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The Origins and Manifestations of Internal Conflicts in Members of Dysfunctional Families, and How to Recognize Them

As much as Americans like to think of ourselves as independent-minded individuals who don’t care a lot about what our families think, we are still very much tied into our families of origin – even if on the surface we seem to be estranged from them. As young children, we are biologically programmed to try to figure out what our family seems to need from us, and then we provide it. If we appear to be oppositional, it is only because we think that our family needs us to be oppositional! Black sheep sometimes come in handy for a group. The “oppositionality” in those cases is a mirage.

But what happens if our entire family is confused and conflicted about how their members ought to behave in certain life situations? For example, since societal expectations regarding gender role functioning has changed drastically over just a couple of generations, what if the family does not know whether they should follow the new set of rules or the old ones? The ambient culture sometimes demands changes in family behavior that come too fast for some families to adjust to, creating intrapsychic conflicts in the minds of the individual members. Anthropologists call this phenomenon cultural lag.

Because many kids go to school with a wide variety of peers from a wide variety of subcultures, they are often more exposed to outside influences than are their parents, who tend to travel in more limited social circles. This often creates intra-generational conflict – what we old baby boomers used to refer to as the generation gap. But even the adults in this situation are hardly immune from hearing about new cultural opportunities for individual expression and autonomy. Unless, as comedian Bill Maher used to say, they live in a cave and don’t get cable.

Freud and his psychoanalyst friends, while completely wrong about a great many things such as schizophrenogenic mothers and penis envy in females, were really on track when they wrote about intrapsychic conflicts. Well, almost on track—as a I will explain shortly. Intrapsychic conflict is defined by analysts as the situation created when one’s impulses to do various things compete with the values one has learned growing up in a particular family and culture. Freud saw this conflict as being mostly internal – between so-called psychic structures he named the id (your biological urges like having sex) and superego (your conscience).

In my somewhat contrasting opinion, the conflict is both internal and interpersonal.

This idea provides us with an important way to integrate three of the major “schools” of psychotherapy: psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioral, and family systems. To boil it down and admittedly oversimplify the situation, conflicts that people experience over what to think and how to behave are triggered and reinforced, on a variable intermittent reinforcement schedule, by family members who are stuck with rules of behavior that are no longer adaptive because of changes in the ambient culture. In a sense, the whole family shares the intrapsychic conflict.

Because they are conflicted, almost all family members in this situation give one another mixed or contradictory double messages about what behavior they expect from one another. This then leads to a process which causes individuals to behave repetitively in self-destructive ways. I will not be discussing that process in this post, but you can find detailed discussions about it on my two blogs, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/matter-personality and http://davidmallenmd.blogspot.com/.

If you are stuck in such a situation and are motivated to recognize the double messages and to try to discuss the shared conflicts in a meaningful way (metacommunication), how might you recognize when other family members are thusly conflicted? This post will discuss how to do that. Specifically, I will discuss how the process makes use of the intrinsic ambiguity that is a feature of all language. Ambiguity is used by those who are highly conflicted to accomplish two goals:


  1. Keeping their conflicted feelings, beliefs and motivations unclear to other people.
  1. Keeping those things unclear to even themselves—in order to avoid fear, anxiety, and/or accidentally acting on or revealing forbidden desires.

Linguists tell us that any sentence in any language can be interpreted on two different levels – which may then conflict. One level is the purely lexical or object level, that is, what the specific words actually mean. The other level is called the meta level. This level concerns the relationship of the two people having the conversation in which any statement is made. The context provided by the entire history of the relationship between the two people can dramatically alter the meanings of the sentences.

If I say to a friend “I love ice cream” as we pass an ice cream parlor, I may not merely be conveying a message about my preferences in dairy products. I might also be suggesting, for example, that we stop and have an ice cream. The indirect nature of the request may, among several possibilities, indicate that I lack the power in the relationship to just demand that my friend go into the parlor with me. The power differential would be part and parcel of the nature of the relationship between the two people.

Whenever two people who have formed a relationship have a conversation, any statement made may refer to either the object or the meta level. The two levels may seem to be in harmony or they may contradict each other. Another way of looking at this phenomenon is that all statements may refer either to the feelings, thoughts, and intentions of the individual apart from the relationship context, or to the feelings, thoughts, and intentions within the relationship context.

