Getting married and un-married: Vicissitudes of the social network during marriage and divorce (1995)

Generations, 5:44-51, 1995 (in French)

Author: Sluzki CE

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Carlos E. Sluzki, MD

Our personal social network, the set of relations that envelopes us and distinguishes us from the anonymous mass, is central to our identity and to our physical and emotional health and well-being (Berkman and Kawachi, 2000; Capra, 1996; Sluzki, 1996.) This relational fabric includes, but is far from being limited to, our family. It also encompasses those relationships which we label as friendships, those with whom we share our activities related to work or study, those who join us in structured and unstructured activities such as worship, recreational pursuits, political activism, and even those with whom are sometimes very loosely connected through the routine of our (and their) daily life – the clerk at our corner grocery, our neighborhood dry cleaner, our physician – and our physician’s receptionist, and, indeed, his or her nurse – our therapist, parole officer, car mechanic, drug dealer, hair stylist, et cetera. The nature of those relationships tend to evolve rather smoothly over time, and shows qualitative shifts that tend to coincide with the normative developmental stages that mark our life.

This level of analysis is, in fact, extremely rich. Social network processes affect in major ways our identity, resilience, and overall physical and emotional wellbeing. At the same time, these processes tend to be not perceived nor detected by the participants (much as non-verbal behaviors, an extremely important component of our face-to-face communicational processes, generally take place outside our awareness.) However, when made explicit, social network variables appear in all their magnitude not only as a descriptive and explanatory level of analysis but in terms of their power to facilitate therapeutic changes.

This paper focuses on the rather predictable, important evolution displayed by the independent social micro-systems of two people when these people engage in a romantic liaison, and marry. It will also discuss the equally predictable changes take place in a couple’s shared social network if that couple proceeds to sever their relationship. In sum, this paper focuses on the vicissitudes of the personal social network during the process of formation and, alas, of dissolution of a couple.

The Intertwining of Networks: The Process of Couple Formation

The transformation of two independent, autonomous human beings into a couple, a single entity with intertwined projects and dreams, with intense emotional ties and profound levels of intimacy, loyalty, and sexuality – and the complex evolution of two independent networks who may be intertwining into a shared one – has been the subject of innumerable novels and films. The story that led to the union is, for each case, complex and rich, and also unique: the narrative of the consolidation of each couple constitutes a private folklore which reminds them, and all parties associated to them, of their roots, their ethical guidelines and social expectations, their rules of engagement. In spite of these idiosyncrasies, a discrete number of patterns of how people become couples may be distilled.

To this respect, a little bit of history. One of the most ingenious and fascinating instruments developed in the late 1950s by the original group of the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California has been the so-called Structured Family Interview (designed by the team of clinicians/researchers of that institution and refined by Watzlawick, 1966). This instrument consisted of a series of questions and tasks directed at parenting couples and offspring-parents triads, whose responses allowed to analyze the interactive patterns in samples of families with children who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, ulcerative colitis, delinquency, or polycystic fibrosis (the latter was considered a control sample), and it opened many doors to numerous interactional investigations.

One of the questions was “How, of all the millions of people in the world, did the two of you get together?”, formulated in an interested tone and with emphasis in the “two of you” to the parenting couple of the different samples. The collection of responses to this question, a fascinating set, was the object of a series of studies by that team. In fact, I frequently ask that question to couples who consult for one reason or another, and I continue to be amazed at the richness of information it elicits. There are couples who describes their marriage as the culmination of an Homeric tale, filled with heroic ordeals and dramatic obstacles, as in so many fables and epic stories of our culture (“I saw her – or him – passing by, I managed to get her address, but by then she had moved abroad. I followed her footsteps until finally meeting in New Delhi.” “His family was opposed to our union, so we eloped and started all over under assumed names...” et cetera). Others describe their relationship as the result of a passive pre-configuration, without options (“We were born in neighboring houses in a small town, our parents and neighbors always commented that we were made for one another, we started dating at age 13, and we ended up getting married.”) or providing mainly chronological reasons with little if any emotional undertones (“I had turned 30 and decided to get married with the first candidate who showed up, so I would not lose the ticking of my biological clock,”). Still others describe a process of calculated selection in the search for the partner with specific tastes and priorities (“I searched until I found a husband who was responsible, wanted to have at least three children, and was religious.” “Since I wanted to marry someone out of my academic circle, I started to attend the presentations at the Museum of Art, where in fact we met”). Other relationships seem to have been launched by a coup de foudre (“We saw each other across a crowded room at a reception, our hearts jumped, we walked toward each other almost in a trance, and we danced together the whole night, knowing that we were meant for each other”). From the viewpoint of couple’s dynamics, an interesting if not therapeutically challenging presentation is one in which one member defines the story of how the couple was constituted following a given descriptive style (for instance, as a Homeric story) and the other in a very different fashion (i.e., as a chronology.).

