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The term family nexus was used by the psychiatrist R D Laing to describe a common viewpoint held and reinforced by the majority of family members regarding events in the family and relationships with the world. 'The nexus exists only in so far as each person incarnates the nexus...maintaining his interiorization of the group unchanged'.[1]

It may be compared with the concept of the 'family psychic apparatus (FPA) unconscious psychic basis, common to members of the family group, inducing a specific experience of belonging'.[2]

Laing and schizophreniaEdit

Laing was particularly interested in schizophrenia, which he believed could be understood if seen from the viewpoint of the person concerned. He saw how a powerful family nexus could victimise one member, usually a child, who found themselves in the position of not being able to speak or even think the truth without being chastised by the group, who often had vested interests in perpetuating the family myth and excluding reality. In Laing's opinion, 'what is called a psychotic episode in one person, can often be understood as a crisis of a peculiar kind in the inter-experience of the nexus'.[3]

Often described as part of the 'antipsychiatry' movement, Laing, struggled to see things in terms of existentialism, emphasising the difference between 'being' or 'being in this world' and being alive. 'An issue essential to an existential analysis of action is to what extent and in what ways the agent is disclosed or and through action'.[4] Being in the existentialist sense means being an object for others, and having others as objects, in other words carrying a model in our heads of all the significant others in our lives[citation needed]. This model provided the motivation for many of our thoughts and actions, and without it we 'cease to be' in a very real sense.

It is this need for others, in order to 'be', which makes us afraid to contradict a family nexus, risking family exclusion. However 'to a number of people the phantasy system of the nexus is a lousy hell, not an enchanting spell, and they want out...But within the phantasy of the nexus, to leave is an act of ingratitude, or cruelty, or suicide, or murder...Herein is the risk of defeat and madness'.[5] The distortion involved in not going against the nexus can force wrong thinking - leading to 'not being in reality', which Laing saw as the essence of schizophrenia; and for Laing 'one of the most important questions, therefore, is whether such mistrust of her "feelings" and the testimony of others arises from persistent inconsistencies within an original nexus'.[6]

The closed nexus and the double bindEdit

'Three or four people in a closed nexus will maintain a status quo which suits them, forming a collusive alliance to neutralize anyone who threatens its stability'.[7] Building on W. R. Bion's account 'of the numbing feeling of reality that is a concomitant of this state', and on Kleinian accounts of how 'we are all prone to be drawn into social phantasy systems '[8] - accounts of how a group's basic assumptions could radiate 'long silences, sighs of boredom, movements of discomfort...the hostility of the individuals was being contributed to the group anonymously'[9] - Laing described how 'the energy of the nexus is used to prevent anything going on...exchanges are boring, repetitous, concerned only with trivia'.[10]

Laing considered that 'in such a family nexus, any statement or gesture functions as something quite different from what it "appears" to be and no action can be "trusted" to "mean" what it seems'.[11] As his associate Joseph Burke put it, in such a nexus 'a unique pattern of communication could be made out. People did not talk to each other, but at each other, and tangentially, not directly....what people said was often contradicted by the way they said it (tone of voice and/or facial and bodily movements)'.[12]

Further light was shed on such interactions by Gregory Bateson's concept of the Double bind - 'used to describe a situation in which contradictory demands are being put upon a child (or patient) in such a way that there is no avenue of escape or challenge'.[13] Laing considered that the concept 'has revolutionised the concept of what is meant by "environment"',[14] and that 'this paradigm of an insoluble "can't win" situation, specifically destructive of self-identity' greatly illuminated the way the subject's 'disturbed pattern of communication...[was] a reflection of, and reaction to, the disturbed and disturbing pattern characterizing his or her family of origin'.[15] In such a light, what we call 'mental illness' is therefore perhaps more the outcome of a problematic configuration of the nexus than it is a necessary result of the nexus itself: the psychotic is 'the overt casualty of a deeply concealed family tragedy...the end-result of complex and skew interactions within his family'.[16]

As Laing was careful to point out, however, it was not 'a matter of laying the blame at anyone's door. The untenable position, the "can't win" double-bind, the situation of checkmate, is by definition not obvious to the protagonists...The man at the bottom of the heap may be being crushed and suffocated to death without anyone noticing, much less intending it'[17] in the wider nexus.

Collier's criticismEdit

Andrew Collier has commented on Laing's dilemma, which Laing himself seemed never to properly identify.[18] In much of his writing Laing assumed an uncorrupted natural state for the human mind, and tended to condemn society for causing mental illness, in rather (early) Marxist terms. He saw schizophrenia as a possible healing process, a way of working through things, back to normality. Collier suggests that there is no uncorrupted state, no normality; rather that as social animals we all need to incorporate others into a nexus in order to 'be'. We must all perhaps be 'mad' to some extent if we are to function in society, rather than as loners, but we must be uniformly mad. The nature of the madman's 'must', however, remains unestablished.


Psychotherapy today comes in many forms, following different schools of thought. Psychoanalysis emphasises childhood experience, and left- over feelings, though Freud did point to the role of society in his later works like Civilization and its Discontents. Family therapy concentrates on bringing families together and encouraging them to work out their interactions, but it might (depending on its theoretical orientation) offer little or no support to the victim of family nexus, who may then be punished for anything he dares to reveal or hint at, and (lacking a support network) submit to silent intimidation in family therapy, rather than risk exclusion and the 'ceasing to be' that follows.

The alert family therapist will however 'avoid taking the family's side...Or the scapegoat's. You mustn't take anyone's side because then you'd be joining in the blaming...You've got to treat the family as a system, without blaming need to make them all feel supported'.[19]

See also Edit


  1. R. D. Laing, The Politics of Experience (Penguin 1984) p. 73
  2. F. Diot/J. Villier, "Psychoanalytic Family Therapy
  3. R. D. Laing, Self and Others (Penguin 1969) p. 41
  4. Laing, Self p. 126
  5. Laing, Self p. 42-3
  6. Laing, Self p. 105
  7. Laing, Self p. 161
  8. Laing, Self p. 38
  9. W. R. Bion, Experiences in Groups (London 1980) p. 185 and p. 50
  10. Laing, Self p. 161
  11. Laing, Self p. 161
  12. Mary Barnes and Joseph Berke, Mary Barnes: Two Accounts of a Journey Through Madness (Penguin 1974) p. 91-2
  13. Patrick Casement, Further Learning from the Patient (London 1990) p. 178n
  14. Laing, Self p. 148
  15. Laing, Politics p. 94-5
  16. Charles Rycroft, "Psychosis", in Richard Gregory ed, The Oxford Companion to the Mind (Oxford 19870 p. 658
  17. Laing, Politics p. 95
  18. Andrew Collier, R. D. Laing: the Philosophy and Politics of Psychotherapy (1977)
  19. Robin Skynner/John Cleese, Families and how to survive them (London 1994) p. 106

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