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SATIR FOR BEGINNERS: Incongruent Communication Patterns in Romantic Fiction.


THOUGH OVER 30 YEARS have passed since family therapist Virginia Satir first published her ideas regarding interpersonal communication, the significance of her contribution has not lessened. A brief summary of her theory will serve as background for the rest of this paper.

According to Virginia Satir, our survival depends on communication, whether verbal or non-verbal, conscious or unconscious. In order to receive from each other crucial information, we need to have clear, free-flowing communication. Many obstacles may prevent this: words and expressions have multiple denotations and connotations, individuals have different rules of generalization, abstraction, and deduction, one or both parties may lack the skills needed for asking for or giving the clarifications necessary for the avoidance of misunderstandings.

A further reason for the lack of clear communication resides in contradictions. We may quite often observe contradictions between verbal and non-verbal messages. Contradictory messages create a serious difficulty for their receiver, for a response appropriate to one layer of the message constitutes an inappropriate one for another, contradictory layer. This especially harms children who have no skills (or habits, or motivation) to ask for clarification when they encounter double messages.

Satir identified five ways in which persons handle their communication when under stress (Satir, 1967; see also Satir, Stachowiak, & Taschman, 1975). Stress necessarily follows the encountering of any behavior that appears to disturb one's love or trust relationships.

In four of these communication patterns, one layer or part of a message contradicts another, thus preventing its receiver from obtaining clear, functional information. Incongruent communications do not express what a person needs and experiences; instead, they contain camouflaged, manipulative messages. Incongruent senders try to force their audience to comply while concealing their own vulnerability.

The fifth pattern identified by Satir, congruent communications, has no contradictions between its layers. Senders do not consciously or unconsciously expect the receiver to make inferences about what they did not say, or to perceive contradictions between verbal and non-verbal messages. Congruent communicators share their thoughts and emotions about themselves without projecting them onto others and thus avoid manipulation.

In this article, we shall illustrate, by brief excerpts from contemporary romantic fiction, the four incongruent communication patterns, blamer, placater, irrelevant, and super-reasonable. In each of these the sender uses some kind of manipulation. Our choice of the literary genre of romantic fiction needs explanation.

Romantic novels have decorated bookshelves for quite some time, but their current mass-produced, paperback success has no precedent. Harlequin Books, just one of perhaps a dozen large publishers of romantic fiction, claims to sell 175 million copies annually, to at least 50 million (mostly female) readers. In recent years, this type of literature has attracted both feminist inquiry (such as Bridgwood, 1986; Hallam & Marshment, 1995; Treacher, 1988; Walkerdine, 1990), and empirical research of its social aspects (such as Cherland & Edelsky, 1993; Christian-Smith, 1993; Gilbert, 1993; Radway, 1991; Whissell, 1996).

By using romantic fiction novels to illustrate Satir's theory, we intend to throw some light on what researchers and critics rarely notice, namely the pathogenic nature of communication between the protagonists. (As an exception, note Douglas, 1980, who described the typical hero and heroine of these novels as "locked in a duel of sexual stupidity. Both are emotional illiterates".)

According to Snitow (1979), "[T]he Harlequin world is inhabited by two species incapable of communicating with each other, male and female." But, as we well know, one cannot not communicate, neither can one not metacommunicate (communicate about one's communication; see Satir, 1967, p.82). The verbal communications that characterize romantic fiction teem with pathology: insults, threats and other types of verbal aggressions appear alongside with lies, secrets, denials, double-binds and mystifications (cf. Moore, 1995; 1999).

In the following we shall limit ourselves to Satir's four incongruent communication patterns (or what she called "brave attempts to survive when you do not believe you can"; Satir, Stachowiak, & Taschman, 1975, p.48). Senders of all four types of messages (blamer, placater, irrelevant, and super-reasonable), try to cover up their sense of shortcoming by a communication pattern based on inequality. (But note: we cannot, without artificiality, categorize communication into a finite number of distinct patterns. One rarely finds either in literature or in life that any of the four pathological communication patterns appears exclusively.)


Blamers try to gain strength and self esteem through the belittling of the other. Their power lies in their guilt-producing abilities. Blaming differs from disagreeing: it involves the use of power by the sender, and its acknowledgment (either through placating or counter-blaming), by the receiver of a message.

"You stupid, idiotic, incompetent pest." (Wilson, 1994, p.141.)

"'Did I frighten you?' Justin's voice, soft as silk and deadly, cut through the night like the sibilant hiss of a snake. 'If I did, you have only yourself to blame, my dear."' (Gregory, 1990, p.138.)

"'You got what you deserved,' she muttered painfully. 'Exactly what you deserved. I used to think that maybe you couldn't help yourself and you've taught me differently.'" (Graham, 1997, p.40.)


Placating involves the effacing of one's self. Belittling oneself, while inflating the other, may stop the other person's anger and result in some brownie points.

"It wasn't your fault, it was mine. I should never have behaved like that in the first place..." (Jordan, 1991, p.171.)