Regardless of the way in which a relationship takes shape, marriage is a ritual which formalizes not only an intertwining of both member’s life projects, but also a consolidation of their previously independent networks. However, the future configuration of the couple’s network already begins to take a given shape during the period of courtship, in part organized by the story the couple develops about itself (frequently resonating with the one their social cocoon develops about them), in part due to other variables. This transitional period and the subsequent configuration of their social network can be analyzed according to the following features, described here as continuums between two poles: balance or unbalance: a tendency to either equitably include each member’s previous network components into a newly formed conjoint network (“Your friends and my friends”), in contrast with a display of a bias in favor of one or the other – sometimes due to extrinsic reasons, such as establishing residence in an area where one of them has an established network while the other one does not, or the desire of both to disconnect from the network of one of them which has been qualified as undesirable, and sometimes for more tortuous reasons, such as jealousy of one of the members of the couple towards the previous relationships of the other, or other displays of uneven power; integration or separation: tending to incorporate every new relationship into a common field of shared links, as opposed to operating with a supposition of territorial division in which one or both members of the couple establish and maintain an important set of individual relations in which the other does not participate; temporal continuity or discontinuity: a tendency to interweave the networks that each member brought to the couple with the new relationships that they establish as a couple, versus favoring a division between “before and after” in which both members of the couple (or one of them) keep contact with previous relationships, independently from new ones; in the specific case of the family network, this variable is expressed in the decision to participate (or not) in family rituals. For instance, there are couples who maintain (and others who do not) previous rituals which mark affiliation with the family of origin, and that frame the couple as subsumed in that other network; in turn, that could happen in a politically balanced manner (“We alternately go for lunch on Sundays to my parents’ house and to her parents’ the next”) or an unbalanced manner (“Every Sunday we have lunch at my parents’ house”). In this regard, many couples choose to demarcate their passage in the family life cycle through a drastic change of the routine which alters the practices of the network, often creating new rituals for the couple or simply leaving aside previous rituals.

Couples will tend to develop friendships with people who match their life stage and life style: they will maintain relations with couples of approximately same age, life stage and interests. They will be less likely to seek out and maintain relationships with single people or with people who have greater differences in age and interests (with the exception of family members). Similarly, couples with children will more actively involve themselves in relationships with other couples if their children are close in age, and are less likely to have friendship with childless couples or with couples whose children are much older or younger than their own.

The Couple in Crisis: Network Polarization

When a couple enters into a period of crisis, and this crisis transcends the social network – starting generally through intimate friends or close relatives, the social pressure of the network tends in most cases to favor the preservation of the couple. Members of the network are motivated to act: relatives and friends talk to each other about the couple, their problems and possible solutions, at times with astonishment, at times with wisdom ax post facto (“She should have set limits a long time ago”), often proposing common-sense solutions which result from those explanations (“He should have made the effort to be more expressive”; “She should take more care of her physical appearance”; “He should work less hours”; “She is too involved with the kids”: “He should lose weight”). The activation includes contacts with the members of the couple, both individually, speaking in private about the topic and offering advice, recommendations and callings to sanity, and collectively, involving them in social activities appropriated to the couple. The latter constitutes a valuable contribution to the re-stabilization of the relationship: that the couple sees itself reflected in the social setting as attractive and effective as a couple helps to reconstitute many positive attributes of their conjoint identity.

