I can still vividly recall the searing sense of perplexed injustice, and lack of power, when my older cousin, aged 6, told me one Christmas, as I looked hopefully at his box of chocolates, "Ask, don't get; don't ask, don't want".

Most of us have times when we find ourselves in what feels like the most impossible of situations, and as the saying goes, you can be "damned if you do and damned if you don't". It starts early.

There are the stomach churning decisions we have to make when we choose between two alternatives: career or travel, saving or purchase, this relationship or that, risk or no risk. All part of life, but at times so very hard.

And then there are the really high stakes we read about, or watch, like the character played by Helen Mirren, in the recently released Eye in the Sky: a British colonel has to decide whether to order a drone strike on a group of terrorists planning a mass attack. All the while knowing that a decision to strike will kill an innocent girl, selling bread nearby. Or the claim that Winston Churchill knew that the city of Coventry was imminently targeted by the German Luftwaffe - but chose to do nothing, because it would have alerted Hitler to the fact that the Allies had just cracked the Enigma code.


Political, personal and professional - these larger dramas are played out on all levels. They are high-risk situations - sometimes mistakenly called double binds.

However, the real meaning of the term 'double bind' is more of an everyday, and perplexing, form of communication. All the more insidious for superficially looking harmless, this communication is treacherous and deceitful. It was first described by Gregory Bateson, family therapist, and his colleagues, in the 1950s, and is a fundamentally a no-win communication, which has been described as "hostility cloaked in simulated love". All too common in day-to-day relationships, it can be particularly destructive as a message from parents to children.

"I must do it and I can't do it"

I am thinking about a couple in counselling whom I recently saw, who I will call Bill and Sally. Bill was doubting Sally's love for him, saying she didn't seem to care about his needs. Sally's response was that she wanted Bill to tell her what it was that he needed from her that she wasn't aware of. His angry response was that to answer that question would mean that she only notices his needs because he has told her - and not because she loves him. This is a seriously no-win situation, in which Sally receives one message, which negates the other, whichever way she turns. To say that it is an emotionally distressing piece of communication is an understatement.

Pioneers in the field of families and mental health, suggested that such communication led to potential schizophrenia in family members - a hypothesis since discredited. However, it is a given that these double bind messages create anguish. I see a distressing double bind happening in my family mediation work with children and parents, where there is a high conflict in unresolved separation. When children arrive home, eager to talk about the great time they had with their other parent, and mum or dad has not resolved their feelings about the separation, then emotions fester. The message to the child can be a variant on, "I don't want to hear about it" and the consequently distressed child goes on to realise, on some level, that he is caught in a terrible loyalty bind, one, which is near impossible to name. He has to manage this bind, and unsurprisingly, will often become resistant to visits. What often follows is a "problem" about a parenting plan, which is no longer working. Shoulders are shrugged - "What did I do - he/she just doesn't like visiting you". The child in the centre of this double bind has a high chance of becoming emotionally unwell.

These communicated double binds are stressful, confusing and anxiety-producing. They are about control, but without open coercion. Confusion makes definition difficult, and hampers response or resistance. And the feeling that there is no acceptable course of action can contribute to low self-esteem, resentment or apathy. Apathy is dangerous to healthy psychological functioning, and can easily lead to what is called "learned helplessness". Also known as being stuck.

One hand clapping

Koans are used in Buddhism literature as a way of transcending the double binds, the impossibilities of life. For example, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" is a question posed by Zen masters to their students in pursuit of truth and enlightenment. No doubt effective and life enhancing, if you have the time and opportunity. But on a day-to-day level, the dilemma posed by double binds is too emotionally expensive to put on hold. If you are finding yourself confused by the communication of someone close and important to you, in your personal or your professional life, then the smartest thing to do is to name your perplexity. And if it is not possible to find a way through with the other person, then find someone professional and competent to help you untangle the fishing tackle. It is likely be full of unnameable, and dangerous hooks.

Sometimes I meet with families who have struggled with a very long inheritance of double bind messages in family life - and in a sudden moment of blinding recognition, fifty years can collapse, physical distance disappear, the bind loose its grip, and at long last, be replaced by a liberating understanding.