"Elena was no longer to blame for their estrangement. She [the heroine] was. It was her fault that Ben had gone away, her fault that he had lost the will to care... Her love had been so brittle, it had shattered at the first sign of a flaw." (Mather, 1994, p.164.)

"Oh, I do love being dominated by a strong man." (Roberts, 1998, p.120.)


The irrelevant disbelieve the possibility of gaining self worth through voicing their opinion and evade any confrontation, investing all energy in sidetracking. The malapropos words of an irrelevant communication seem unrelated to the context in which they appear; they make the receiver ask: "What has that got to do with what I've just said?"

"'I didn't want to worry you.' 'But I'm your mother and I love you...'" (Mayo, 1990, p.179.)

"'What, David?' Ask her, he told himself. Tell her you need to know more about her brother, that you want to meet him... 'Nothing,' he said after a minute. 'Just...' He took her hand. 'It's late,' he said. 'Let's go up.'" (Marton, 1998, p.169.)

"'I never had a choice.' 'No, you did not have a choice. First you were a little girl and then you were a teenager with long silvery-fair hair and long, slender legs.'" (Wilson, 1993, p.51.)


Computer-like and unemotional, the super-reasonable have a strong need for controlling both self and others. They receive power from pretending to know it all, thus making their audience appear ignorant. In so doing, they resemble blamers, in that they both stress their superiority over their partners.

A marriage proposal: "His face looked down at her, his expression utterly cold. 'I want you myself and I have very good reasons for my choice. I generally remove obstacles that stand in my way.'" (Wilson, 1992, p.47.)

"I hope and expect that the future, both yours and mine, Nep, will be an exceedingly happy one. I do not dare to contemplate otherwise." (Neels, 1993, p.186.)

"I don't like wasting time thinking or talking about the past." (Ferris, 1993, p.34.)

Incongruent sequences

As suggested above, occasionally a piece of communication falls into more than a single category.

Two super-reasonable blamers:

"Her lips twisted bitterly. 'Anyone halfway towards being human wouldn't make such a fuss!'" (Mayo, 1990, p.158.)

"But you can't blame yourself totally for that. You never learned the emotional vocabulary you needed." (Walker, 1991, p.182.)

A placater who manages to blame, as well:

"Je m'excuse, Emily. I did not intend that to happen. I did not seek to light a conflagration between us... You're quite a little sex siren, aren't you Emily?" (Ash, 1993, pp.36-37.)

Incongruent communication patterns often develop into a dialogue, for one pathogenic message invokes another.

First blamer, then irrelevant:

"You disappoint me." "I always did." (Leigh, 1992, p.110.)

"'Since when have you cared about what I feel?' He jeered. Tamara met the platinum coolness in his eyes and something inside her snapped. She picked up a teacup and hurled it at him. 'You monster! Simply because you don't have any feelings, it doesn't mean other people are the same.'" (Mayo, 1990, p.146.)

Blamer-placater sequences:

"'Oh, yeah. You had to remind me of that, didn't you? It's not enough that you've taken my life and made a mockery of it; you have to turn the screw a little.' 'I didn't mean that... I want to believe you. I do.'" (Mather, 1996, pp.181-182.)

"'Mind you,' he added with a taunting look, 'if your intelligence doesn't match up to Gregory's boasts, you'll end up making coffee!' 'I wouldn't mind,' Nicola assured him breathlessly, 'just as long as I can be there...'" (Wilson, 1994, p.124.)

A placater-irrelevant sequence:

"'I was hoping you could forgive me. I swear, if you had been my sister and some guy had done to you what I did, I'd have killed the bum with my own hands.' ... 'I didn't have a brother.'" (Roszel, 1990, p.87.)

While we may conceivably regard the masking of emotions as a useful device in formal interactions, resorting to incongruent communication within intimate primary groups, such as the family, has a destructive potential. The use of manipulative language puts at risk not only its immediate receivers, but also their children. The latter grow up absorbing pathological communication patterns which, rather than bringing individuals together, create distance. Instead of serving as an asset, communication becomes a liability, a device for non-communication. By choosing romantic fiction to illustrate incongruent communication patterns we want to point at the harm done by this genre, when it propagates maladjustive behaviors among the millions of readers who have a central role in establishing communication within their families.

(*) Dr. Michael Moore, a social psychologist, is an associate professor at the Department of Education in Science and Technology of the Technion -- Israel Institute of Technology. Dr. Daniela Kramer is a family therapist and a senior lecturer at the Oranim Teachers' College in Tivon, Israel. This article was written during their sabbatical leave at the Department of Psychology of the University of Southampton, UK.


Bridgwood, Christine (1986). Family Romances: The Contemporary Popular Family Saga. In Jean Radford (Ed.), The Progress of Romance -- The Politics of Popular Fiction, pp.167-193. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Cherland, Meredith R., & Edelsky, Carole (1993). Girls and Reading: The Desire for Agency and the Horror of Helplessness in Fictional Encounters. In Linda K. Christian Smith (Ed.), Texts of Desire: Essays on Fiction, Femininity and Schooling, pp.28-44. London: Falmer.