If the crisis continues or becomes more acute, the network becomes polarized progressively: the members began to establish alliances more openly with one member of the couple or the other, favoring stories on the crisis which define one or the other as victim (what constitutes a “good” localization in terms of role) or perpetrator (what is bad), as reasonable or unreasonable, as tolerant or intolerant, as loyal or traitorous, as responsible or irresponsible, et cetera. The members of the couple in crisis, in turn, progressively tend to favor the contact with those inhabitants of their social network who share a history which supports them, while they diminish or avoid contact with relations who favor negative descriptions of them, or positive ones of the other member of the couple. This happens both with friends and relatives.

Often, there are members of their respective families of origin that will rush and activate their previous loyalties, engaging in a premature polarization. As a result, they may contribute to consolidate negative description of the other which makes reconciliation very difficult (“If we reached the conclusion that he is a spineless no-good son of a gun, how could I now think of reconciling with him without losing face?”). If the couple in crisis has children, however, the children’s grandparents, aunts and uncles usually find themselves in a more complex situation, fighting often to maintain an explicit position of equanimity in order to avoid the risk of losing access to the children due to a rupture with “the other,” who could alienate them in the case of a separation.

Those separations which have been preceded by a long, tortuous and public process provide the network with time to polarize more slowly and progressively, distancing themselves from the other without excessive social violence. On the contrary, if the separation occurs abruptly and without previous notice, the event tends to be perceived as catastrophic and disorganizing, especially for the close families of both. These families, as well as friends made by the couple – and even previous friends of one who became incorporated into the conjoint network of couple – unexpectedly lose an important and loved member of the network, if not a whole sub-system within the network. He latter may be constituted, for instance, by the parents-in-law and their families and friends, who usually disengage themselves out of solidarity or pure disconcert, because there are not social rules for the maintenance of those relationships (nor names, for example, for a relationship that may involve ex in-laws!).

When the couple manages the crisis without reaching separation, the relationship between the couple and those sectors of the network which maintained a position of social pressure, with active participation and without taking sides, solidify, in a sort of test of the healing power of relationships. In contrast, the couple will tend to distance itself from those relations who chose to polarize prematurely.

If the couple separates or divorces, things change for many people. To start with, the separation has particularly aversive effect for other couples who were part of the couple-to-couple component of the network. Couples will tend to reduce the contact with the separated individuals, in part because the separation materializes the dark side of relationships – that they can dissolve – and in part because schedules and projects of couples contain social assumptions and routines what are radically different from those of single individuals or divorcees, from routines of shared child custody to activities consistent with seeking a new mate.

After a few months, the social network of each one of the separated or divorced couple’s members will be constituted by: previous inhabitants of the network who have allied with that member during the process of separation and that, therefore, share a description of the transition in a story that places the subject in a noble, healthy and favorable position; new aggregates to the network – people who do not know the previous couple and as such and do not include the history of the separation in the perception, description or history of the subject, and in which the subject does not see himself or herself reflected in his or her history, but instead in his or her current identity as “separated, divorcee or single-again;” some members of the “neutral zone” – those who did not participate largely in the process of separation as well as previous friends of both who function as “double agents”, carrying news about the other, but who are seldom incorporated to the circle of intimates; and some members of the “other faction,” who often are relatives of the ex-spouse that maintain contact out of love or convenience – perhaps to keep contact with the children – or in an effort to be loyal to an ethics of equanimity.

Over time, the latter two sectors minimize, if not disappear completely.

However, in separations in which one of the spouses has violated the ethical norms of the group (i.e. abandonment of the home and breaking contact with spouse and children, physical violence preceding the separation, a scandalous affair, maneuvers implicitly intended to harm the other), the separation is accompanied by a severance of the tie between this member and the majority of couple’s relations, that tends to polarize around the spouse/victim (with the occasional exception of some relative or previous loyal friend of the perpetrator), resonating with a shared history of the events that reinforces and reconstitutes the moral norms of the group.

