A double bind is a control tactic used in many abusive relationships, including within High Control Groups and cult-like religious groups. It happens when a person is given an instruction which, in the person’s mind, needs to be followed. But in order to follow through with the instruction, the person would be disregarding some previous instruction which they also view as needing to be followed. It’s essentially a no-win scenario, a catch-22. To obey one instruction is automatically to disobey another.
We all get conflicting messages all the time. Why is a double bind so oppressive? For one, the requirements/expectations aren’t explicitly stated, laid out in front of the person so they can make a decision. They often rely on previous information and commands, intrinsic knowledge, or interpretation of tone of voice or body language. Another reason is because double binds are created in situations where the subject can’t acknowledge the conflicting messages in front of them. To speak up would bring more punishment or outright denial from the authority figure.
For example, let’s say we have a Jehovah’s Witness named Sister Responsible. Sister Responsible’s daughter has been disfellowshipped (excommunicated) from the congregation. Sister Responsible knows that, according to JW doctrine, she can’t spend time with or communicate with her daughter. She’s told that cutting her daughter out of her life is the loving thing to do for her daughter, and that she herself could be punished if she were to have “extended, unnecessary” contact with her daughter. On one hand, Sister Responsible is told she has to cut off contact with her daughter or she could be punished. And she’s told it could harm her daughter by making it less likely that she’ll return to being a Jehovah’s Witness, so it’s the loving thing to do. But she knows intrinsically that shunning her daughter isn’t showing her love. She’s been told to do the loving thing by shunning her family, but it conflicts with her intrinsic knowledge of what it means to love. To speak up and announce that she won’t cruelly shun her daughter would lead to further punishments for Sister Responsible.
To obey the command (shun her daughter because it’s loving) would go against her natural instincts as a parent. At the same time, she can’t confront or acknowledge the conflict without fear of punishment for herself. This represents an example of a double bind.
Jehovah’s Witnesses and other high control groups and well as emotionally abusive and manipulative people make frequent use of the double bind. It keeps their victims trapped in a cycle of second guessing themselves. It keeps them unsure about how to comply with the demands imposed on them. It keeps them subservient to the authority figure, who is desperate to maintain their control over their subject.