Our family has more power in shaping our adult lives than we would like to think.  When we grow up and move away from our family, we think we are then somewhat free from its influence.  If you moved across the country to “get away”from your family of origin, you probably found that it didn’t take long to realize that you brought your family with you in your head.  Dad’s criticism was still being heard; Mom was still telling you what not to do.  How does the family even 2000 miles away continue to shape our lives, especially when we are trying to grow beyond their perceived and experienced limitations?


Early on we develop several relationship factors that are at work within us–ones that we bring with us into our adult relationships.   One has to do with the way we have been taught to think.  Here’s what I mean:


Linear Causality vs. Circular Causality.  In school, especially in the study of science and math, we are taught to think that cause and effect go in a linear direction.


A→ B → C,  etc.


This works in science and math.  But it is a problem in relationships.  For example, when a couple comes to counseling in order to resolve a problem, they typically are thinking in a linear pattern.  One person might say, “I only did ‘C’ because you said ‘B’.”  Then the other person responds by saying, “Well, I only said ‘B’ because you said ‘A’!”  And on and on the argument goes with each person going back a notch in the linear path of events in order to make it the other person’s fault.


Linear causality does not work in relationships because it typically ends up focusing only on who’s to blame.  This includes the idea that once we can affix the blame, the problem will be solved.  But in reality, the problem won’t be solved; instead, linear thinking only leads to a superficial result.

Circular causality, by definition, is non-linear.  In fact, when understood it stops the ongoing struggle associated with linear causality.  The circle may go like this. The resulting behavior, “C” can be caused by many factors.  I may have done “C” for a number of reasons.  It may be based on “A,” what you said.  It could be “B,” because I’m tired, and also “D,” because I’m anxious about our money. In addition it may be reason“E,” because I’m really sensitive today about your tone of voice, and maybe it’s also because I’m tired of you saying “B” all the time.  Any or all of these factors may be involved in causing “C”.  


You can see that the behaviors “A” and “B”and maybe “D” are still there, but now we can also see that the behavior “C” has multiple causes..  Some of the effects may even be causes, in that both people are having a causative effect on the other, while some effects only go in one direction.  But the concept is that there are multiple causes for the effect “C” and they form patterns of interaction that must be identified and understood if a relationship is to thrive. We can experience change in the patterns of behavior if we understand that an effect is the result of multiple causes that form patterns of behavior.


Can you think of a time when thinking about a relationship problem as a linear pattern of causality kept you from seeing the bigger picture?  If you were to look at that situation through the concept of circular causality, how would that have made a difference?  Feel free to comment on what may need more clarification in this post.








This entry was posted in How Family Works, Marriage & Family Matters and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Trish says:

    I’m not sure this totally relates to what you are saying, but I think this happens often with my son, who has autism. Although I have a jump on understanding him because of being on the spectrum myself, we are different enough in personality and life experience that I have to stop myself from assuming I know why he is doing a specific behavior.

    For example, if he argues with a direction I have given him, it is easy to assume he is being purposely disobedient rather than to try to figure out whether it is simply because of ten other reasons he might be responding that way. If I can respond calmly, it stops the circle and allows me to play detective to figure out the cause, which will then allow me to decide the best way to handle the situation.

    Is that the type of thing you are talking about here?

  2. Zulqarnain says:

    I think I will try it with my kids , it seems to be difficult for them to understand at age 7, 9 & 12 but worth trying to stop their blame game.

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