An important and frequently unacknowledged relational loss during divorce – recognized sometimes when the separation is not consensual, and even more if unanticipated – is that of the positive side of the spousal relation (perhaps companionship, occasional intimacy.) This experience may be perceived as counterintuitive, and becomes even more difficult to grasp when the separated individual is showered with congratulations by friends and relatives from having gotten rid of the source of problems and tribulations. While in a number of cases a separation and divorce may be a true blessing for one or the other of the members of the couple, in many others both spouses (and especially the one who did not take the initiative for the separation) lose only loses the stability of a central link but, in many cases, a friend (regardless of whether he/she has betrayed the friendship), a confidant (regardless of whether he/she became untrustworthy), a lover (regardless of whether he/she has abandoned the relationship) and an important source of recognizable routines and comfortable identity (regardless of whether that mirror has broken into pieces).

What follows is a description of a clinical consultation and a therapeutic intervention that were guided by a social-networks perspective.

“Shipwrecked In Space”: A Crisis And a Network Intervention

I received a phone call from Joy, the ex-wife of a young lawyer named Peter, a sensitive and emotionally rich man who had consulted me in the past around some situational problems. I had maintained a friendly relationship with both Peter and Joy in the context of occasional social gatherings. They were both white, liberal, middle-class American professionals, and loved people with a broad network of close friends. They had met through common friends while they were students, were married in a festive New Age ceremony that involved a large group of friends and family, and had a son, whom they both adored. However, after seven years of marriage, because of stormy conflicts that had not been aided by time, friends support, or marital counseling, and at Joy’s initiative, they ended up separating some two years before the time of Joy’s phone call to me.

Joy told me that she was very worried about her ex-husband’s bizarre behavior. Pete, she said, was convinced that she had cheated on him while they were married and that their son, a 7 year-old cherub to whom Pete has been extremely attached since birth, was not his biological child (Joy assured me that she never had relations with another man during their marriage.) Further, Pete, during one of the alternating weekends in which the son was with him, very inappropriately told the child that, while he loved the boy more than anything in this world, he was not his father. Pete had recently refused to engage in anything but monosyllabic exchanges with Joy and seethed with hatred toward her in their unavoidable encounter around the child. Several friends had tried to speak with Pete, continued Joy, but he was enraged with her and totally fixated on his conviction, arguing that all their friends knew about his non-paternity and were conspiring to keep up the facade around him. Joy was not only worried about Pete, whom she labeled as delusional, but was extremely concerned for her son, and even for her own life, since she perceived Peter has having a potential for extreme violence. Apparently, at the insistence of a friend, a few weeks ago Pete had consulted with a psychiatrist but has refused to take the neuroleptics medication that the psychiatrist had prescribed for him. Joy informed me that she was about to initiate a judicial restraining order to block Pete’s access to his son until his stance changed, but was afraid of that that act would unleash an act of violence by Peter against her or the child. As a final effort to prevent the situation from escalating, she asked me to speak with Pete, as believed that he may trust me.

Alarmed by the potentially explosive tone of the situation, I accepted the request and called Pete at the law firm where he worked. I told him that Joy had called me out of concern over the tension between them, and had asked me to speak with him. Pete responded with some distrust, but accepted my invitation to meet in a coffee shop to chat.

As we met, his demeanor was tired and tense, his face rigid and almost contorted in a frown. During the first exchanges his participation in our conversation was somber and minimal, but as we reactivated a contact that had always been warm and friendly, he slowly opened up. He proceeded to tell me of his suffering upon the discovery that his son was not biologically his. I asked him on what basis was he supporting his claim, and he mentioned certain physiognomic features which “didn’t fit” as well as a period, early in their relationship, in which Joy seemed cool and distant from him. I commented that his alleged evidence was extremely weak, and he answered that, while other people have already told him that, he was still convinced of his opinion. Moreover, he confided, he was double distraught as he also suspected that he was not his parents biological son either, and that his parents keep on lying to him about what for him was obvious. He, in fact, had already confronted his father by phone on the subject – his parents lived in a city some 400 miles away – and, while his father had utterly denied hat that was the case, he was still convinced of it. Since this confrontation, his parents have called him numerous times, but he refused to talk with either one of them “until they admitted the truth.” I asked him how come this new belief and he mentioned again certain differences in their physiognomies as well as a suspicious possible 24-hour discrepancy in the dates of registration in his birth certificate. He added that he would be willing to re-establish contact with those whom he now considered his adoptive parents, as he still loved them very much, but only if they acknowledged the truth, namely, that they were not their biological parents. He told me that he could not count on his friends either, since they all seemed to be allied with Joy, denying what is, to him, a reality that everybody else knows.

