Locked in Communication Sequences:
Applying The Interactional View to Relationship Problems
University of Colorado at Boulder
The purpose of this paper is to define the key points of the Interactional View, to apply a personal communication problem I have and analyze according to this view, and then to critique this theory’s strengths and weaknesses. I chose the Interactional View because the emphasis on communication patterns gives an explanation as to why I continue to have the same argument with my boyfriend Eric.
The Interactional view
The Interactional View frames interpersonal communication as a system. These systems have positive feedback loops, which create an amplified effect and have negative feedback loops, which in the end stabilize the communication system. The need for homeostasis, interaction patterns that keep the system balanced, lock participants into hard-to-change systems of communication. Watzlawick et al formed five Axioms of Communication in order to describe how communication systems function and to explain how communication becomes systemic and bound in interpersonal communication.
The first of the five Axioms is, "One cannot not communicate" (Watzlawick et al., 1967, p. 49). There is no possible way one cannot communicate; even the lack of action or silence sends a message. Through non-verbals we communicate although there may be no explicit message, for example waving hello instead explicitly saying hello. "Words or silence all have message value: they influence others and these others, in turn, cannot not respond to these communications and are thus themselves communicating" (Watzlawick et al., 1967, p. 48).
The second axiom is, "Every communication has a content and relationship aspect such that the latter classifies the former and is therefore a metacommunication" (Watzlawick et al., 1967, p. 60). When we communicate we relay information (the content) and by relaying this information we are also trying to impose some sort of reactionary behavior. This behavior may be how the information is meant to be used/ taken as and is therefore a command that in due course will define the relationship between participants. When a relationship is functional the focus is put on the content of the message and when it is dysfunctional the focus is on the nature of the relationship and less on the actual information exchange.
The third axiom is "The nature of a relationship is contingent upon the punctuation of the communicational sequences between the communicants." Interaction in a relationship follows a certain pattern of communication. One move is made by a partner and then another move is made y the other. This reactionary move could be dependent on the first, initiation of a counter move from the other partner, etc. These patterns of behavior organize the communication and can make the participants "stuck" in these series thus making it more difficult to change the way and thus the result of communication in a relationship. The inability to metacommunicate about the relationship (as stated in the second axiom) keeps partners from being able to understand why they have fallen into these patterns of interaction and also how to change these patterns (Watzlawick, et al., 1967, p. 52) According to Carol Wilder, if the problem maintaining behavior is changed or eliminated, the problem will be alleviated regardless of its origins or duration, thus the observational challenge is to identify the self-reinforcing patterns made clear by their redundancy (Wilder, 1979, p. 173).
The fourth axiom is "Human beings communicate both digitally and analogically." The digital message is primarily the content aspect; it is when you explicitly say I am angry or I am feeling vulnerable. The analogical message pertains more to the relationship aspect of communication; it is when you communicate anger by acting angry. The analogical message thus depends on the digital message, whether it be for clarification of the message, to contradict the message, or to strengthen the message.
The last of the five axioms is "All communicational interchanges are either symmetrical or complimentary depending on whether they are based on equality or difference. In a symmetrical relationship the partners tend to mimic each other and therefore they maximize similarities whereas in a complimentary relationship the partners maximize difference. In either case partners become interlocked in these types of interchanges again making it difficult to break free from the communication sequence.
My boyfriend Eric and I seem to keep arguing about the same problem over and over again. He cheated on me about three months ago and we keep having the same argument about it whenever the issue comes up. Usually the woman he cheated on me with calls/texts/emails, which starts the conversation, then we go around and around until one of two things happen; he either gets frustrated with my lack of understanding/forgiveness and leaves or I completely shut down and become quiet and non-responsive and he leaves because he feels like there is no "getting through" to me if I am silent. Eventually we both calm down and go back to our normal lives. However there is never any sort of solution to the problem or amends made, because of this the next time there is a trigger we start with the same cycle again. This sequence of events can be related to the five axioms of the Interactional View.
According to the first axiom (one cannot not communicate) when I become non-responsive and shut down, although there are no words being spoken, communication is still occurring. Eric feels as though there is "no point" in trying to talk about our problems anymore because I have stopped communicating; however, when I become quiet I know I am still trying to send him a message. I want him to know that I am hurt, things are not going to change if he continues to justify his actions (from my viewpoint) and I also need time to organize my thoughts about the situation. I usually curl up or turn my body away from him to physically make myself less vulnerable to him and the situation as well. This is just one of the many implicit messages we send each other during our fights.
