Have you ever felt the frustration of being in a double bind? I know I have one time or another, and I have certainly seen it unfold before me in many counseling situations. I can hear
say during those sessions: “Stop! You’re putting him in a double bind.”
A double bind is a no win situation. A person is given two conflictual messages, where choosing one negates the other. If the messages both come from one person, the receiver is frozen in his/her response. This is a classic “mixed message”.
If the messages come from different people, it would result in a situation in which either compliance or noncompliance with either alternative threatens one of the needed relationships.
The strain from these situations can be enormous. When there does not seem to be a possible solution, the person will often suffer a great deal of anxiety, fear or anger. This will either result in an emotional shutdown and withdrawal, or an aggressive response that creates relational separation.
Some classic double binds:
- A wife who complains of needing more income, but then criticizes her husband for working overtime and not spending enough time with the family
- A husband who challenges his wife to exercise and stay fit, but complains when she spends too much time at the gym
- A boss who needs an employee to work more overtime, and a spouse who complains that too much time is spent at work
- A wife who wants her husband to be transparent with his feelings, but then gets angry with what he shares
- A husband who tells his wife that she needs to take more time for herself, but refuses to stay home and take care of the children so that she can
- A wife who complains that she isn’t complimented enough, but then tells her husband that “he doesn’t really mean it” when he does
Of course you can switch genders on any of these husband-wife scenarios, but the result is the same – someone is in a double bind.
So how do you avoid double binds?
If you are the speaker – play the message forward in your head before you say it. You may see the trouble ahead with your request. Do you really want to know what he feels? Or do you just want him to say positive things about you and your relationship? Do you really want her to be spending more time away from home working out at a gym or some other place?
What if you are on the receiving end? Stay calm and say something like: “I am puzzled. There does not seem to be a positive outcome possible. Can you help me?” The next step would be trying to find a compromise that would satisfy both people. It might mean lowering your expectations and seeking emotional connection first.
Please submit your own double binds to us – we would love to hear of situations where you have felt trapped.