The Cybernetic Theory of Relationships:
An Interactional View of Relational Systems
University of Colorado at Boulder
Human interpersonal relationships make up a strong and important sector of the frameworks in which humans communicate with one another. It is within these interpersonal relationships that we are able to be confronted with raw emotions, personal growth, and ultimately, conflict. When dealing with conflict in a relationship, it is common that people feel as though they are operating in two different worlds, and often times attempt to change these polar interactions. In their chapter "Some Tentative Axioms of Communication", Watzlawick, Beavin and Jackson attempt to explain why these interactions are so difficult to alter, and offer five axioms that explain how relationships work themselves into habitualized patterns of interaction. It is exactly these interactional patterns that hinder the communication between the characters Bret, Jemaine and Murray in the television show Flight of the Conchords.
To understand the axioms presented by Watzlawick, et al., it is necessary to understand the framework in which the theorists based their theory. Watzlawick, et al. were a group of psychiatrists interested in how communication functions through a cybernetic tradition (Craig, 2008). The tradition of cybernetics was first introduced by Norbert Wiener in 1948. According to Weinerís idea of cybernetics, communication is viewed as a mechanistic process in which communication consists of sending information, processing information, and receiving feedback (Craig, 2008).
Watzlawick, et al. draw from this view, and focus on the problem of control in relationships, and how with habitualized patterns of interaction in place the systems we engage in begin to manage control rather than the interactants themselves. They looked at interpersonal relationships as "feedback loops" in which interactants try to maintain their own environments through communication. However, when people engage in this together they create a "homeostasis" for their interactions which keeps the relational system balanced and regulated (Craig, 2008). Thus, this system becomes difficult to alter as people remain stuck within their pattern of interactions. It is only through paying close attention to these patterns of interaction that keep participants fixed that it is possible to change these patterns and reduce conflict (Craig, 2008). Watzlawick, et al. propose five axioms of communication that help display these interactional patterns.
In order to apply these axioms to the relationship of Brett, Jemaine and Murray, it is necessary to understand the relationship between the three characters. Bret and Jemaine are roommates and are also in a band together. While they are best friends, they both have very different personalities. Murray, the band manager, works closely with Bret and Jemaine and is also a good friend. They have known each other for so long, that they have developed interactional patterns that lead to a homeostasis of interaction, causing conflict to arise in multiple areas of their lives.
The first axiom presented by Watzlawick, et al. is "one cannot not communicate." By this, the theorists mean that it is impossible to cease communication from happening. Communication is a form of behavior, and since behavior has no opposite ("nonbehavior" does not exist), communication has no opposite. Thus, everything a person does can be considered a form of communication, even that of doing nothing. No matter what a person does, their behavior sends out a message to others. For example, someone sitting in silence and not making eye contact can send the message that they are bored or distracted, even though they are not actually verbally expressing this. Axiom one is illustrated in Flight of the Conchords by this exchange between Bret and Jemaine:
Jemaine: "Bret, do you like penguins?"
Bret: (doesnít look up from his magazine, mumbles) "yeahÖno."
Jemaine: "Sometimes Iím glad we donít live in New Zealand anymore, because of all the penguins, remember?"
Bret: (says nothing)
Jemaine: "Bret, Iím kind of doing all the work in the conversation. What is wrong?"
Even though Bret did not actually say anything to Jemaine, he was still communicating that he was upset by his lack of communication. While Bret was choosing to ignore the fact that he was upset and not openly discuss what was bothering him, it still affected to conversation, whether intended or not. By not communicating, Bret was still able to "imply commitment and thereby define the senderís (Bretís) view of his relationship with the receiver (Jemaine)" (Watzlewick et al, 1967). Jemaine felt insecure and like he was putting more effort into the conversation because Bret was attempting to not communicate his emotions, though he was still manifesting them through the interaction.
The second axiom states that "Communication has a content and a relationship aspect" (Watzlawick et al, 1967). This means that every message functions on two levels, the content level which consists of exactly what is said, and the relationship level which consists of how the content is said and implies the relationship of the interaction (Craig, 2008). While the content level functions more as a report, the relationship level can function by either nonverbal, intonation, volume, or other factors (Watzlawick et al, 1967). For example, when saying "hi" to a person on the street, the content of the message is "hi" Ė a greeting, but the relational aspect can be anything from implying romantic interest by saying it in a flirtatious manner, to implying distain for the other by saying it in a sarcastic manner. This axiom can be illustrated in Flight of the Conchords by an interaction between Bret and Jemaine.