The second axiom explains how when we relay information we are tying to achieve some sort of reactionary behavior or relationship; this can also be applied to my communication problem with Eric. He gives me reasons as to why he cheated on me trying to achieve empathy. He is also trying to relay to me that because this was a specific case and he did have specific reasons for his actions that I should know it will never happened again; he now knows how to keep himself from being in a similar situation. I should take his explanation as a reason as to why it will never happen again. Thus, the content of his message is defining how our relationship should be.
The third axiom pertaining to communication patterns is the easiest to see in our case. From his point of view: I become non-responsive --> He gets frustrated --> He expresses his anger --> I shut down even further --> He gives up and leaves. From my point of view: He gets frustrated --> I get quiet --> He gets angry --> I shut down even more --> He gives up and leaves. He punctuates the sequence as though I become unresponsive first and I punctuate the sequence as though he gets frustrated first. We both feel as the though the other one is "to blame" for our unresolved issues and that the other I unreasonable when arguing. This locks us in a pattern, it also gives a history of thinking the other is being irrational even before we begin this sequence.
When Eric and I relay messages to each during these patterns we say them digitally and them confirm them analogically. I tell him I am hurt and I begin to cry, I tell him I am angry and I raise my voice. He explains his frustration and locks up his body or he apologizes and softens his voice/stance by slouching or loosening his shoulders.
I believe that Eric and I more or less have a complimentary relationship. When he gets angry then I soften when I get angry then he softens. We usually try to keep our arguments from escalating into yelling matches by behaving in complimentary ways. If we were to combat yelling with yelling (symmetrical) then eventually our voices would keep escalating and I think we both value conversations over yelling. However this does not mean that our interactions are more productive although I think that is what we would both like to believe.
The Interactional View is very helpful in the acknowledgement of patterns and analyzing why we become "stuck" in communication sequences. It was very easy to pull out the communication pattern in specific communication problem. It was also very easy to how my boyfriend and I are always communicating even when we do not explicitly say something. "There are situations in which deliberate vagueness is likely to be more effective as a communication strategy than clarity or openness, yet the noble values of self-disclosure and clarity predominate in much communication research and teaching" (Wilder, 1979, p. 183). Other theories about communication do not emphasize the importance of implicit communication like the Interactional View does. The Interactional View also makes it easy to see how we become locked into these patterns and how it is difficult to change the dynamic of a relationship due to a lack of metacommunication and the difference in opinion about how the relationship sequence in punctuated. The Interactional View’s strongest asset is how it shows how communication becomes locked and hard to change.
When trying to relate my situation to the Interactional View I found some things difficult. The biggest problem I had was that when analyzing our usual sequence of communication it was hard to find a beginning and an end. In the first axiom it states that, one cannot not communicate, therefore how do we know when one communication patterns ends and another begins? Also although Eric and I do tend to fall into a pattern of communication there is usually something that triggers the conversation, for instance a phone call/text/email from the woman he cheated on me with or a comment from one of our friends or family members. We are not constantly in this communication pattern; there is a clear ending and an even clearer beginning.
Another problem I had analyzing my relationship was trying to figure out if we were symmetrical or complimentary. I would say that the majority of the time we are complimentary however, there are times when we are symmetrical during the same discussion. I gave the example that most of the time when one partner is expressing anger the other becomes a little apprehensive and quiet as to not provoke further anger. However, there are times when the anger provokes the reaction of getting angry and that anger builds on both sides, so our relationship is not so easily place into one category.
Although there are weaknesses in the Interactional View it is also very helpful when analyzing how a relationship becomes trapped in a series of communication moves. The five axioms are easily applied to interpersonal relationships and also give a more human aspect to the Cybernetic tradition (on which this one is based). It was easy to dissect the nature of our communication problems using this view. This theory of communication explains why relationships are systems and how we become interlocked in these systems.
Watzlawick, P., Beavin, J. H., & Jackson, D. D. (1967). Some tentative axioms of communication. In Pragmatics of human communication: A study of interactional patterns, pathologies, and paradoxes (pp. 48-71). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
Wilder, C. (1979). The Palo Alto Group: Difficulties and directions of the interactional view for human communication research. Human Communication Research, 5(2), 172-183.