"Clingy" Communication: A Practical Application of Watzlawickís Cybernetic Theory of Relationships
University of Colorado at Boulder
Watzlawick, Beavin & Jacksonís (1967) cybernetic theory of relationships states that two individuals in a relationship should be seen as their own cybernetic system, operating in an inherently mechanistic manner. In communication, individuals constantly give information and receive responses from each other, forming feedback loops. Watzlawick, Beavin & Jackson argue that through this feedback process, relationships tend toward homeostasis as patterns are created that actively resist change and increasingly work to maintain the status quo. As interactional pattern become fixed, relationships become difficult to significantly alter. When these patterns do change, the individuals involved can become confused, and the relationship can become strained. Watzlawick, Beavin & Jackson have broken the theory into five central axioms. First, one cannot not communicate. This means whether you are talking or not everything else you do communicates something to the other party. Second, communication has a content and a relationship aspect. This means the content of your communication always has a relationship aspect to explain the true meaning for example a bite being mean or playful. Third, the nature of a relationship depends on how both parties punctuate the communication sequence. This is each persons view on who causes what through out the relationship. Fourth, human beings communicate both digitally and analogically. This means you can either tell it in plain words or show it through signs. Fifth, all communication is either symmetrical or complementary. This means either the relationship is equal or unequal like parent to child. The Cybernetics Theory of Relationship is a useful method for understanding the ways in which communication is used, as well as the role of communication in relationships. By applying the theory to a real world situation Ė a good friendís relationship dilemma Ė we can readily observe the emergence of feedback loops and the validity of Watzlawick, Beavin & Jacksonís axioms in the creation of unbreakable patterns and homeostasis.
A good friend of mine recently approached me with complaints about her romantic relationship. She feels that her boyfriend has increasingly become more "clingy" and possessive when they are together. This is upsetting to her, as she feels torn between her boyfriend and her friends whenever she is in a social setting. Realizing this, she began communicating her feelings to him. However, each time she raised the issue in conversation, he would get offended. He would respond to her with a repeated argument Ė that he is "clingy" only because he truly loves her. She has come to a point were she is feeling less attracted to him because of his possessiveness, and wants to distance herself from him. However, although she tries to create distance, she finds herself continuing her relationship habits, spending every night at his house, and accepting every one of his invitations to spend time together. In the rare occasions when she does not spend her free moments with him, they get into arguments. She complains that her boyfriend does not understand why she would want distance. She is now frustrated, and has been stressing over ways she can change the relationship or end it all together.
My friendís dilemma demonstrates the feedback process throughout individual interactions that come to form the basis of a relationship. In interpersonal systems, stimulus is met with a response, which is then met with a further response, creating a loop. As Watzlawick, Beavin & Jackson assert, "the behavior of each person affects and is affected by the behavior of each other person" (p. 31). In her relationship, my friend feels as though her boyfriend has become too "clingy." As a response she has begun attempts to communicate to him that she needs more space. Her boyfriend gives her feedback from her communication, and in her opinion, misinterprets her words as offensive. This causes her to give him feedback by getting upset and apologizing, dropping her demands of distance. Each time she gives him this response, he is not only positively reinforced in his reactions to her demands, he receives symbols that his possessiveness is acceptable. They have created a very resilient feedback loop in this process.
These relationship dilemmas also illustrate Watzlawick, Beavin & Jacksonís axioms, particularly axioms three and four. Axiom three explains how interactions can become patterned and stay that way for the entire relationship. According to the theory, the manner in which both individuals punctuate their communication organizes the behavior of the participants and becomes a source of blame. Each partner believes the otherís behavior is the cause of the problem. In this relationship my friend would like to spend more time with friends, and blames her boyfriendís possessiveness as an obstacle to achieving this. When she tells him this, he recasts the blames onto her and accuses her of starting a fight Ė a reaction that in turn makes him upset. This in turn causes her to withdraw even more from him and desire more space. Problematically, this only fuels his behavior, trying to "cling" onto her. Disagreements like this are essentially conflicts over the proper way to punctuate the sequence of events. This is a prime reason for relationship problems.
Axiom four distinguishes digital and analog aspects of communication. The digital aspect is the representation of messages through words. The analog aspect signifies communication through nonverbal behavior, such as "posture, gesture, facial expression, [and] voice inflection" (p.55). Throughout my friendís relationship she communicated digitally by verbally stating that she needs space and does not like her boyfriendís hyper-dependence. She also communicates this point in an analog fashion, nonverbally, by creating physical distance from her boyfriend while in social settings. She states that she is trying to send him a message that she requires more space. This is called mix-signaling where she sends digital and analogical messages at the same time. He exhibits both methods of communication as well. When confronted with her communication efforts, her boyfriend will complain and say "how come you donít want to be with me?" He may make efforts to move closer to her or touch her to communicate his love. Often times, one may exhibit digital and analog signals that contradict each other. Replying verbally to her boyfriend that she loves him, yet saying this in a condescending tone can cause confusion, only compounding the dilemmas in the relationship.
Throughout this real world situation, unbreakable patterns develop that maintain homeostasis. According to the article "Control in Dating Relationships" by Stets, the system actively resists change because relationships expect certain patterns and things out of individuals involved. One of the patterns these two have is that my friend will spend the night at her boyfriendís house whenever he asks her to do so. If one day she refused his request and did not spend the night he might get confused and interpret this behavior as an indication of her lack of love. Knowing this, she spends the night with him despite the fact that she does not truly want to do so. She would rather make this sacrifice than fight with her boyfriend. Also, another unbreakable pattern has emerged when my friend automatically apologizes after she requests more space.
While Watzlawick, Beavin & Jacksonís theory is insightful in explaining the manner in which my friendís relationship has developed unbreakable patterns and tended toward homeostasis, my friendís relationship dilemma alerts us to a possible deficiency in the theory. This theory tells us that the patterns of communication behavior make relationships hard to change even if the participants desire change, or desire that the relationship end. What Watzlawick, Beavin & Jackson fail to account for in their theory are the different ways in which relationships change or end. What types of communication strategies and formats enable a break from homeostasis? I feel that perhaps a sixth axiom should be added to the general theory, explaining how relationships change and end. In addition, the theory views human interaction as mechanistic, and machine-like. However, unlike rigid, objective, and rational machines, humans have sensory organs, opinions, and cultural norms that inform their choice of communication strategies. This means that certain responses will generate drastically different feedback from different people. To view my friendís communication choices as mechanistic is an oversimplification of conscious decisions she makes throughout the interaction. She is constantly assessing her boyfriendís mood, the volatility of the social setting, and other factors before she gives him responses.
In conclusion, the explanatory power of Watzlawick, Beavin & Jacksonís cybernetic theory of relationships is demonstrated throughout my friendís relationship dilemma. The feuding lovers exhibited a host of feedback loops, examples of central axioms, and unchangeable patterns that maintain homeostasis. Application to a real world situation also enabled us to locate shortcomings in the theory, related to its ability to explain change and disruption of homeostasis.
Watzlawick, P., Beavin, J. H., & Jackson, D. D. (1967). Pragmatics of human communication: A study of interactional patterns, pathologies, and paradoxes. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
Stets, J. E. (1993). Control in Dating Relationships. Journal of Marriage & Family. August 1993, 673-685.