In other offices people gather around the water cooler or meet over a cup of coffee and discuss the latest office gossip and organisational intrigue. Us therapists are partial to a cup of coffee and also how, sometimes, because of the nature of our work, our coffee break chats turn to all sorts of eclectic subjects. This week is no different. We’ve been reflecting on ways in which addiction behaviour can become a fundamental part of a family’s way of being. This can permeate the minds of individual family members and can have lasting and catastrophic effects on the way they love and allow themselves to be loved, or not, as the case may be.
If this all sounds a bit vague lets try to make it a bit clearer. The coffee break musings that we are talking about began with a question posed out of the blue. It was ‘do you think some girls grow up believing “I know how to love daddy better than mammy does”? The question relates to the situation that we are all familiar with of a woman who seems to gravitate from one abusive relationship to another. She might escape an alcoholic, abusive or violent husband or partner only to find herself not too much later in a similar damaging or abusive relationship. It seems counter intuitive and it can be a confusing, disorientating experience for the woman concerned. What we are trying to visualise is the process of thought that a little girl goes through as she grows up in a house with a violent abusive father.
There are a number of points of interest. First among these seems to be a learned ability to tolerate and excuse the worst of behaviour in the father. It is like his violence or abuse presents his daughter with a riddle. To solve the riddle would be to end his bad behaviour before it begun. This would present her with the loving, caring daddy of her dreams. But first she must roll up her sleeves and work hard at trying to figure out how to get on his good side. It is clear that when he comes home late that he and mammy fight and in the little girl’s mind the idea forms that this is the wrong way to go about things. She may even get to feel that her mammy gets it wrong by saying anything critical to her father, anything at all really that might draw out his anger. Her fantasy of a beloved, caring father demands that she overlook his part in these nocturnal arguments and in this the seeds are sown of a life of heartbreak, of hopeless forgiveness and even of facilitating another generation of addiction.
In psychoanalysis a pattern of bad relationships is sometimes attributed to something called a repetition compulsion. In simple terms we feel compelled to repeat previous mistakes. Again, this seems to be counter intuitive and it certainly baffled Sigmund Freud when he saw it in his patients. Indeed, the professor had to tear up the rule book and start again and incorporate the compulsion to repeat in his theories of the mind. If we pass our scenario through the test of this theory of repetition it seems that what happens is that the girl puts herself unwittingly in the same abusive situation again and again in order to try to work out exactly why it didn’t succeed the first time, the most important time, with her father.
She has followed her childhood logic of ignoring; excusing and forgiving bad behaviour in her loved one and for some reason which she can’t quite grasp it doesn’t turn him into the loving, caring partner of her dreams. It is our sad task in psychotherapy to break it to her that she has been basing her relationships on a faulty premise. This can be a difficult thing to face up to because it also involves letting in the understanding that her father behaved badly. It can be very difficult for us in life and in therapy to let go of the fantasy of a loving parent and face the reality of their human failings. Sometimes the worse the behaviour of the parent has been makes for stronger resistance to face up to this. This is something that has to be dealt with slowly and sensitively.
So, the childhood idea that ‘I can love daddy better than mammy can’ will provide a child with some confidence that they can cope with a difficult situation in the home. But it can also lead to difficulties in that it facilitates a tolerance of abusive behaviour and an almost masochistic determination to overcome the worst of situations. This is just one scenario that we have discussed here this week. There are many other similar possibilities including trying to cope with an alcoholic mother. What we see is that an addiction in a family can pass from a substance addiction to fixed way of behaviour. Initially these are set in place to help us cope but they don’t adapt well to later situations. Whatever your interest is in exploring these issues we’d be glad if we could be of some assistance to you.