We don’t talk about how easy it is to trap someone.
And by that, I mean that we don’t talk about how easy it is to drive someone we love into a corner. Without even meaning to.
A double bind is when a person sends out two different messages, both of which conflicts with the other. This causes situations where no matter what you’re doing, you’re going to do “the wrong thing” and be criticized. A double bind is also known as “being between a rock and a hard place” and “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” No matter what you do, you’re a terrible person.
Double binds are a huge source of confusion, anxiety, and stress.
Sometimes when they’re done intentionally, they can be a way to control another person. A form of control without open coercion. Double binds are a common strategy of emotional abusers.
That’s probably scary enough on its own. But here’s the other thing. The scarier part: You don’t have to be an emotional abuser to double bind someone.
It’s far too easy for us to end up in situations where we do it unintentionally.
A Common Unintentional Double Bind
Here’s an example:
There’s clutter in a space you shared with your loved one. They’ve mentioned that it’s something that’ll need to get cleaned up. From the way they’re talking, you think they’re planning on doing it. Or at least that you’re doing it together. You don’t get the sense that they’re asking you to clean it up — since they’ve asked you directly to do so in the past with other things, and you’ve done it back then. And the way they’re talking now sounds nothing like the way they asked in the past.
Besides, much of the stuff involved is theirs. Some of it, you don’t even know what it is or what it does, let alone where to put it. And the last thing you want to do is put away things in places where they can’t find it later and have them ask where something went by a name you don’t know, and you have no idea which object they’re talking about.
Those sorts of issues.
So you leave it alone.
After some time passes they start cleaning this clutter up, and they angrily ask you why you didn’t organize the mess. Why you didn’t take care of the clutter. You start to answer and start to try to help them, and they tell you to not bother helping. That now that you haven’t done it that it’s no help to have you in there with them also doing it.
They tell you, “I’ve got it now. I just wish you’d cleaned it up before.”
In a moment like this, you’re really double bound. There’s literally no way to give them what they want — which is for you to have done it before, back in the past where you can no longer go and do it (since we can’t time travel).
You are stuck between two undesirable choices:
- Ignore them telling you to go away and not help. Insist on helping them despite being told not to. (Downsides: Rude, pushy, not honoring their wishes.)
- Go away and let them do it. (Downsides: Feels lazy, not helpful, makes you feel guilty.)
(Potentially, there’s a third undesirable choice as well — tell them they’re put you in a double bind and start a potentially unpleasant conversation, interrupting them in a task they’re already annoyed to be doing.)
In this situation, what has amounted to a minor miscommunication (and a common one, one that I’ve seen many times in my own relationships and others, and have personally been on both sides of at one time or another) has turned into a double bind.
Creating a New Desirable Alternative
These situations aren’t always a mission critical failure. People work through them just fine even if they occur repeatedly… in some relationships.
In others, even little miscommunications like this do seem to pile up and breed a resentment which if left untreated can brew and cause big freaking problems over time.
What I’d suggest instead if you’re in one of these situations and are on the potential punisher side of a no-win situation is to try to create a new desirable alternative for your partner who messed up (out of good faith). What this looks like changes based on the situation and the people, but here are a couple of possibilities with the example I gave before:
- Talk to them about what you meant, apologize for any part you may have had in the miscommunication (however small), and come up with ideas of better ways to communicate for the future.
- Bring them into the task to help you and/or suggest something else they can do while you do that in order to be helpful.
- Don’t bring time traveling into it. Even if you think it, don’t say it. And certainly don’t ruminate on it. It just isn’t helpful. (For either party.)
This is especially true for small mistakes or miscommunications.
For larger issues, you might need something like an accountability talk framework. But even then, it’s important to provide someone with an opportunity to be successful. And to not find themselves in a no-win scenario (even a small one).
It can be really helpful when you’re frustrated with your partner to take a second and take their perspective — to think if you’d feel backed into a corner if your roles were reversed.
If you don’t do this already, this can be tricky to do at first because of a little bias everyone has called the fundamental attribution error, but if you make a concerted effort to positively advocate aggressively for your partner and give them the benefit of the doubt (until they’ve demonstrated many times they don’t deserve it due to bad faith acting), then you’re likely to do a better job taking their perspective.
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