Bret: "Youíve been acting a bit weird lately. Youíre annoyed."
Jemaine: (sarcastically) "Do you really think so?"
The content of the statement "Do you really think so?" functions to ask Bret if he truly thinks that Jemaine is annoyed; however, the relational aspect is presented through the sarcasm in Jemaineís voice when he asks the question. This sarcasm implies that the relationship between the two boys is currently at a point of distain, and that Jemaine is not pleased or happy with Bret at this moment, so his communication has a separate relational aspect to keep the interaction fixed in a negative position.
The third axiom states that "the nature of a relationship is contingent upon the punctuation of the communicational sequences between communicants" (Watzlawick, et al., 1967). This explains how interactions become patterns of dichotomies over time as people react and respond to each otherís behavior. According to Watzlawick, et al. (1967) the way in which each person punctuates their own pattern of interaction becomes a source for blame, and they continue to refer to each other's pattern as the catalyst for relational conflict. The chapter displays an example of this behavior with marital couples behaving in a "nag/withdrawal" pattern. Often times a husband withdraws and doesnít talk about his problems with his wife because he feels scrutinized and wants space, while the wife continues to nag incessantly for the husband to talk to her because she feels excluded from the relationship. In this example, each side labels the other as the source of the relational problem, leaving no room for accountability and thus, little ability to metacommunicate and attempt to solve the conflict. This can be seen in Flight of the Conchords during an altercation between Bret and Murray. Murray is having a difficult time finding gigs for the band, so in order to make money, Bret is forced to get a second job. After obtaining a job, Murray finally books the band a gig that Bret now cannot come to as he has to work at his second job.
Bret: "When is the gig"
Murray: "Thursday at 3:00pm"
Bret: "No I canít go, Iíve got work."
Murray: "Whatís more important? The band or your job?"
Bret: "Yeah well, I got the job because we didnít have any gigs."
Murray: "Well how can I give you a gig if youíve got this job?"
Bret: "Yeah, but thatís why I got the job. Because there were no gigs."
Murray: "Well I canít get you a gig if youíre going to always go and do a job."
Bret claims that he got the job in a response to the fact that Murray could not get his band any gigs, and he needed money to survive, so he blames Murray for not being able to play the show. Murray, however, blames Bret for not playing the show because he has a job that interferes with his band's schedule. Each character punctuates his communication as a response to that of the other, creating a system of blame that does nothing but further the conflict.
The fourth axiom states that "human beings communicate both digitally and analogically" (Watzlawick, et al., 1967). This axiom posits that humans communicate using both digital codes (represented by naming) or analogical codes (represented by relation, likeness, or similarity). Thus, a digital code of communication is expressed directly by naming the content in the message one is sending. For example, when one says "I am angry" they are naming the fact that they are angry (Craig, 2008). Analogical codes, however, are expressed by a "self-explanatory likeness" (Watzlawick, et al., 1967) of what is being portrayed in the message. An example of this would be screaming and slamming a fist down. This represents anger and is known to be a sign associated with anger. This two leveled side to communication allows for contrary messages to be sent out, where a person can say one thing digitally, but act out another analogically (Watzlawick, et al., 1967). An example of this contradiction would be screaming "Iím not mad" while pounding down a fist. This axiom is illustrated in Flight of the Conchords during conversation between Murray and Jemaine where they are discussing how Bret has asked Jemaine not to come on his dates with his girlfriend anymore.
Murray: "Are you ok? Are your feelings hurt?"
Jemaine: (looking down, speaks softly) "Öno. Iím not sad."
Murray: "A little bit? Yeah, a little bit."
While Jemaine communicated digitally with Murray by saying that he was not sad, he was also using analogical codes that portrayed a contradicting message. With his pouted face, eyes looking down to the ground, and soft distant voice, he was showing a likeness to being sad analogically. Thus, his digital and analogical codes did not match, causing a pattern of unsuccessful communication.
