18 November 2006

Ricochet Transactions: I'm Talking to You, But The Message is For Him (or Her)!

Like the term 'countersuggestibility', I've recently discovered that the term 'ricochet transaction' is almost impossible to find on the Web in its original meaning.

This term originally comes from the psychiatrist Eric Berne, who wrote the book Games People Play. As he used it, it means exactly what it seems to: someone says or does something to or with X, but the actual message in the words or action are intended to affect Y - who seems to be a bystander, but is really much more important in the communication than X is.
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The art of the Ricochet Transaction is learned very young.

Consider a mother who has a newborn and a toddler, and is exhausted; the toddler has been acting up - refusing to eat her veggies, fighting about what clothes to wear - and mom is ticked at her. There's nothing overtly bad enough to hang a punishment on, because one thing was allowed to slide, then another, until a load of resentment accumulated. Mom can't just impose a time out now, and she knows it, but she's still ticked at this kid, and for whatever reason, she's unable to set her resentment aside and accept that toddlers are toddlers, and some days are better than others.

One very crude and very effective way to show the kid they're in the doghouse is through a Ricochet Transaction.

For instance, Mom starts pouring positive attention onto the newborn. Way more than her normal mode of interacting. Lots of smiles and bright happy squealing and bouncy-bouncy-baby, and of course the baby loves it; that's what babies are for, to love being loved.

Only this isn't really about loving the baby. It's about giving special attention to the baby, and withholding it from the toddler, as a form of emotional punishment for the toddler, because Mom is ticked. 

Babies can't distinguish between being loved because they're loved, and being treated lovingly because Mom's ticked at Big Sister and wants to rub her nose in her disfavored status by gushing over the baby.

Unfortunately, toddlers can. All the toddler has to do is notice that there's something good going on. She'll sidle up to Mom to see if she can get some attention and cuddles, too...

If Mom's on the up and up, and not playing a game, she'll quickly move to include Sister - teach her to play patty cake with the baby, praise her for being a big girl, show her how to play peekaboo with the baby, sing a lullaby together. She will include the sibling in the interaction, because this builds bonds and affirms the family as a family; she has more than enough love for both of her children and wants them to learn to love one another.

If Mom's not on the level, though, she'll do exactly the opposite. She'll freeze the kid out, possibly by simply ignoring her, possibly by physically picking up the baby and moving away from the toddler while continuing the interaction with the infant, possibly by using the toddler's attention-seeking as the pretext to deliver the punishment she wanted to deliver ["stop being such a pest!" followed by a slap on the hand and banishment to the crib... where the toddler can hear the attention continue to be lavished on the baby, as she cries in her room alone.]

The 'beauty' of this system is that Mom comes off looking like the good guy. The toddler is going to remember this, but she will learn to resent the baby, not her mother.

The horror of this system is that Mom is destroying her children's relationships with one another in the very cradle; setting them up to interact as competitors and to be used as weapons against one another.

Even otherwise sensible adults can miss seeing what's really going on. Mom can get all her girlfriends in on the game and multiply the shaming and rejecting of that toddler many times over.
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What will this toddler do, when she goes off to elementary school, to middle school, to high school? She'll apply what she's learned to her little friends!

If she's on the outs with Susie, she'll be highly adept at making a big fuss over Sandy's new shoes, while Susie's new dress is totally ignored - or, if Susie's foolish enough to press the issue, the poor kid will be told her dress is ugly, or stupid. It isn't, of course, but in ricochet world, truth is a liability.

When our former toddler gets even older, she'll be even more sophisticated. She'll have seen more tricks from Mom's repertoire by now - the 'nice on the telephone, but screaming at me' trick; the 'talk nastily about me to Aunt Sarah while I'm standing right there being wounded by every word' trick; and the 'compliment Baby on her beautiful blond hair and say how glad you are that Baby's not a brunette, when I'm a brunette and I'm standing right there' trick.

And she'll apply them without thinking, because they're the only way she's been taught to communicate her displeasure with someone.

She's never been shown an honest confrontation, where both parties keep their defensive reactions in check in order to hear and understand what the other person is saying and why it matters.

Her mom has never said to her: "I love you, but I don't love the way you are behaving right now. If this behavior continues you're getting a time out." She learns of displeasure and disapproval by hearing them expressed about her to others, but never honestly or directly to her. She learns of her unfavored status by watching others get treated with pleasure and approval while she receives coldness and rejection.

She will know that she is disliked, but she will never really know why, and she will never know what to do about it, since anytime she approaches her mother and asks if something is wrong, she'll be told that nothing is wrong and to stop making a fuss.

And emotional abuse is passed on to the next generation, and one day in the future, she may banish her own toddler to her crib to cry alone...
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The example above focuses on parent child and peer interactions among females - but men are very good at doing this to women, women are very good at doing this to men, and it is widespread in the workplace as well.

One male version involves talking very sympathetically about a woman who is absent, to the woman who is present, in order to 'flaunt the goodies' in the present woman's face: 'see what a nice guy I am to her? Isn't it a shame that you just don't rate this kind of treatment from me?'

One female version involves talking admiringly of the man who is absent, to the man who is present, for exactly the same purpose.

The office version, which is gender-neutral, usually involves working Serf X to the bone and never uttering a word of thanks, while making sure that Serf X hears Serf Y being praised and rewarded lavishly, often for things that Serf X has done.

We learn it young. So young, it's almost impossible to see it when it's happening to us, and even more impossible to see it when it's happening to someone else. But it's there, and we know it, because we can feel it.

If we see it, we can stop it - at least, in our own actions. And if we learn to recognize it when it is being done to us, we can learn to reduce its emotional impact...

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