The Ties that Bind–Up and Over

As Mario Puzo informed us–and he ought to know–“The strength of a family, like the strength of an army, is in its loyalty to each other.”

So far, so good.

But loyalty to, precisely, which part of the family and when–and what does that have to do with, say, the price of tea in China?

Well, Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy (got that name? There’ll be a pronunciation test at the end) is known for his contextual approach to family therapy, which emphasized the (and try this one on for good measure, if you’ve been trained in a more Freudian approach) ethical component of family interactions. Thus contextual therapy believes the ethical principles of trust, loyalty and mutual support  to be the fundamentals of family relationships; so much so that people become symptomatic when these fundamentals are lost (see http://www.abacon.com/famtherapy/nagy.html).

In his book Invisible Loyalties: Reciprocity in Intergenerational Family Therapy,” Nagy [a useful shortening for Ivan, I believe] & Geraldine Spark assert that since our parents cared for us when we were too vulnerable to take care of ourselves, we attach to them with an unbreakable bond.

Thus our first and strongest bonds of loyalty (and it’s amazing how often this is true, even in cases where parents were negligent, or, worse, abusive) are vertical. This vertical bond is one that holds its power long after siblings arrive, and then marriage is contracted. It is, as Nagy and Spark suggest,  where we first learn of loyalty and connection, and many decades later, our vertical obligations are often still shaping our emotional landscape.

But it’s never just “mommy and me” forever. Over time, new relationships are formed–other kids show up in your family, whether you invited them or not, you make friends, you find a life partner.

In his book Balance in Motion, Nagy points out that these new relationships lack the irreversible quality–and the inherent inequality–of the parent-child bond, but are rather “characterized by mutual rights and obligations” and thus are “horizontal loyalties.”

And all that’s well and good, and really nothing more than just so much more therapy-speak, until the vertical loyalties clash with the horizontal ones, and you’re faced with a necessary choice. Now that’s where the problems come in.

In cases like those of the young Indian woman who resisted her parents’ strong insistence that she marry a native Indian man and return to India for the wedding, or of the young man raised by loving parents in a Jewish home and culture, only to fall in love with and marry an Irish woman of the Catholic faith, the loyalty conflicts were so great that they led to what Nagy called invisible loyalties, where the child denies or ignores the importance of  his or her first, vertical relationships.

And while that may seem to be the simplest solution at the time, the chains of those invisible loyalties tie us tightly, and cause our emotional skin to chafe under their grip.

We have officially entered the world of the loyalty bind.



I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

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