What is Parataxical Integration?

Introduction

First used by Irish-American psychoanalytic psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan in the 1940s, Parataxical Integration (a combination of terms) refers to the mutual condition of parataxic distortions (another concept of Sullivan’s).

Parataxical integration exists when two people, usually intimate with each other (i.e. parents and children, spouses, romantic partners, business associates), are reciprocally reactive to each other’s seductions, judgemental inaccuracies, hostile comments, and manipulations or other “triggering” behaviours. One says or does something causing the other to react, setting off a cyclical “ping-pong”, “tit-for-tat”, “you-get-me-and-I-get-you-back” oscillation of verbal and/or behavioural reactions.

Development

The concept first appeared in Sullivan’s The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry, published in 1953. It was developed further by his protégé, Lorna Smith Benjamin, in her Interpersonal Diagnosis and Treatment of Personality Disorders (1996). Benjamin saw parataxical integration as typical in the interpersonal behaviour of couples with unresolved autonomy (i.e. separation, boundary) and identity issues. Erik Erikson had himself described the unconscious, reciprocal reactivation (without using Sullivan’s terms) in his essay, “The Problem of Ego Identity,” and in Identity and Anxiety, by Stein et al. (1960).

Usage

Though the term itself is not used in much of the professional peer-reviewed literature, the interpersonal manifestation to which it refers appears regularly in the case study literature of the “family systems” school of psychologists, including Don D. Jackson, Jay Haley, Gregory Bateson, Virginia Satir, and Salvador Minuchin. Parataxical integrations are also presented in similar studies reported by Ronald D. Laing, Aaron Esterson, and anthropologist Jules Henry, largely during the 1950s and 1960s. Harold Searles and Charles McCormack describe manifestations of parataxical integration in their works on borderline personality disorders in the 1980s and 2000s.

Paul Watzlawick et al. describes the concept in his book, Change, noting, “… the circularity of their interaction makes it undecidable … whether a given action is the cause or effect of an action by the other party … either party sees its actions as determined and provoked by the other’s actions …”.

Rodger Garrett also employs the concept in his millennial-era work on borderline personality disorder and family of origin aetiology, typically using the term “reciprocal reactivity” along with it.

Reciprocal reactivity was studied by Gary Sperduto et al. in the 1970s, and it is clear from the abstract of his paper (see below) that his definitional terminology equated to that of Sullivan.

Numerous mass-market psychology authors, many writing about the topic of “co-dependence,” including Melody Beattie, Pia Mellody, Anne Wilson Schaef, and Barry & Janae Weinhold, describe the interpersonal manifestation without using Sullivan’s term per se. Co-dependence expert Pia Mellody describes the behavioural manifestations of parataxical integration at length in an audio presentation available online.

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