Mixed Messages

 This is going to be one of those entries where I'm an old man waving his cane at those darn kids.  For some reason as I've been listening to pop on the radio, I've been paying closer attention to the lyrics instead of mindlessly rocking out to the catchy tunes, and as I listened and tried to make sense of them my irritation built.

Relational Confusion

Take Sam Smith's song Stay With Me.  He is a relatively new artist, but has become popular quickly, appearing on Saturday Night Live and non stop on most top 40 radio stations.  Here's the chorus:
Oh, won't you stay with me?
Cause you're all I need
This ain't love it's clear to see
But darling, stay with me
Then there's the boy band One Direction and their song Story of My Life whose chorus goes like this:
The story of my life I take her home
I drive all night
To keep her warm and time-
Is frozen
The Story of my life I give her hope
I spend her love until she’s broke inside
The story of my life
I found myself scratching my head as I listened to these songs.  They're so catchy it's easy to miss the fact that neither song makes any sense.  What are they about?  The message I get from both (look up the rest of the lyrics if you are also confused) is something along the lines of "I love you, need you, and want to be known and loved in return, but I don't actually want you or need you and I'm going to hurt you or leave the relationship."

This concept is found in movies like Friends With Benefits and No Strings Attached, both of which center around friends who start having casual sex to "get their needs met" only to discover that they develop feelings for one another and want a committed relationship.  The thing that makes these movies confusing is that they are sending out two messages- one is positive and affirms that sex and emotional connection go together and cannot be separated.  At the same time, most of the dialogue, humor, and coolness of the characters hinges on the fact that casual sex is happening. 


Double Bind

So why am I going on about this?  Because these songs and movies touch on a concept developed in the 1950s by researchers trying to understand communication in the development of schizophrenia and unhealthy family systems.  It's a complex idea and I can't do it justice in a short essay like this, but basically, a double bind is an emotionally distressing dilemma in communication in which two or more conflicting messages are sent out, with one message negating the other.  This means that the person receiving the message will be wrong no matter how they respond, and they are unable to confront the inherent dilemma.  The use of confusion makes them difficult to respond to and to resist.

Our culture is sending conflicting messages about how we are fulfilled in relationships.  The content is that committed and intimate relationships are what we need, but the overarching message is that sleeping around and having fun is what life is all about.  Do we use people or do we commit to them?  Teenagers don't know how to process, respond, or comment on this message.  They sense that they want to be truly seen and loved, but they are bombarded with messages to have as many hookups as possible.  Which is it?  This affects marriages as well.  We want to be committed to our spouse, but we always wonder if we'll be happier if we could be single again or have an affair.

We send this message to each other on a daily basis.  Come close, but not too close.  I want you to care about me, but don't ask anything of me.  Tell me everything, but I'll punish you if I don't like what I hear.  You're accepted unconditionally, but this is how we do things in this family.  This is the kind of stuff that makes people crazy!  My head has been spinning as I try to write this and make it coherent, because the contradictory messages create brain fog, confusion, and the need for a good nap.

I obviously can't change the film or music industry.  But I can urge you in your relationships to be clear about what you want and to pursue it wholeheartedly.  If your spouse is confusing you, ask for an explanation.  If you don't know what you want, figure it out.  Let's stop moving through life unaware of our thoughts, desires, and motives, allowing teenagers and twenty somethings to affect us with their bizarre messages about what's important. 

The power of a double bind lies in the fact that you can't comment on the contradictory messages.  I want to break through that and be clear: we were made to be known by God and our families, and to be committed and faithful.  Let culture punish you and tell you that you're outdated or missing all the fun.  You'll have what they really want.