisfy the other as well. Worse still, the situation is outlined in such a way that we are not even allowed to comment on how absurd the request is.

The spontaneity imposed

A typical example of a double bind situation is when a person asks us to have spontaneous behavior, but from the moment they make that request, our behavior ceases to be spontaneous. The necessary spontaneity inevitably leads to a paradoxical situation in which the mere fact of making the request makes it impossible to fulfill it spontaneously.

This is the paradox of "imposed spontaneity". An example in the field of relationships is when we ask our partner to bring us flowers from time to time, because we want a proof of spontaneous affection. But the mere fact of having asked for it forever eliminates the possibility of spontaneity.

If the partner ignores the request, we will feel even less loved. If she brings flowers, it won't be enough to satisfy the need for affection because we know it wasn't spontaneous behavior. In that case, we have put the other in a double bind situation. Make the decision you make, it will not be enough to satisfy our request because by doing it, we prevent its correct satisfaction.

The paradox of "imposed spontaneity" is also seen in father-son relationships. A mother may blame the baby for being too listless and passive, so she is likely to say, "move a little, don't be so dull."

In this case, there are only two possible solutions, both equally unsatisfactory: the child remains passive so the mother feels cheated or changes her behavior to satisfy her mother, but since this is not a natural and spontaneous attitude, she will consider his response as a sign of passivity, having limited himself to following an order.

The conditions for producing the double constraint

For a double bind situation to occur, it is essential that there are two contradicting demands. Generally the first is direct and the second has a more abstract character. It is also necessary that there is:

  1. A meaningful relationship between people. If the person is not important to us and has no emotional power, we will simply point out the absurdity of his request. Therefore, double bind situations usually become a weapon of manipulation of parents, partners or friends.
  1. A negative consequence. The person making contradictory requests also adds an element of negative pressure. In the case of parents it can be "if you don't I will punish you" and in the case of a partner it can be "if you don't I will get angry". However, they are not always verbal warnings, they can also show themselves extraverbal, with gestures and facial expressions.
  1. A mandate that prevents the "victim" from escaping the situation. It is the final touch to put the person with his back to the wall, also preventing him from expressing his disorientation and commenting on what is happening.

The dire consequences of growing up in a Double Bind environment

These antagonistic, mutually canceling demands block us simultaneously in three fields: thought, action and feeling. This constricting situation is highly harmful as it binds our hands and feet, preventing us from even expressing what we feel. If we grew up in a double bind environment, the effects will be felt in our personality, in the way we relate to ourselves and to others.

Paul Watzlawick systematized the double bind situations in everyday life, with the closest people, analyzing their impact on our personality.

- Deep personal insecurity

When we see that our perceptions of reality or of ourselves provoke the reproach of other people of vital importance to us, we feel inclined to distrust our senses. The insecurity that emanates from that attitude will lead us to trust others more and more to see things "correctly" and to be more and more distrustful of ourselves.

If we grew up with parents telling us things like, "you have to be crazy to think like this," it's easy to understand the problem we're facing. Our ideas are discarded but, at the same time, we fail to grasp the meanings that are so evident to others. Therefore, it is not strange that we feel out of place or think that something is wrong with us.

And if they keep insinuating that we are not right, it will be very difficult to find our place in the world and, above all, in our relationships with others. This description corresponds perfectly to the clinical picture of schizophrenia.

- Immense sense of guilt

If other people important to us blame us for not having the feelings we should have, we will end up feeling guilty of our "inability" to have the right, the "real" feelings. The most terrible thing is that this guilt will add to the list of feelings we shouldn't have.

An example of this double bind situation is when parents assume that a well-bred child should be a happy child and turn their child's fleeting moments of sadness into a dull accusation of failure in their work as educators. Some parents may express that disappointment with phrases such as "after all we've done for you, you should feel happy and content."

In this way, the smallest sadness of the child turns into ingratitude and malice, creating the breeding ground for a troubled mind. He starts to think that something is wrong with him because he shouldn't feel sad. And that thought saddens him even more, which makes him even more unworthy, thus closing a vicious circle from which it is impossible to escape. It goes without saying that this description corresponds to the clinical picture of depression.

- Confusion of values

Sometimes, people who are important to us demand behavioral norms that demand and at the same time prevent certain actions. So we find ourselves caught up in a paradoxical situation in which we can only obey by disobeying. The emblem of this paradox is: “do what I tell you, not what I would like you to do”.

This is the case of parents who ask their children to respect the rules, but also to dare. Or those who value money and think that every means is good for obtaining it, but who also encourage the child to be honest at all times.

When we grow up in an environment of contradictory values, it is not strange that we fall into a situation of moral anguish. We fail to develop a coherent value system that becomes the compass of our life and we will often feel disoriented and confused.

The Double Bind Theory as a tool of manipulation and submission

Many people apply the double bind without being fully aware of its impact, others deliberately use it as a manipulation strategy. In fact, it's a very powerful weapon for emotionally dominating someone because:

- Invalidate your views on the matter, dismissing his thoughts as "invalid" or "outright madness".

- Invalidate his feelings, making him feel guilty for these and, therefore, preventing him from expressing them, pain, be judged severely.

- Prevents action, forcing the person to remain in a no-way uncomfortable situation, the worst situation one can find.

Therefore, it is important to pay attention to the double bind, never use it with close people and not allow them to put us in that situation. To get rid of this constraint and disarm the person who tries to turn us against the wall, it is enough to point out the contradiction.


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