I commented empathically about how isolated must have left him all this, and he agreed, confiding with tears in his eyes that the only person he felt he could count on was his current girlfriend – with whom he spent time several evenings and nights a week. However, he conceded that that relationship was also under some strain, as she had told him a few days before that she needed to take some distance from him because she couldn’t tolerate the toxicity of his unending, self-torturing rumination.

Changing gears, and commenting on his wariness about people, I asked him how was I rating in his “trust-meter.” With a tired smile, he responded that I was in the middle, “50/50”. That would suit me fine, I told him, and commented that what impressed me the most, and what made me suffer the most when I placed myself in his shoes, was his loneliness. I reminded him that he had been a person nurtured by the many warm relationships that he had cultivated and maintained all his life, with his parents as much as with his many female and male friends. He had, in fact, even managed to keep until then an unusually cordial relationship with his ex-wife. Now, as a heard him describe his alienation and abandonment, I only sensed a terrible loneliness. Pete began to cry, confirming his solitude and depression. I responded commenting my impression that his friends, his parents, everybody, including his ex-wife, wanted to remain close, or at least to contact him again, but it was him who maintained himself out of reach. He said that he couldn’t do otherwise, as he was convinced that everybody was lying to him. I asked about their possible reasons for this collective deception. He responded that maybe they were trying to protect him from a cruel truth, but that the effect was precisely the opposite. I asked him if he missed Joy and he mentioned that he had always missed her, but at this point he would not want to see her under any circumstances. I asked whether she currently had a boyfriend and he stated that Joy had recently told him she was seeing somebody new. I asked if this had created any strain in their relationship or pain in his heart, and he answered that she has had other relationships since they separated and he was used to this, and that anyhow he also had a mate. Carefully phrasing my next question, I asked him whether the presence of another man in his son’s life worried him. Pete responded that, in fact, it did make him uneasy…even though the boy was not his biological son. Commenting that any separation leads to a reshuffling if not a polarization of friends, I asked him how has been that experience for him. He mentioned that a few friends had side with Joy disconnecting from him, but these individuals were exceptions. However, it had been difficult for him to keep in touch with other previous joint friends of the couple, in part because they reminded him of the painful reality of his failed marriage, an in part because he wanted to create a new network for himself.

Changing gears again, I asked him how was he eating and sleeping in this period of extreme distress, and he stated that he was profoundly disturbed in all areas, and that in fact he could hardly work, obsessed as he was with the ‘double lie.’