The fifth and last axiom states that "all communicational interchanges are either symmetrical or complimentary" (Watzlawick, et al., 1967). Symmetrical relationships are based on equality, where the interactants mirror each other's behavior and behave similarly, while complimentary relationships are based on unequal amounts of power between interactants with one person taking the "dominant" role and the other taking on the "submissive" role. These relationships operate on fixed positions within the interaction, causing change in the relationship to be very difficult. Often times, symmetrical relationships can escalate to a competitive nature as the behaviors are similar and fixed in a pattern of interaction. This can be illustrated in Flight of the Conchords during an interaction between Bret and Jemaine while they both continue to pursue the same girl. Bret and Jemaine continue to compete over her affection by writing songs and buying gifts, but since the two are in symmetrical roles, no progress is made and the tensions between the men escalate to a point of conflict where they insult each other and sabotage each other's gifts. Murray, their manager, takes on a complimentary role with the boys, and acts as a mentor to them, encouraging them to settle down and remember their friendship.
While Watzlawick, et al. provide a very insightful and useful theory on the process of human communication, it still has its deficiencies and set backs. The theory mainly focuses on explaining how and why human communication is so difficult to change during high conflict situations without developing exactly how to change it. The theory simply relies on the presence of true metacommunication in order to be able to attempt breaking the pattern of these habitualized interactions, however explicit metacommunication is extremely difficult to initiate, and rarely occurs in interactions (Craig, 2008).
The cybernetic framework that Watzlawick et al form their theory within is also constraining in its ability to assess and offer suggestions on how to eliminate conflict within relationships. The mechanistic, traditional view of communication involving sending and receiving messages and responding on feedback limits the theory from interpretations based on outer lying systems other than the interactants themselves. It neglects to explore cultural and social factors that could also possibly be hindering the conversation, such as cultural symbols as discussed in Barthes' theory of semiotics. However, when it comes to a theory that focuses heavily on solving relational conflict rather then solely assessing the means of constriction, Deetzís theory of genuine conversation helps provide a helpful critique and solution to Watzlawick, et al.ís theory.
Deetzís idea of genuine conversation draws upon several traditions of communication including the phenomenological tradition, critical tradition, and cybernetic tradition (Craig, 2008). Using a mixture of these frameworks, Deetz is able to help assess not only the interaction itself (like Watzlawick, et al. focus strictly on) but also focus on ethical ideals of dialogue and trust, and come up with systematically embedded restrictions that lie outside the interaction (Deetz, 1990). Deetz is able to address how the theory presented by Watzlawick, et al. bases their idea of communication on the "western enlightenment tradition" of communication (Deetz, 1990, p. 227). Watzlawick et al.'s framework allows theorists to assume traditional/linear views of communication and fails to consider how each individualís ideas, interests, values and beliefs are socially constructed and produced (Deetz, 1990). Thus, Watzlawick, et al. assume that the messages being sent in communication already exist within the individual and ignore the idea that Deetz presents where meaning and messages develop within the interaction.
Deetz also provides insight into how a conflict of habitualized interactional patterns may be solved through his idea of genuine conversation. This theory states that individuals must allow themselves to be open to what the other has to say and allow themselves to be carried by the subject matter of the conversation rather then go in with specific motivations or means to an end (Deetz, 1990). This offers a different perspective on communication systems and suggests that patterns can be broken not just through metacommunication, but through genuine dialogue and openness to learning.
The Interactional View of relationships presented by Watzlawick, et al. provides many valuable insights on how individuals communicate and become habitualized in their systemic interactions. With proper assessment of the five axioms presented in the theory, interactants are able to distinguish these patterns, reflect on their behaviors and metacommunicate in order to facilitate change. Change is possible in these interactions, not only through metacommunication, but also by broadening the framework in which the problem is addressed. With application of not only Watzlewick, et al.ís theory, but the help of other communication theories, conflicts can be effectively managed, communication can be a successful process, and interpersonal relationships can be maintained with ease and enjoyment.
Craig, R.T. Lecture. October 9th, 2008.
Deetz, S. (1990). Reclaiming the subject matter as a guide to mutual understanding: Effectiveness and ethics in interpersonal interaction. Communication Quarterly, 38, 226-243.
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.