The Double Bind

Gregory Bateson’s idea about double binds began with the work he, Don Jackson, Jay Haley, and John Weakland ( the “Palo Alto” group) did from 1952 to 1954, and published as an essay, “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia” (p.201) in Bateson’s “Steps to an Ecology of Mind” (1972). His later thinking about the notion of double binds went well beyond the early research focus on family relations with schizophrenic patients. For the purposes of this blog, I will comment only on the application of the double bind theory to the family dynamics of schizophrenic patients as represented in the original Palo Alto group research and a follow-up paper given by Bateson in 1969 at a Symposium on the Double Bind and included as an essay, “Double Bind 1969″(p.271) in “Steps”.

An example from the original research, which has been most often cited, and which best describes the double bind conflict for a schizophrenic patient is given on page 217 in “Steps”:

“An analysis of an incident occurring between a schizophrenic patient and his mother illustrates the double bind situation. A young man who had fairly well recovered from an acute schizophrenic episode was visited in the hospital by his mother. He was glad to see her and impulsively put his arm around her shoulders, whereupon she stiffened. He withdrew his arm and she asked, ‘don’t you love me anymore?’. He then blushed, and she said. ‘Dear, you must not be so easily embarrassed and afraid of your feelings.’ The patient was able to stay with her only a few minutes more and following her departure he assaulted an aide and was put in the tubs.”

This example illustrates the bind that the patient has been put into by his mother’s contradictory messages. She both invites his emotional expression and rejects it. He is caught and does not have an obvious way out of the conflict. Bateson and the rest of the Palo Alto group found similar conflicting messages among other families of schizophrenic patients and their research helped inform the family therapy and family systems movement about communications within families which may be a contributory cause of mental illness.

While we still know very little about schizophrenia and its possible causes, there was far less known in the 1950s/1960s. We need to keep this in mind when judging the assumptions made from the research findings of the Palo Alto group. One assumption Bateson and others made was that the dynamic of the double bind could almost by itself ( though they did acknowledge possible genetic and bio-chemical influences) set up the conditions for a schizophrenic break. We now know there are some genetic and biochemical components to any schizophrenic syndrome. I believe that most psychiatrists do not acknowledge the possibility that double bind conflicts could also contribute to schizophrenic episodes. Double bind conflicts can also contribute to other mental and emotional disturbances and family therapists know this. It is likely that schizophrenia is caused by some aspects of social-interpersonal dynamics along with genetic tendencies. The posts I made on the memoirs of Esme Weijun Wang and Elyn Saks would support this point. Both women have managed their schizophrenia with a combination of anti-psychotic medications and psychotherapy. Another assumption made by Bateson and others was that the essential conflict in a double bind familial situation was between a mother and her son or daughter. This was also part of a period of blaming the mother for all sorts of deficiencies and illnesses. Leo Kanner’s notion of the “refrigerator mother” which implied that a cold and rigid mother may have caused children to become autistic was part of this period. Kanner asserted this in a 1949 paper, “Problems of Nosology and Psychodynamics of Early Infantile Autism” and Bruno Bettelheim, an influential child psychiatrist, later reinforced this idea in his 1967 book, “The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autisim and the Birth of the Self”. By 1969, however, the refrigerator mother notion was already being discredited. Kanner, himself, stated at a conference at the National Society for Autistic Children, that the condition of autism was innate.

Mary Catherine Bateson, Gregory’s daughter, has a chapter, “The Double Bind: Pathology and Creativity” in “Cybernetics and Human Knowing”, Volume 12, No. 1-2, 2005, in which she explains how the double bind theory goes beyond the focus on pathology that marked the original research with schizophrenics, but she also comments on Gregory’s original insights about the “language” of schizophrenics:

“I can remember listening with Gregory to tapes of ‘schizophrenic word salad’ as he commented that there was a structure to this seemingly chaotic rant. Not to put too fine a point on it, he said, ‘there’s a method in his madness’. Gregory came to the conclusion that at the root of schizophrenia there was a logical incoherence, a disruption in thought and communication, that could be seen as either caused or exacerbated by patterns of relationship in the families of schizophrenics. These patterns were referred to as the double bind.” (p.12)

Whether family dynamics or other external influences play a role in the etiology of schizophrenia or not, the double bind theory has influenced family therapists, psychotherapists and psychiatrists to some extent until the present. And while we are currently in a biomedical period, it may be worth considering how family dynamics may contribute to various mental and emotional issues.