I told him that, as I saw it, everybody – his parents, his many friends, Joy and, in fact, myself – were very worried about his extreme suffering and by the fact that he was almost impossible to contact. He acknowledged the possibility that everyone wanted him well, but he simply could not make himself vulnerable to everybody’s duplicity. I pointed out that the disagreement seemed to reside not in whether or not they loved each other, but in the fact that they insisted that they were not lying to him, and he did not believe them, even though he lacked any solid evidence to the contrary. The situation was painful for everybody involved, I told him: his parents did not want to lose the person they had raised and loved wholeheartedly (whether or not he was “really” their son), and his friends, including Joy, wanted to maintain their connection with somebody they have always loved, supported and relied upon for support (whether or not there were “really” lying about this). In my opinion, I told him, the situation was critical, and I asked his permission to intervene: I proposed to convoke a “meeting of all his tribe”, family and friends, to exchange ideas about what to do in order to diminish the pain and preoccupation being experienced collectively and by Pete himself. Pete responded emphatically that he did not want to negotiate with them. I answered that, if he accepted my proposition, given that I would be the one to convene and coordinate the meeting, I could guarantee him that I would deal with the conversation in such a way that he would not have to negotiate anything. Further, he would be even free to remain totally silent, if he so wanted, but would simply need to be present. I assured him that if, at any moment throughout that meeting, he felt that I was not protecting him against unwanted moves, he could simply leave and that would be it. Furthermore, I told him that, in order to ensure his sense of safety, I wanted him to tell me whom to invite “from his side”, that is, anybody who would make him feel less vulnerable to attacked. He asked me with a mixture of mistrust and curiosity where and when that meeting would take place. I told him that, if he felt comfortable, we could all meet at a neutral territory, namely, my house, and I would call the cast of characters that he himself as well as some of his friends – I mentioned Joy and two of his friends – would suggest and convene a meeting within one week. I added that, as I foresaw that his tribal meeting was going to be well attended, I planned to bring along an assistant – a colleague from outside his network – to help me in the coordination of the encounter. Pete, in an act of trust, accepted the proposition, promised to attend the meeting and told me that he would phone me the next day with his list. I also asked him for his permission to speak with his recent psychiatrist, that Pete granted me, and we ended the meeting in a subdued but warm and friendly tone.

When I did call his psychiatrist, he expressed his alarm about the situation and his concern about Pete, whom he believed was developing a paranoid psychotic episode with a potential for serious danger to others or to himself, compounded by Pete’s refusal to take any psychotropic medication. I told him of my intention to bring together Pete’s network for a meeting, and he was quite impressed about the audacity of the idea, but supported it openly. I invited him to participate in the network encounter, but he declined, arguing that he wanted to keep himself uncontaminated as a viable resource for Pete in case “things didn’t not go well in the meeting.” We agreed to keep each other posted on Pete’s condition. I also called Joy, Pete’s parents and brother, and a number of friends from a list offered by Joy and one of Pete’s closes friends, as well as Pete’s current girlfriend. I described this encounter to them as an emergency meeting “of the tribe” in order to find a way to diminish Pete’s alienation and extreme suffering.

The encounter took place six days later at my home, on a Saturday morning. Participants included Pete, his parents, his brother and sister-in-law, his ex-wife, his current girlfriend (one of the two persons in Pete’s list), the director of the kindergarten where his son attended (the other person listed by Peter), and ten friends of both Joy and Pete. In addition, I brought in a colleague who did not belong to their network to assist me in the process.

Pete was one of the last ones to arrive. He sat down gloomily in a corner, establishing minimal eye or physical contact with the rest, except with his girlfriend, who sat next to him and held his hand. Since there some were persons who did not know each other, I opened the meeting asking each of them to introduce themselves to the group. I then defined the collective goal and task as one of reducing the tension and suffering surrounding Pete by reassuring him of his many sources of support and the emotional commitment that each and every person present had with him. The conversation progressed slowly and uneasily. At different moments the participants tried – reasonably, I would argue – to address questions directly to Pete, and in each occasion I honored our agreement with him by shielding him and bouncing the question back to the sender, or to the group, while occasionally offering him the opportunity to answer if he wanted, which he seldom did. The central theme that emerged was that nobody wanted to lose Pete as a friend, that they saw him suffer and felt powerless to help him, and that it scared them to see him on the brink of exploding with rage. In this regard, Pete made one of his few comments, namely, that he had reasons to be furious with everybody because he felt that everybody was lying to him, even though he understood that they may be doing it for his own good. I asked him, “What would happen if they all were right and you were wrong?”, and Pete responded: “I would feel like a complete idiot!” I added, “Perhaps you are defending your viewpoint to avoid feeling like a complete idiot”, to which he answered, “That would make me a double idiot”, a comment that provided one of the few moments of laughter in the otherwise serious and at occasions tense reunion. The participants shared their history with Pete, and many anecdotes were exchanged. Pete would occasionally smile, but seldom interact. Still, in the course of the meeting an important change took place in terms of of emotional climate, the gloom and tension dissipated in part by everybody’s expressions of care and love. Pete acknowledged that he was exhausted and disjointed, and accepted the collective request that he allow them to keep in contact with him during his period of extreme suffering. In response to some expressions of concern, he promised not to kill himself (the possibility of his killing somebody else was not discussed), and, when that promise was defined as insufficient to soothe the collective concern, he allowed people in the meeting to arrange among themselves so as to be with him on a 24-hour basis for a while…as long as it was understood that he was not going to promise to be emotionally open with anybody. The participants organized themselves into “shifts”, in order to remain with Pete at his house or, if he wanted, at their houses, ensuring that he would not be alone at any time beyond his schedule of professional activities. Pete in turn accepted the recommendation of a friend to stop working for a week or two, and one of his colleagues volunteered to substitute for him at his part-time job at a public defender’s office. Pete also agreed to stop visiting his son for a few weeks, agreeing that his current level of tension could be harmful to him.

