Seeing double

The concept of "double descriptions" that I explored yesterday was conceived by Gregory Bateson decades ago. He identified two patterns of entanglement between people which he labeled complementary and symmetrical relationships. In both patterns of entanglement, a single point of view misses what is happening. It takes two to see the one cycle.

Bateson compared the use of double descriptions to binocular vision. When we see with only one eye, we have no depth perception. We crash into things we expected were further away. With both eyes open, we navigate through space adeptly. We see the opportunity to count ourselves in the circuitry that ties us together. We experience depth perception in relationship with others.

In complimentary relationships, one member unconsciously offsets the other by going to the opposite extreme. The relationship is kept in balance by compensating for each other. A motor mouth will partner with a very good listener. A bully will seek continued interactions with a doormat. An analytical brainiac values the companionship of a passionate animal.

In symmetrical relationships, the two participants go round and round without resolution or conscious awareness of their mutual torment. They have too much in common to get along or to resolve their differences. They are essentially thrown for a loop by a mirror. The ways they pester each other escalates their misunderstandings and tensions between them. It appears they are boxing their own shadow or screaming at their mirror image. They provoke each other to endlessly try harder, fight longer and struggle with more determination.

The dynamics of cheating I explored recently embodies both kinds of entanglements. Some cheating displays fluidity, spontaneity and opportunism -- which is compensating for the other's rigidity and unresponsiveness that ends up doing everything by the book. Some other cheating is symmetrical -- giving the other a taste of their own medicine after getting cheated out of what they expected, paid for and deserved.

In both cases, neither participant sees what is going on. Double descriptions are not being practiced. Each merely reacts to the other's reactions unconsciously. Each point of view misses out on being closely tied to the other. Neither gets that it's going round in endless circles.

When each participant can describe both the other viewpoint and their own, problems get resolved. Shared understanding replaces the isolated contentions. The exclusive frames of reference become inclusive, accommodating and compatible.

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