SSM and TA

Considering the frustration many defenders of traditional marriage are feeling about the state of play surrounding the debate over same sex marriage, as expressed by the pessimism by Maggie Gallagher for example, it might be useful to brush off an old tool from our cohort’s collective past – namely Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis.

Just a brief non-professional review, Transactional Analysis (TA) was an empirical approach to transactions in a conversational exchange, with the aim of equipping participants with the means to identify and avoid conversations that defeated the aims of one or both participants, which Berne called “games”. It was based on a Humean view of the self and a behaviorist view of conditioning.

For appropriate convenience, TA takes it that each person has at least three states of being, called “ego states”. The first is the ego state which engages with the person’s of what it was like for her development as a child, called the Child ego state (or Child for short). The second is the state that engages with a person’s memories of being raised by parents and other authority figures, called the Parent ego state. Finally, there is the state that engages with the person’s experiences in being a responsible agent, called the Adult ego state. We standardly are in the Adult ego state but may from time to time channel either the Patent or Child states. This can be done from an Adult standpoint that decides or permits it if the occasion is appropriate. But we can also revert to either state because of stress or anxiety or even be in either state chronicly. This indicates a problem in the situation or character of the person. Also, a person could operate in the Adult state to cover for business done in either Parent or Child state. Ego states can either become under-differentiated or blocked out if awareness.

Further, in conversation, one person’s ego states can each individually try to engage with the different ego states of the other person. Which ego states in each person in a single exchange is part of the analysis of the transaction. Standardly, one person’s Adult will try to address the other person’s Adult. “Has the report come in yet?” sometimes though one person’s Child will try to connect with the other person’s Child or Parent. “Let’s go get wasted!” “I can’t remember where I put my file. Can you help me?”. And so on.

On this analysis, there are two types of transactions: Complementary ones engage the same ego states in each person and in each exchange. The Adult to the Adult and back. Crossed transactions however are where one transaction comes from one ego state in one person but the response comes from a different one in another. One example is when the speaker’s Adult asks the listener’s Adult a question but the response comes from the listener’s Child to the speaker’s Parent.

One last bit on this head is that transactions can be ulterior. That is one person can exchange another person using the presentation of an Adult to another Adult while the real purpose is for the Child to speak to the other Child. “I am of the opinion that the Celtics will soundly defeat the Lakers this evening.” this can also happen with other pairings of ego states.

This allows us to characterize the nature of a dysfunctional conversation or “game”. A game is where one person in a conversation is engaging with another in a transaction that is both crossed and ulterior. An example of a game is the one TA users call “Yes But”. Sam approaches Max with a problem. Max offers a suggestion. Sam replies by giving some reason the suggestion is not viable. Max tries again but gets another qualification. Too late does Max realize that Sam really does not want the problem solved but to reaffirm his excuse for not solving the problem. Max thought he was engaging with Sam’s Adult but in reality it was Sam’s Child that was trying to engage with Max’s Parent. It is now up to Max to engage with Sam as a responsible person “Well, what will you do then?” or simply disengage and walk away from the futile game. We can imagine stronger versions of this pattern with higher stakes as well, which brings us back to our topic.

When we listen to the responses given to the arguments against same sex marriage, we discover that a good batch of them really are not arguments but put offs. None of these engage with the debate but instead make unilluminating appeals to relativism and emotionalism or anecdotal evidence. Or they are debate stoppers that make false claims like “the opponent has not shown why we should think he us right” or “has not given evidence for any harmful effect of gay marriage” or “No one understands their gobble-de-gook” and so on. Meanwhile we see the pro-marriage side offering an analysis of the rationality and grounds for the morality of the view, it relation to jurisprudence and the laws of the land and court precedents, evidence from history and social science, as well as biology and medicine. The have also grounded their arguments on humanitarian grounds and even on aesthetic grounds (and even erotic grounds).

When we listen to the debates however it’s clear that the tactic is not to engage with argument but rather to rely on a certain condition that is pervasive in the culture. When critics make appeals to emotion (what does love have to do with reason?) or when they use the tactics of just reading passages from pro-marriage books to highlight their strange sounding nomenclature to turn off listeners, they are counting on a reaction rather than a response.

If we look at a debate as a set of transactions, not just between the debaters but between each debater and the audience, and between factions among the audience, we can see that there is a very large and very intense game of “Yes But”. Call it “Sez You!” or something like that. The game involves emotionally sandbagging the opponent and deflecting his argument.

Of course, this analysis does not fit everything. Many are engaging with the debate with arguments and this included Epicurian, utilitarian, and libertarian arguments. Thus analysis also does not imply that defenders of traditional marriage are above playing games. Nor does this analysis say why this game is being played and why people are counting on crossed transactions to accomplish political purpose in such an undemocratic way.

But having this as a tool of analysis should provide some ready comfort to defenders of traditional marriage. It gives them insight into what’s going on and makes sense of how the situation makes them stressed (and thus decreases that stress). It also helps the audience they are trying to reach. If they also see that what they are doing is an empty game it will tend to make them not want to play along and a real conversation can take place. It will also show how such tactics illegitimately serve one party rather than another and coerce that party to engage more responsibly in order to foster a better image of itself. Finally, it will give proponents of traditional marriage a much brighter and hopeful prospect that comes with the “Aha!” of seeing through the source of their perplexity and how flimsy it is. Is “Sez You” and adequate basis of a social policy?

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