The meeting lasted about 5 hours. There was an explicit possibility of convoking a second collective reunion if I considered it necessary. The meeting ended with all the participants – Joy, Peter, his relatives and friends … and the coordinators – quite exhausted by the emotional effort. I should add that the meeting included a half-hour intermission, with refreshments and sandwiches, actively used by the participants to socialize with one another since, as I noted above, some people had never met one another before. My collaborator and I also used this time to exchange observations, suggestions, and compliments (which were welcome, given the intensity of the meeting). During the intermission, I observed Pete being embraced in silence by his parents and his brother, though he was letting them do it more than doing it himself, but Pete tended to keep a careful distance from Joy.

There were no more network meetings. I spoke with Joy several times, with one of Pete’s friends, with his parents, and with his psychiatrist, who kept me posted on the course of events. I also saw Pete a couple of times over several months in social situations, and talked to him a few times over the phone to get a first hand account of how the situation developed from his point of view. The general comment was that the fundamental effect of the meeting was one of decompression and re-connection: his friends took turns spending time with Pete, who accepted their company, at times begrudgingly, at times willingly. The topic of his and his son’s illegitimacy gradually stopped dominating the conversations (a very common resolution of delusional ideation that, when evolving favorably, tend not to be corrected but to dissolve or lose centrality until their disappearance) as well as his actions. Pete maintained his reasonably taciturn style, but began to open up again with some of his friends.

In summary, the immediate effect of the network meeting was the expected, that is, a partial re-connection of Pete with his network, along with the end to the conspiracy theory that contributed to his isolation, as well as the progressive weakening of the conviction that he was not his son’s biological father nor his father’s biological son. It is also worth noting an important process which took place in that meeting and that could have contributed to his global positive outcome; the members of Pete’s network who did not know each other formerly were allowed to connect, increasing the density of the network, a trait that enhances its potential of reactivity and effectiveness.

This story has a happy ending. Pete re-connected with his parents and his brother little by little, as well as with a couple of friends, and his rage against his ex-wife as well as his inappropriate behavior with his son disappeared, and he resumed his weekly activities with the boy after a few weeks of no contact followed by two weeks of structured visits in which his outings with his son included his girlfriend. The idiosyncratic ideas about his progeny and his offspring lost vitality and presence until they stopped being mentioned. Pete continued his therapy, his professional activity and his relationship.


This is an example of a network-based intervention in its most traditional form, namely, the convocation of a numerous and multi-sectorial group in an attempt to solve an escalating emergency situation. Interventions of this sort appear in the examples provided by the traditional literature on “network therapy” (Speck and Attneave, 1973; Rueveni, 1979, Speck, 1987), with variations including, in some cases, alternating meetings with the complete network with sessions with specific sectors of that network and with closed meetings of the therapeutic team, different styles of leadership techniques, et cetera. This example features many of the traits identified by Speck and Attneave (1973) as sequential traits of most network intervention, namely retribalization – the process of re-connection, which begins with the initial phone calls to members of the network, frequently triggers intense phone contacts pre-session by sectors of the network, and becomes even more intense as participants enter the meeting room polarization – this may appear as inter-generational conflict (rampant during my prior conversation with Pete, but less extreme in the course of the network meeting) or along whatever thematic “political parties” evolved before and evolve during the session mobilization – that is, emotional involvement as well as readiness for action on the part of the participants depression – periods of dismay and frustration accompanying the pains and difficulties of the process and the situations of the impasse rupture of the impasse – breakthroughs taking place, sometimes at unexpected moments hope (if not euphoria) – accompanying the sense of relief that appears with the impression of alleviation of the immediate crisis – and exhaustion – frequently expressed during the closing moments of the session, as collective meetings of this sort generate a great deal of emotional drainage.