When the listener does not know which of these descriptions best applies to a given statement, an ambiguity is created about the motives of the person making the statement. The statement, “I love ice cream,” is an example of a statement in which the object and meta levels would not be contradictory in most social situations. It is totally consistent for me to both like ice cream no matter who I am with or even if I am alone and for me to want my friend to accompany me to an ice cream parlor right now. If, on the other hand, I make this statement as we pass an ice cream parlor while implying that I would rather be somewhere else, then the motivation behind my statement becomes ambiguous. And confusing.

In these cases, ambiguity often arises because the usual actions of one of the people in the conversation imply something completely different from what the person seems to be saying or requesting. As we all know, actions speak louder than words. Individuals will invariably react to such ambiguity, but surprisingly they do not tend to think of the communication as ambiguous.

For instance, if a widowed mother says to her son, “You don’t care about me; you never want to come when I desperately need you,” it is natural for him to assume that his mother wants him to change his behavior. He believes that she wants him to gladly come over whenever he is needed.

It seems that he will continue to believe this even if the requests for help are made with impossible frequency at times clearly inconvenient for him and without a shred of gratitude on his mother’s part when he complies. He may continue to believe this, in fact, even if criticized every time he complies with his mother’s request!

The son in this situation is in a rather strange bind. He is being criticized by his mother for attempting to please her. To add insult to injury, her requests are almost impossible to follow without a complete disregard for his own needs. Interestingly, most people in such a predicament do not come to the conclusion that the mother may not, in fact, really want the help she asks for, or, alternately, that she does not even know whether she wants it or not. The idea of an intrapsychic conflict being the cause of such behavior is not generally considered, even though it is the most common cause.

The idea that the mother is knowingly pushing the helper away for some ulterior motive is one that just does not appear to most people to make any sense. However, this is precisely what is happening. This is what I refer to as the net effect of her infuriating behavior. I believe that the net effect tells us the often covert purpose for which the behavior was originally designed.  However, it does not tell us why it was thusly designed.

The ambiguity in Mom’s motivation in this case does, however, suggest the possibility that she has a conflict within herself over her dependency needs. Perhaps she is not happy being looked after by her son, but might believe, for example, that being independent is not proper for a woman. Gender roles! No matter how the son behaves in regard to the issue, she becomes displeased. because his actions interfere with either her true desires for independence or the rules required by the gender role that she learned in her own family of origin. He is in a “no-win” situation. However, her displeasure does not result directly from the son’s behavior, but from her own internal conflicts.

With this in mind, let us look at the ambiguity of the “you don’t care about me” part of her statement. It may refer not to the son’s lack of concern for his mother per se, but to the motives behind his helping behavior. It could mean that she believes that the son’s behavior is based on his own selfish wish to dominate her, rather than on her desire to be looked after by him. He could be helping her because he likes being a kingpin, for instance – not because he cares about her. That would be consistent with the mother’s views of the gender role expected of men by her family.

Within the context of dysfunctional family relationships, it is often true that consideration of the seemingly less likely interpretation of a statement reveals the truth as to what is really going on!

The literary critic William Empson took Freud’s idea of intrapsychic conflict as a springboard for appreciating the art of the poet, which in turn is a way of understanding the poet. Empson conceptualized intrapsychic conflict along psychoanalytic lines, but his ideas can just as well be relevant to a conflict between the individual’s self and the family system to which that self belongs. In the book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, he listed different types of literary ambiguities which indicate increasing levels of confusion in the minds of the reader, the characters, and perhaps the author.

One of the reasons that literature excites us is because we identify with or contrast our feelings with the feelings of the characters as they encounter various predicaments. Those feelings are frequently not fixed, but mixed. Both we and they are plagued with doubts and contradictions. In much the same way, we can enter the internal world of others within our social system. In both cases, we are confronted with various degrees of ambivalence and confusion.

Understanding of Empson’s seven ways in which levels of “two-mindedness” are manifested in language can be used to alert a listener to the possibility that a motivational conflict is present in the speaker. Being able to spot this is key to understanding and then constructively discussing (metacommuncating about) repetitive dysfunctional family interactions. I will end the post with these manifestations of the conflicts I have been discussing so readers can begin to look for them.

In general, the degree or level of the speaker’s awareness of his or her ambivalence increases as we proceed down the list.