Christian-Smith, Linda K. (1993). Sweet Dreams: Gender and Desire in Teen Romance Novels. In Linda K. Christian-Smith (Ed.), Texts of Desire: Essays on Fiction, Femininity and Schooling, pp.45-68. London: Falmer.

Douglas, Ann (1980). Soft-porn Culture. New Republic, August 30, 25-29.

Gilbert, Pam (1993). Dolly Fictions: Teen Romance Down Under. In Linda K. Christian-Smith (Ed.), Texts of Desire: Essays on Fiction, Femininity and Schooling, pp.69-86. London: Falmer.

Hallam, Julia, & Marshment, Margaret (1995). Questioning the "Ordinary" Woman. In Beverly Skeggs (Ed.), Feminist Cultural Theory -- Process and Production, pp.169-189. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Moore, Michael (1995). Pathological Communication Patterns in Heller's Catch-22. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 1995, 52, pp.431-439.

Moore, Michael (1999). Problematic and Pathogenic Communication Patterns in Prayers. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 1999, 56, pp.192-204.

Radway, Janice A. (1991). Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Satir, Virginia (1967). Conjoint Family Therapy, revised ed. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books.

Satir, Virginia, Stachowiak, James, & Taschman, Harvey A. (1975). Helping Families to Change. New York: Jason Aronson.

Snitow, Ann Barr (1979). Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different. Radical History Review, 20, 141-161.

Treacher, Amal (1988). What is Life Without My Love: Desire and Romantic Fiction. In Susannah Radstone (Ed.), Sweet Dreams -- Sexuality, Gender and Popular Fiction, pp.73-90. London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Walkerdine, Valerie (1990). Schoolgirl Fictions. London: Verso.

Whissell, Cynthia (1996). Mate Selection in Popular Women's Fiction. Human Nature, 7, 427-447.


Ash, Rosalie (1993). Original Sin. Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon.

Ferris, Gina (1993). Fair and Wise. Richmond, Surrey: Silhouette.

Graham, Lynne (1997). Mistress and Mother. Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon.

Gregory, Kay (1990). Yesterday's Wedding. Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon.

Jordan, Penny (1991). Past Passion. Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon.

Leigh, Roberta (1992). Not His Kind of Woman. Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon.

Marton, Sandra (1998). The Groom Said Maybe! Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon.

Mather, Anne (1994). Brittle Bondage. Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon.

Mather, Anne (1996). Wicked Caprice. Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon.

Mayo, Margaret (1990). An Impossible Situation. Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon.

Neels, Betty (1993). A Girl in a Million. Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon.

Roberts, Nora (1998). Secret Star. Richmond, Surrey: Silhouette.

Roszel, Renee (1990). Legendary Lover. Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon.

Walker, Kate (1991). Give and Take. Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon.

Wilson, Patricia (1992). Dark illusion. Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon.

Wilson, Patricia (1993). A Healing Fire. Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon.

Wilson, Patricia (1994). Relentless Flame. Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon.


Language is not simply a reporting device for experience but a defining framework for it.


There have been periods in the history of the various cultures when the language of spirituality was clear, accurate, and exhaustive. At the present time it is muddy, inadequate to the fact, and dangerously equivocal. Lacking a proper vocabulary, people find it hard, not only to think about the most important issues of life, but even to realize that these issues exist.


A valuable analytical tool taught to me by an English professor: The Useful Lie. The [term] refers to a particular form of generalization. You probably know that all generalizations are false (including, of course, the generalization that "all generalizations are false"). But the Useful Lie functions as a big, blunt arrow in the right direction. It contains just enough truth and packages it in a sufficiently easy-to-remember way to prove extremely helpful. The trick lies in remembering the important exceptions to the Useful Lie. The generalizations let you head in the right direction; the exceptions let you fill in the map. The useful lie traces a broad outline, but the devil is in the detail.


A final possibility must be considered: that printed literature, in the future, will be written for and read only by scholars. For the public at large, it might give way to picture books, or to spoken and tape-recorded stories, or else to dramas and serials composed for television or the new medium that will come after that. Whatever the new forms will be ... I know they are needed if the new age is to become fully conscious of its own spirit.


Minimalism seeks the meaning of art in the immediate and personal experience of the viewer in the presence of a specific work. There is no reference to another previous experience (no representation), no implication of a higher level of experience (no metaphysics), no promise of a deeper intellectual experience (no metaphor). Instead, Minimalism presents the viewer with objects of charged neutrality; objects usually rectilinear, employing one or two materials, one or two colors, repeated identical units, factory-made or store-bought; objects that are without any hierarchy of interest, that directly engage and interact with the particular space they occupy; objects that reveal everything about themselves, but little about the artist; objects whose subject is the viewer.


We all have a tendency to think that the world must conform to our prejudices. The opposite view involves some effort of thought, and most people would die sooner than think -- in fact, they do so.


Changes too imperceptible for me to be conscious even that I was changing had altered everything in me with the result that my mind was already accustomed to its new master -- my new self -- when it became aware that it had changed.

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Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
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Date:Dec 22, 1999
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