Expanding on the obvious, what motivated me to propose this meeting was my belief that many acute psychiatric crises both negatively affects the nurturing cradle of the social network and occur as a result of a severe disruption of the social network support (Sluzki, 1995).

This process can be also described from socially constructive viewpoint. Human beings organize and create meanings through social activities; that is, our organization of reality and our perception of ourselves is generated, corrected, reinforced or changed through consensus, or, as described by Maturana and Varela (1980) and Goulishian and Anderson (1987) and so many after them, through conversation. Hence, events that such as a separation, that shatters previously established assumptions within our social relations, creating changes in allegiances and separate circles of privileged conversation based on alternative views of us (that is, of our view of others’ view of us), will have a profound impact on our worldview and on our social conections, as well know by anybody who has ever divorced.

Both Peter and Joy, as a couple as well as individually, were part of multiple intersecting networks. As is the norm under circumstances of divorce, Pete and Joy’s social network was shaken and, in the long run, polarized, by the separation of the couple. Pete’s strategy of withdrawing during the crisis (a style which is socially favored by males), increasingly isolated him from his social resources and escalated the level of his alienation, which reached its peak when escalating into his belief that he was not his son’s biological father nor was he his father’s biological son.

This belief could be a metaphorical expression of his extreme isolation – his feeling of abandonment extended even to the genetic level: he had lost any link to the past and to the future. At the same time, the risk of emphasizing this level of analysis – from which could emerge the recommendation to make the metaphor explicit and to elaborate upon it, for instance, in individual sessions – lies in ignoring the explosive potential which comes from this conspirational vision of the world, including the possibility that Pete would be tempted to reduce his extreme tension through a violent enactment against himself or against any of the alleged conspirators. Keeping this in mind, I had chosen to tackle this crisis through this emergency collective meeting.

It should be noted that, in the convocation of network, I included the maximum number of significant members of both family of origin and of choice: parents, brother, ex-wife, current mate, as well as personal friends and workplace friends. I only made sure they were, so to speak, inhabitants of the first (and some, perhaps, of the second) circle of intimacy in Pete’s map of his social world.

Finally, the description of the session which I have provided does not offer details on the specific movements of the therapeutic team. In global terms, my stance was to facilitate the evolution of conversations by means of an active lead of the process, operating with an a priori assumption of good intent and emphasis on the positive, actively engaging in a practice of circular questions, avoiding interpretations, acknowledging the preoccupation and sentiments of the participants, and assuming everybody’s desire to “decompress” the situation and their willingness to address whatever issues were needed. I was also cognizant and respectful of the contract, including previous agreement with any and all the participants. For example, the conditions of Pete’s participation were made explicit and enforced when needed. I was also alert and ready to block any enactment of any Pollyannaish hope or fantasy of immediate change.

This story has also a tragic epilogue. A couple of years after this encounter, in the public defender’s office where Pete did some volunteer work, a deranged client entered violently the office of one of the other lawyers – a good friend of Pete and one of the participants in the “tribal” meeting – and, after cursing him with incoherent accusations, unsheathed a revolver and shot him, wounding him in the shoulder. Pete, hearing the commotion, emerged from his office while the attacker appeared in the corridor, and was shot pointblank and killed on the spot. The assailant escaped, to die in turn a few hours later in a shootout with the police when they went to arrest him at his house.

Pete’s funeral was a moving event which many people attended, with testimonies of pain and love on the part of his family, his many friends and his patients.


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