The Visible Consequences of Invisible Loyalties

Family Therapy Bethesda, MD

Hungarian-American psychiatrist Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy wrote poignantly about the concept of “invisible loyalties” in family therapy. Invisible loyalties are characteristics and behavior, usually those which govern or impact our relationships with ourselves and others, which are passed down through generations—not by choice, but unconsciously, and often detrimentally, as unwitting homage to those who came before. For example, a man who resented his father’s drinking or for the distance it caused in their relationship becomes an alcoholic who is distant in his own relationships. A woman who is hurt and frustrated by her mother’s criticism of her as a child grows up to harshly criticize those around her.

But why do they—and many of us—allow this to happen? Why do humans assume the very characteristics and behaviors that hurt them when they were at their most vulnerable? It seems illogical at first glance, but our psyches have their reasons: we want to absolve our parents, and other attachment figures, of the choices they made that hurt us; we want to normalize and minimize the pain we experienced in order to absolve them; most earnestly, we want to feel close to them, we want to feel loved by them, we want to feel worthy of them, we want to be accepted and positively regarded. So, we become what we despised and resented, and we tell ourselves this is what life is, this is what I deserve, this is what people do, this is the best I can be.

We attempt to heal the memory of imperfect love by elevating the imperfection to a rule, and then living according to it. We are seduced by two very attractive fallacies: first, if we imitate them, they will finally accept us; second, if we become like them, then it must be that they were not so bad after all–and the hurt they did could not have been so serious.

The whole theory might seem damning at first, but there is hope: invisible loyalties thrive as long as they remain unconscious, unquestioned and unchallenged; however, once we become conscious of this unconscious process, we can also consciously choose to act differently. We can acknowledge that these attitudes and behaviors do not serve us well in all circumstances, and we can choose to try something different.

An important part of this process is to make peace with our attachment figures in the present: to appreciate that sometimes, in some ways, they loved us well—and to accept that at other times, in other ways, they failed to. Just like us, our attachment figures are imperfect, damaged human beings. They do not benefit from our idealization or our idolization; however, they can benefit from our authentic compassion: they can benefit from our ability to see, accept, and positively regard them for who they are—and our willingness to forgive them for sometimes failing to be who we want and expect them to be.

We let go of invisible loyalties—and their dysfunctional consequences in our lives and relationships—by developing cultivating visible loyalty. Or, more accurately, voluntary loyalty. The process of enacting voluntary loyalty looks different for different people, but they include a few of the same basic insights. Our attachment figures are not perfect. Along the way, in the past and in the present, we were the victims of their imperfection. Neither their imperfection, nor our victimhood, need define us now, or determine our choices. We can love them, we can appreciate them, we can accept them, but we do not need to accept their burdens. We can choose to love ourselves well now, even if we were not loved well before.

The defining quality of an invisible loyalty is not that the quality or behavior is detrimental, but rather, that it is compulsory. Very often, in the right quantity and the right context, the quality or behavior that composes an invisible loyalty could be benign, or even useful: for example, emotional detachment can become isolating if it is enacted in all circumstances, but it can be useful during crisis situations or when making difficult decisions; chronic self-criticism often begets intrapersonal and intrapsychic distress, but in small and controlled doses it can generate determination, and propel achievement; over-confidence can be attractive in some contexts, and irritating or even dangerous in others. Pretty much any quality or behavior you can name is adaptive sometimes—and easily becomes maladaptive when it feels out of our control.

Once invisible loyalties are discovered, it can be easy to stew in anger or resentment toward attachment figures: after all, they made our lives hard when we were little, and now, even after we have escaped their direct influence, their problematic qualities and behavior continue to plague us, compelling us down the same, miserable paths we were dragged down before. However, blaming others, even if it is well-placed, is a disempowering position: what is empowering, is taking responsibility for our behavior, and recognizing that we have options that we may not have previously considered.  We can acknowledge and be grateful for the situations when our invisible loyalties have been adaptive and yielded favorable results—and when they do not serve us well, we can consciously choose to try something different.

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