Continued from Part I
When I use the word transgression in the context of this discussion, I am not necessarily referring to transgressions in the real world. Real world transgressions can and do activate talion anxiety, but transgressions existing only in the mind also activate talion anxiety.1
To get some idea of what the talion principle might look like as it is actually encountered in a therapeutic relationship, see Shrinkwrapped's post describing his work with a hostile patient tormented by self-inflicted punishment for aborting a pregnancy a decade before she entered therapy. The patient, 'Susan,' had been unaware that guilt over the abortion was behind an array of fears and self-inflicted miseries that had dominated her existence for years. Apart from any legal or moral question about abortion, the psychic reality for Susan was that she had murdered her baby, depriving it of the right to life. As the talion principle would predict, she became preoccupied by expectations and fears that she would be deprived of rights, in her case by men who were out deprive women of their rights.
This defensive fantasy works to an extent because there certainly are plenty of men who would deprive women of the right to abortion, but by focusing on the moral culpability of men, Susan deflects awareness of her own sense of guilt. At an even deeper level, the talion principle would also predict that Susan would expect that she herself would be murdered as punishment for her transgression, though this wasn't explicit in the material Shrinkwrapped presented.2
When we consider that the expectation of her own death may have been Susan's deepest underlying fear, we can understand why she might deny her own sense of moral culpability and why her attacks on men in general were so scathing. Men were the moral accusers who substituted for the unbearable unconscious judgments Susan passed on herself.
But externalization and unconscious self-punishment are not permanent solutions to unresolved guilt. As long as Susan was able to fend-off any conscious sense of guilt, unconscious guilt and fear continued to drive self-inflicted punishment aimed at settling her moral account. When a transgression and the associated fear of punishment aren't deeply and consciously processed, unconscious self-punishment serves as temporary fix. The self-punishment must be inflicted, again and again, until a genuine, conscious resolution of guilt is achieved.
Again, in Susan's case, I am not making any moral claims about abortion or the state of gender equality in the real world. I'm referring strictly to psychic reality—the internal world of unconscious perceptions and guilty fantasies behind Susan's self-inflicted misery.
Finally, while Susan's case offers us a vivid example of the talion principle in action, the principle can apply to anything that is a transgression in the mind. I suspect that much human misery can be attributed, at least in part, to the unconsciously determined means human beings routinely employ to allay talion fears.
1 In fact, the mind is always the mediator and interpreter of reality. Do we know any reality besides psychic reality?
2 see my post on Ray Mancini for two possible examples of self-inflicted death penalty (i.e., suicide). Though I don't refer to these deaths as expressions of the talion principle, the talion principle is what I had in mind when I wrote about these suicides.
Children of Divorce: Unconscious Guilt and Self-inflicted Punishment
Returning to the discussion of those who reject marriage because of traumatic parental divorce, we now have another way to think about the unconscious motivation behind the choice.
In the lead up to divorce, family life is often filled with hostility and conflict. In this setting, children often feel a great deal of anger at their parents. When divorce follows, children may feel deeply responsible. They tend to see their anger as the cause of the divorce. Some children work through any sense of guilt with the help of their parents or therapists. But for some, unconscious guilt may linger, creating difficulties further down the road.
The talion principle would predict that, as an adult, such a person would deprive themselves of marriage by avoiding marriage altogether or sabotaging their own chances for a successful marriage as a form of self-inflicted punishment in-kind. The individual who avoids marriage altogether might describe the rejection of marriage as a very practical decision to avoid a repeat of the suffering that they and their parents experienced, when they are, in fact, inflicting the same final fate upon themselves. So at the very same time that they deny their very troubling sense of culpability, they hold themselves accountable, inflicting penalties aimed at settling their moral account.
In cases of deliberately chosen single parenthood, the rationale may be that the child will be better off because unhappy marriages and divorce inflict so much suffering on children. In some specific circumstances, single parenthood may well be the best option. But a predetermined, across-the-board, rejection of marriage because it could harm the children sounds much more like a thin rationalization given that there are many circumstances in which marriage would be far better for the children than single parenthood. In these cases, it may well be that single parenthood is a form of self-punishment in-kind, inflicted to alleviate unconscious guilt over causing mother or father's single parenthood years before.
I should also stress, again, that I don't know Retriever's pregnant coworker, so I am no position to determine whether or not the talion principle is behind her rejection of marriage. I've offered this explanation as one way we might see the unconscious "logic" behind manifestly self-defeating, self-sabotaging decisions. It is not an explanatory template that we should automatically overlay on all single parents. Knowing the depths of any individual's interior life requires much more than a template.
Finally, it would be interesting to hear alternative perspectives from those who work out of other theoretical paradigms. So if you're a cognitive-behaviorist, a systems theorist, a person-centered theorist or whatever, it would be wonderful to hear your thoughts on those who reject marriage because of parental divorce. It wouldn't surprise me to see that there are important differences, but I would also expect to see a degree of complementarity among the various perspectives.