Leaving Home - Listening Between the Lines - The Double-Bind by Ness Mountain
What goes unspoken in your family? What are the messages that never see the light of day?
All families have unspoken messages. In some families, the simple statement I love you is never spoken; it tends to go along with I’m not comfortable talking about feelings, so don’t try. But the messages can be more painfully twisted than that. For example, a parent might have an unspoken message to a child, saying, You are not as important to me as my drinking. A second, spoken message might go along with it, saying, You are the most important thing in the world to me. When these are combined with a third, unspoken message, it becomes a double-bind. The third message is, You may not talk about the contradiction between the other two messages.
A young child will naturally break the rule against asking questions. When this happens, the parents will treat the child in a way that makes the child blame themselves. Later, the child will mostly forget the attack against them (it may not be physical, of course), retaining only a vague but very strong feeling that they were bad. The silence rule—the double-bind—sinks in deeper and deeper.
My grandmother used to badger me to cut my hair. “Such a handsome boy, if only he would cut his hair.” For some reason, my attachment to my hair has always been very powerful. It felt like part of my identity.
I tried to argue with Sabta (grandma in Hebrew) but she’s a stubborn old lady. She knew what she wanted (a pretty shorn grandchild) and she knew she had a right to insist on it.
So back at home—we lived in upstate New York, she lived in Chicago—I argued with my parents. She should get off my back and let me grow my hair the way I wanted. I should be allowed to make my own decisions. We couldn’t resolve this argument, but it didn’t stop there: we ranged across a huge expanse of unresolvable issues about the family. I felt uncomfortable with many of the Chicago family but I constantly felt silenced by the collective pressure to conform. “They drive me crazy,” I said in essence. “I disagree with everything and they never listen to me.” Which was true enough.
My father explained again and again that I just needed to be myself. If I only relaxed and just did what came naturally, and accepted my family for who they were, we would all get along. It’s what he did.
What were the unspoken messages?
From me: Support me! I wanted my parents’ support in dealing with the family, but I couldn’t ask directly for it. We assumed that they did support me.
From my dad: I can’t accept who you are. By telling me to “be yourself”, he was really telling me that he couldn’t accept that the way I was acting—disturbing his family by trying to get people to accept new ways of thinking—was being myself. He was afraid to destabilize his peaceful relationships with his family: this took precedence over his relationship with me.
When I tried to question the process, my silence was enforced with guilt. Didn’t I want to be a good son/grandson? Didn’t I care about my grandmother? Our arguments were circular, boring, and useless. Whenever I started to actually break this pattern, my parents would escalate. My mother would get emotional. My father would blame me because my mother was upset. The punishment stopped only when I gave in.
Later, in my teens, I reached the point of rebellion. My brother was having his Bar Mitzvah and we were going to Chicago. I refused utterly to have my hair cut. My parents argued, but I was adamant—until my father pulled out the big guns. “This could really upset your grandmother, you know,” he said. “She’s an old lady, it’s just not fair to her. God Forbid she might have a heart attack.” I was shocked by the obvious manipulation (it’s going to take a lot more than THAT to do in the old lady—twenty years later she’s still going strong) but I felt afraid for my father. He seemed so weak. This was his last threat—there were no worse ones. He would be powerless! I gave in.
I haven’t cut my hair since.
Ness Mountain is a counselor and urban shaman living in Portland. Your comments on Leaving Home are welcome: respond to Alternatives or to Ness at [email protected]