The replication of past victimization in couples.
Perhaps no one has written more about the impact that early injustices can have on one’s present and future than noted psychiatrist and family therapist Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy (1965). His most famous concept, parentification, is applied, for example, to a child who was chronically saddled with age-inappropriate responsibility while growing up. In some cases, the child may have been called upon to take care of ill or incompetent parents or parents with certain disabilities. These responsibilities were usually been entrusted to the oldest child or the child perceived as most competent. Often these family superstars are eager to please and to take on the esteemed position of pseudo-parent to their parents and siblings. Despite the enormous burden this puts on the child, this position is usually considered a place of honor in the family. Boszormenyi-Nagy claimed that the internalization of parentification is often so strong and positively reinforced, that it is far too powerful to eradicate completely, and if not controlled, can wreak havoc on one’s adult life and relationships (Boszormenyi-Nagy & Spark, 1973). Chronic parentification was not the only injustice Boszormenyi-Nagy was referring to when discussing injustices and other related concepts such as ledgers and debt (Boszormenyi-Nagy & Spark, 1973). There are in fact a myriad of experiences one may have that could be counted as unjust from inside the family of origin (e.g., abusive parents) or outside (e.g., sexual assault at work). This article centers on a multifaceted case illustrating the negative impact past injustices from the family of origin can have on a couple’s present relational dynamics. How Past Injustices Appear in Present Relationships A couple in their late 30s with three young sons fought constantly, so much so that it was extremely difficult to intervene. While neither partner initially reported this as very significant, they were both highly criticized by intrusive, miserable parents, especially their lonely and unhappy mothers. Their fathers frequently vacillated between control and distance to cope with their misery. The specific relational dynamic entailed each partner taking turns expressing a certain victimization at the hands of the other. In many couples, this style is usually followed by an attack. But in this case, there was little offense, just a string of never-ending complaints of victimization. For example, if one partner failed to clean off the dinner table, the other would complain about being taken advantage of, which would progress to feelings of being mistreated in several other contexts. This in turn would evoke feelings of victimization in the accused partner who would feel that the "punishment did not fit the crime," and proceed to list how many times he/she cleared off the dinner table and how little gratitude was expressed, What Can Be Done? Taken at face value, this might not seem to be a particularly difficult case to treat by a competent couple’s therapist. However, there were some very challenging aspects involved. For example, even after the couple was able to admit that they each experienced prior injustices in their respective families of origin—and this took some time—it was hard for them to connect this abuse to their current relationship dynamics. That is, they were so hurt and insulted by each other, that they could not give their pasts any responsibility for their reactions to these injustices; they each felt completely justified in their current victimization. article continues after advertisement Also, while the partners took turns victimizing one another to various degrees, each partner also felt victimized even when it simply was not the case. For example, one partner was about to do the laundry—even picking up the laundry basket—when the other began to complain about it. When confronted about this leap, the complaining partner expressed no remorse. There was no apology such as: “Gee, I’m sorry I jumped to conclusions.” In place of the apology was simply an excuse based on his/her perceived prior victimization. And last, because victimization is a process the couple needed to feed their process or keep it alive because it protected them against the underlying pain from past victimization, which was very real. If someone is truly victimized in their relationship, then couples do not have to work hard to locate it and do battle. But if there is not enough victimization to sustain the dynamic, it must be found somewhere, and this couple knew where to look. This showed itself in their overreaction to any slight, or when they simply created the injustice out of thin air. Unless victimization from one’s past is uncovered and dealt with at its core, relational symptoms will arrive and thrive. Relentless complaining only serves to reinforce or increase victimization because neither partner feels heard or empathized with. Asserting oneself when feeling victimized can be a good thing. But belaboring the point without understanding will only result in reliving the original pain.
Boszormenyi-Nagy, I. (1965). A theory of relationships: Experiences and transactions. In I.Boszormenyi-Nagy & J. Framo (Eds.), Intensive family therapy (pp. 33-86). New York: Harper & Row.
Boszormenyi-Nagy, I., & Spark, G. (1973). Invisible loyalties. New York: Harper & Row.