Functional and dysfunctional family communication patterns

Egbert Haynes
Functional and dysfunctional family communication patterns

Interaction patterns are patterns in which several people participate with their communications in a recurring way, and are part of family life.

These patterns tend to favor the development of family members, but the systemic model has identified some that it considers dysfunctional. Among these, we will deal with paradoxical communication and triadic and dyadic interaction patterns..


  • Paradoxical communication
  • Dyadic Interaction Patterns
    • Complementary interaction
    • Symmetric interaction
    • The dangers of complementary and symmetric interaction
    • The unstable symmetry
  • The triadic interaction
    • Alliances
    • Coalitions
    • Triangulation

Paradoxical communication

Paradoxical communication is seen as a dysfunctional or, at least, incongruous mode of communication that, if installed as the predominant communication pattern, has disturbing effects on those who participate, more visible on the most defenseless, children and adolescents. In fact, the double bind hypothesis consists precisely in that, it is to postulate that this is the predominant communicational pattern in families of schizophrenics. This hypothesis describes a dysfunctional form of communication that according to the members of the Palo Alto team is characteristic of families with schizophrenic members. In essence, the concept refers to the emission of incongruous messages at different logical levels, also known as paradoxical messages. For example, stimulate or provoke a response in the other and then complain because it has occurred, in a climate in which it is not possible to metacommunicate (or talk about what has happened), and in a context of vital importance for the child, that is from your parents.

In this interactional context, the child or young person can never be confirmed in their messages, because the digital (content) and the analog (non-verbal) level differ. If you answer one, it is wrong according to the other, so there is no way to get it right, or to be confirmed, and this seriously affects the establishment of a sense of identity..

In fact, irony and humor use the paradoxical message a lot, but the relational contexts are very different. Even between parents and children these messages can be given without anyone being very disturbed, but it is dangerous when the paradoxical communication installs in a predominant way and affects the development of a sense of identity.

When, for example, the mother's verbal (digital) communication contradicts her analog or non-verbal communication, it results in incongruous communication. The child or adolescent also adopts this modality, but over time becomes very disturbed. Certainly, if he listens to the verbal message, he must understand the mother's message as a sign of affection, but if he does, the mother will probably feel even more tense and reject him. If, on the other hand, he listens to the non-verbal message and distances himself, he will also be rejected or, at least, criticized.

Dyadic Interaction Patterns

Gregory Bateson during his anthropological years in New Guinea proposed a way of classifying interactions between pairs of people (dyads) that has continued to be used to this day and has shown great utility:

Complementary interaction

Complementary interaction is based on acceptance, and often enjoyment, of the difference between the superior position of one member and the inferior position of the other. The behaviors they exchange are different but they fit. For example, one orders and the other obeys, one asks for advice or help and the other provides, one cares and the other seeks to be cared for, one takes the initiative and the other follows. These patterns can occur between parents and children, teachers and students, doctors and patients, and in couples (among others).

Symmetric interaction

In symmetric interaction, the participants tend to be on the same level, to stay on the same footing. Either can offer advice, take initiative, etc..

Generally, these patterns are not rigid, but they evolve or vary depending on the contexts or the stage of development of the interactants..

For example, the relationship between a boss and his subordinate is complementary to work, but can be symmetrical while having coffee and talking about football. Also, the relationship between a child and his parents begins being very complementary (it could not be otherwise, they feed him, dress him, decide everything in his life), but over time this should vary as the child grows. , in such a way that when the parents are older, the child adopts the role of assistant and the roles are progressively reversed.

The dangers of complementary and symmetric interaction

The danger of complementarity is that it becomes rigid, that the difference between the superior and the inferior position does not evolve and thus prevents the development of who is "below.".

The danger of symmetry is escalation. If one of the two begins to make movements in which it is situated "above" the other - for example giving instructions, so it does not allow some alternation or negotiation as would be typical of a situation of equality - this entails an irresistible provocation for the other. In fact, each message of this type stimulates a similar response in the other, in a pattern known as symmetric escalation..

If we consider them as is, symmetric escalations are an interactional pattern that in itself leads to the dissolution or destruction of the dyad. Indeed, there are some cases in which this type of interaction leads one spouse to kill the other. On the international scene, it is common to see how the exchange of threats ends in war. But there are also many dyads that coexist with symmetric escalation, and the conflict that it entails, for years.

The unstable symmetry

Indeed, often in the clinic one sees not only the situations characterized by rigidity (bleeding symmetric climbs, rigid complementarities), but also others characterized by instability. It is what is known as unstable symmetry, a situation in which one is usually imposed on the other but the other does not just conform and struggles to maintain the position.

In these conflictive situations, the most common thing is to go in search of third parties to serve as allies. For this reason, it is usually said that there is a third party to form a system. Dyads usually articulate according to a third party. And in a family the most likely candidates are the children, but it can also be the dog, the television, the Internet, a lover, work, the mother-in-law, etc..

The triadic interaction

In systemic terminology, a distinction is made between alliances and coalitions.


They are the natural proximity between family members (for example, father and son enjoy watching football, while mother does not).


They are the associations between members against another. These are often explicitly denied (although everyone knows there are) and are not apparent to the eyes of an observer..

An example of this would be:

A mother complains to her ten-year-old daughter about how her husband treats her, without his knowing it. This is an invitation to the daughter to enter the coalition that, if accepted, may generate arguments between the girl and the father on trivial matters, in which the mother comes out in defense of the daughter (which may increase, by in turn, the difficulties and differences between the couple), and this will establish an interactional pattern of negative consequences. For a girl, the fact of being a member of a coalition, while having the attraction of the leading role of playing the game of the greats, takes away resources to solve her own evolutionary difficulties.


When the coalition involves recruiting one of the children against the other parent, it is known as triangulation, and it often has detrimental effects on the child in question, since much of their energy is devoted to parental conflict, rather than to face the problems. evolutionary challenges of his own life.

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