  1. A statement makes possible comparisons to several points of likeness or difference. This type of ambiguity turns on the fact that any idea or emotion causes a multitude of associations within the mind of the listener, and also because different people have different associations. A choir, for instance, can lead one person to recall positive images such as grand churches and angelic singing, while for another it summons negative images such as overbearing nuns in Catholic school or guilt-inducing sermons. This is precisely why people use metaphors and why metaphors make language so rich; a single word can stand for so much. A statement is ambiguous when the listener finds himself or herself wondering which of these many potential references and feeling states is in the mind of the author or speaker, and whether they are positive or negative.
  1. Two or more alternate meanings are fully resolved because to what the metaphor is really referring seemsfairly clear. This device may or may not be ambiguous, depending on whether or not a question exists as to the actual meaning of the author.
  1. Two apparently unconnected ideas are suddenly connected. A good example of this type of ambiguity is the pun. An ambiguity arises whenever a question exists as to whether or not to connect the meanings, or about how to connect them. I remember an instance in high school in which I made a remark to a friend about another fellow student whom I disliked – and which that guy overheard – about how he belonged to an anti-nuclear weapons organization. I mentioned that the fellow “was in SANE.” He was not quite sure whether or not I had just insulted him.
  1. The speaker indirectly expresses mixed feelings or ambivalence without admitting to them, through the use of exaggeration. Confusion can be communicated, for instance, by provoking in the listener a sense of “methinks he doth protest too much.” In other words, when individuals overstate their feelings, a listener may get the idea that they are covering up opposite feelings. The process involved can also be understood as a manifestation of the defense mechanism known as reaction formation. Individuals may defend against an unacceptable idea by becoming obsessed with the opposite idea, or defend against an unacceptable impulse by compulsively acting in ways contrary to the impulse. A good example was the scandal that surrounded the television evangelist, Jimmy Swaggert. He had vociferously condemned from the pulpit all those who gave in to the “sins of the flesh.” As it turned out, and as many of his critics had suspected all along, he had been giving in to the same temptations himself.
  1. An individual communicates two ideas which may contradict one another in passing from one of them to the other, but does not address the question of their apparent inconsistency. The speaker either does not seem to be holding both ideas in mind simultaneously or never juxtaposes them, so that the issue of their possible mutual exclusiveness can arise for discussion and clarification. For example, a man may expound on his belief that the only road to satisfaction is hard work, but then later start to complain about how bummed out he feels about having to work all the time. As a therapist, I often notice such contradictory statements made literally weeks or even months apart. A therapist really has to pay attention and write good notes about sessions to pick up on this.
  1. The speaker says something in a way that actively signals to the listener that there should be some doubt as to what has been said. The speaker appears to have avoided making a commitment to an idea or expressing his or her true feelings. In this situation the speaker cannot be held accountable for holding any particular opinion. Damning with faint praise would be one example. When a basketball coach describes a player as “tenacious on defense, and always gives one hundred and ten percent,” he is generally not describing one of his starters. A second example is the use of words like “strictly,” “exactly,” or “totally,” as in, “she was not, strictly speaking, very intelligent.” A third way is through the use of nonverbal communication. A grin or a raised eyebrow will often negate the content of what is being said at the lexical level. In all of these cases, the listener is forced to guess what the speaker really means.
  1. The last type of ambiguity is a full contradiction, in which the author or speaker obviously seeks to “have it both ways.” Speakers make statements which indicate neuroticism or indecisiveness. They may go on and on ad nauseam describing the pros and cons of particular viewpoint or course of action without ever making a decision. They may obsessively waver back and forth on an issue. They may without warning plunge from the heights of ecstasy to the depths of despair, or from the idealization to the denigration of a person, thing, or concept.

David M. Allen, M.D. is the author of the book, How Dysfunctional Families Spur Mental Disorders: A Balanced Approach to Resolve Problems and Reconcile Relationships. He is Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and the former Director of Psychiatric Residency Training at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis. He also has extensive experience in the private practice in psychiatry and psychotherapy. Additionally, he has done research into personality disorders and is a psychotherapy theorist. He is the author of three books for psychotherapists: A Family Systems Approach to Individual Psychotherapy,Deciphering Motivation in Psychotherapy, and Psychotherapy with Borderline Patients: an Integrated Approach, as well as numerous journal articles and book chapters. He is a former associate editor of the Journal of Psychotherapy Integration.

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