In psychological terms mixed messages are called “double binds” and they were discussed extensively way back by Gregory Bateson (http://www.anecologyofmind.com/). Analytical people will enjoy Bateson.

Let’s look at Mary Lou, who delivers mixed messages. We met her in an earlier post. She may have had an ulterior motive to doing so and she may not even be consciously aware of it.

Ulterior Motives for Mixed Messages

Let’s look at the ulterior motive possibility.

Mary Lou knows very well that something is wrong. She asks her husband to ”be honest” with her although she actually is too frightened and fragile to handle honest feedback. If she’s unable to handle painful feedback, why does she ask for it? The answer is because when she admits—to herself—that she could be hurt by some kinds of feedback, she becomes frightened.

In other words, Mary Lou can’t handle the feedback and the act of admitting she can’t handle it hurts and frightens her as much as the feedback itself.

Family History of People Who Give Mixed Messages

Mary Lou grew up in a family with high standards. You had to excel. Her sense of her own identity was tied up with excelling. Her parents were so disappointed when she didn’t measure up to their expectations, that she would feel crushed. Because they were kind and loving parents, she certainly wanted to please them. And I would expect that in holding such high standards, Mary Lou’s parents thought they were doing something positive for her. Maybe they thought that they were bringing out the best in her that way.

Mary Lou was a person who excelled. She had risen high in her chosen field, going beyond practicing dentistry to being an oral surgeon. Nevertheless, early childhood influences are potent enough to unseat current achievements. The moments in her life when she did not measure up continue to feed her subconscious with fears that she will once again not measure up.

But the fears must be kept under cover. They must remain out of Mary Lou’s conscious awareness or those feelings of childhood inadequacy and fear will return. To complicate matters, since she needs to think of herself as successful and smart—which she is—she can’t be afraid of honest feedback, at least not consciously. Inviting honest feedback “proves” to her more than anyone else that she has not done anything wrong.

The bottom line is that not only does Mary Lou give mixed messages to her family, but she gives them to herself. On the one hand, she knows deep down that something is wrong. On the other hand, she can’t allow herself to be aware of this or it will crush her like it did in childhood. Yet, she must invite the very thing she fears in order to “prove” that nothing is wrong.

And now we come to the way this Houdini wiggles out of the ropes: When finally given the feared message, the one she can’t handle, she deflects the entire problem onto her unwitting husband. If she can convince herself that the problem is his fault, then she doesn’t have to feel like a failure.

She even gets the benefit of playing the victim of his mistakes so she can soothe herself. In soothing herself, she is being nurturing to herself instead of beating herself up. Obviously, that’s a better choice from her perspective.

Advice For Spouses of People Who Give Mixed Messages

Of course, it’s not a better choice at all. Underneath it all, she “knows” something is wrong with her. She’s depressed over it and she’s further depressed by the victimization that she has received from her husband. Notice that this victimization is real. He’s angry at her! Well, of course he would be, but that’s not helping either. That, by the way, is his second mistake.

This brings me to how her husband, Lloyd, should handle things. When Lloyd tells Mary Lou “I am not hiding!” it’s his first mistake. Why do I say that?

The answer is that that is a defensive response. The rule I tell my clients always is: Never go on the defensive. It just doesn’t work and you feel like a loser. It fuels anger, too.

His second mistake was to get angry at her. See, it may feel to him like she has set him up and she has—subconsciously. Not only is it not something she did on purpose but the very act of being aware that she needed to do that would cause her to be aware of her “failings.” It would be almost as if she told herself, “I need to make Lloyd the bad guy so I don’t have to think about my mistakes.” Obviously, that’s impossible! The minute she says this to herself, she is thinking about her mistakes—the one thing she can’t do.

She did not consciously set him up so being angry at her is quite unfair. It’s like being angry at your child for not getting a homework problem right. The child didn’t go and make a mistake on purpose. But that’s another discussion.

The worst part of Lloyd’s anger is that it plays into Mary Lou’s hands. Now, he’s the bad guy.

So what should he do?

My approach is always to put things on the table. When the air is cleared and the feared message is given, it’s not so terrible. It’s something you can face. Whether Lloyd has chosen to deflect the discussion, as he did in the first scenario, or whether he is honest, he needs to talk about the pattern rather than the original topic they were discussing.

Let’s follow discussion #1. He says, “Oh, no,” and Mary Lou responds that she doesn’t trust him because he is not honest and then accuses him of hiding from conversations. Instead of denying this, he needs to refocus the whole discussion. Here is a possibility:

“Mary Lou, you are correct. I don’t like entering into conversations with you in which whether I chose (A) or (B) I’m going to be wrong. This time I deflected the topic and it didn’t work. If I were honest, that would hurt your feelings. Until we can really have an open discussion and your feelings are not going to be hurt, I will have to choose this option.”

Now, granted Mary Lou can’t handle this because it throws the ball into her court where she does not want it, but it is truthful. That is a more adult way for Lloyd to handle the problem. If Mary Lou tries to deflect it again, he can say, “See, it’s happening again,” and then perhaps offer that she get some help. He can suggest they work together on my book, The Healing Is Mutual, or get direct help from me. Mary Lou is so afraid of facing what is inside her that it is unlikely Lloyd will be able to turn this troubling situation around on his own.

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