SATIR FOR BEGINNERS: Incongruent Communication Patterns in Romantic Fiction

Article excerpt


THOUGH OVER 30 YEARS have passed since family therapist Virginia Satir first published her ideas regarding interpersonal communication, the significance of her contribution has not lessened. A brief summary of her theory will serve as background for the rest of this paper.

According to Virginia Satir, our survival depends on communication, whether verbal or non-verbal, conscious or unconscious. In order to receive from each other crucial information, we need to have clear, free-flowing communication. Many obstacles may prevent this: words and expressions have multiple denotations and connotations, individuals have different rules of generalization, abstraction, and deduction, one or both parties may lack the skills needed for asking for or giving the clarifications necessary for the avoidance of misunderstandings.

A further reason for the lack of clear communication resides in contradictions. We may quite often observe contradictions between verbal and non-verbal messages. Contradictory messages create a serious difficulty for their receiver, for a response appropriate to one layer of the message constitutes an inappropriate one for another, contradictory layer. This especially harms children who have no skills (or habits, or motivation) to ask for clarification when they encounter double messages.

Satir identified five ways in which persons handle their communication when under stress (Satir, 1967; see also Satir, Stachowiak, & Taschman, 1975). Stress necessarily follows the encountering of any behavior that appears to disturb one's love or trust relationships.

In four of these communication patterns, one layer or part of a message contradicts another, thus preventing its receiver from obtaining clear, functional information. Incongruent communications do not express what a person needs and experiences; instead, they contain camouflaged, manipulative messages. Incongruent senders try to force their audience to comply while concealing their own vulnerability.

The fifth pattern identified by Satir, congruent communications, has no contradictions between its layers. Senders do not consciously or unconsciously expect the receiver to make inferences about what they did not say, or to perceive contradictions between verbal and non-verbal messages. Congruent communicators share their thoughts and emotions about themselves without projecting them onto others and thus avoid manipulation.

In this article, we shall illustrate, by brief excerpts from contemporary romantic fiction, the four incongruent communication patterns, blamer, placater, irrelevant, and super-reasonable. In each of these the sender uses some kind of manipulation. Our choice of the literary genre of romantic fiction needs explanation.

Romantic novels have decorated bookshelves for quite some time, but their current mass-produced, paperback success has no precedent. Harlequin Books, just one of perhaps a dozen large publishers of romantic fiction, claims to sell 175 million copies annually, to at least 50 million (mostly female) readers. In recent years, this type of literature has attracted both feminist inquiry (such as Bridgwood, 1986; Hallam & Marshment, 1995; Treacher, 1988; Walkerdine, 1990), and empirical research of its social aspects (such as Cherland & Edelsky, 1993; Christian-Smith, 1993; Gilbert, 1993; Radway, 1991; Whissell, 1996).

By using romantic fiction novels to illustrate Satir's theory, we intend to throw some light on what researchers and critics rarely notice, namely the pathogenic nature of communication between the protagonists. (As an exception, note Douglas, 1980, who described the typical hero and heroine of these novels as "locked in a duel of sexual stupidity. Both are emotional illiterates".)

According to Snitow (1979), "[T]he Harlequin world is inhabited by two species incapable of communicating with each other, male and female. …