I formulated the Theory of Family Semantic Polarities (FSPT) in the late 1990s; I then revised it, extended, and reformulated it over the following twenty years, relying on the collaboration of other clinicians and researchers, especially in its empirical verification.
This theory is an intersubjective model of the personality and its psychopathological developments, with important implications for the psychotherapeutic process. An essential part of FSPT is a new interpretation of phobic, obsessive-compulsive, eating disorders and some forms of depression.
Although new in its central hypotheses, this theory has not come “out of the blue”. Family therapy is the background from which it is born and its important references are also the “Positioning Theory” proposed by Harré and collaborators, and the cognitive authors who have placed meaning at the center of their theoretical development such as Kelly, Guidano, Procter, Neimeyer, etc..
WHAT ARE THE GUIDING IDEAS OF THIS THEORY?
Many, we mention two here, already outlined in the first version of the theory of 1998
FAMILY IS A “CO-POSITIONING” OF INDIVIDUALS UNITED BY THEIR DIFFERENCES
The first, and perhaps most important idea is that meaning is organized in such a way as to make people interdependent.
Individuals, co-positioning themselves into the relevant semantic polarities of the social groups to which they belong, assume a specific position within the shared narrative plot: they can position themselves as “just,” “loyal,” “reserved,” but in order to occupy these positions, others will have to position themselves as ‘unjust’, ‘untrustworthy’, ‘theatrical’. (Ugazio, 2013, p.23)
Consequently, in the same family, different, or even opposing, individuals co-position themselves:
If, for example, the polarity “intelligent/dim-witted” is relevant in a family—in other words, if it constitutes a semantic dimension around which conversation is organized—the members of this family will position themselves with people who are intelligent or very intelligent but will also be surrounded by people of limited intelligence or who are actually dim-witted. They will marry people who are intelligent, bright, stupid, or clueless. They will strive to become intellectually brilliant or will help those who are unfortunately less bright to become so. They will fight and compete to ensure that their intellectual abilities are recognized, they will end marriages and friendships or, alternatively, develop new relationships when intellectual problems arise. Some members of the family will be intellectually brilliant, or regarded as such, while others will prove to be intellectually lacking. One thing is certain: everyone in this family will have to “co-position themselves” into the polar dimension in question and each member, in order to maintain their own identity, will have need of those positioned at other points in this semantic dimension. (Ugazio, 2013,p.24)
PSICOPATOLOGIE DIVERSE SONO ALIMENTATE DA SEMANTICHE DIFFERENTI
Another equally important idea of the FSPT is that people with phobic, obsessive-compulsive, eating disorders and depression have grown up and taken part in conversational contexts (nuclear family, family of origin, etc) where specific meanings dominate. For example, in contexts where we find people with phobic disorders, the “semantics of freedom” prevails, which is fed by the fear-courage emotional polarity.
By virtue of the relevance of these semantics, the conversation in these families is preferably organized around episodes where fear, courage, the need for protection, and the desire for exploration and independence play a central role. As a result of these conversational processes, members of these families will feel, or be defined as, fearful or cautious or, alternatively, courageous, or even reckless. They will find people who are prepared to protect them or will meet up with people who are unable to survive by themselves, and who need their support. They will marry people who are fragile or dependent, but also individuals who are free and sometimes unwilling to make commitments. They will suffer for their dependence. They will try in every way to gain their independence. In other cases, they will be proud of their independence and freedom, which they will defend more than everything else. Admiration, contempt, conflict, alliances, love, and hatred will be played out around issues of freedom/dependence.(Ugazio, 2013, p.84)
In families where there are members with obsessive-compulsive, eating and mood disorders, other semantics dominate – I called them semantics of “goodness”, “power” and “belonging” -characterized by other emotions and ways of feeling.
AND WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER GUIDING IDEAS? DAS THIS MODEL OPEN UP NEW PERSPECTIVE FOR PSYCHOTHERAPY?
You will find answers to these questions by reading:
SEMANTIC POLARITIES and PSYCHOPATHOLOGIES IN THE FAMILY. Permitted and Forbidden Stories
New York: Routledge http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1467-6427.12023
WHICH CLINICAL EXPERIENCES HAD A ROLE IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE MODEL?
During my clinical practice, I have always been struck by the often radical differences between the various family members. A child is, for example, sensitive and cerebral while her parents are sporty and concrete. A wife is active and dynamic while her husband is contemplative and melancholy. Not to mention siblings who are often opposites.
Differences, also among families belonging to the same culture, are equally large.
Those things that one whole family fights, rejoices or despairs over are entirely irrelevant for another.”(Ugazio,2013, p.21)
This awareness has been fed by clinical work with families with different psychopathologies.
At the end of the 1980s, after having worked for more than a decade with families with children with eating disorders, most of whom were devastated by power conflicts, I began to see couples and families with phobic clients. I was astonished: it was another world of meanings. What mattered here was who depended from others and who, on the contrary, was able to manage alone and was free. Later on, curious about the profound differences I have found between families with one member with a phobic disorder and families with an anorectic or a bulimic daughter, I encouraged referrals of obsessive-compulsive clients. Onece again I found stories that were completely new to me. In recent years, clients with mood disorders and their families had opened up a world of meanings that I have not previously encountered.(Ugazio, 2013, in Burck et al., p.152)
HAVE STUDIES BEEN DONE ON THE MODEL? And DO THEY CONFIRM IT?
By now many indeed. Those conducted by us used a purposely built tool to detect family semantics – The Family Semantic Grid. There are four versions (see “semantic analysis” submenu) of this tool. Others, carried out by colleagues who worked completely independently from us, have used different tools.
Here are the main studies:
- Castiglioni M., Faccio E., Veronese G. e Bell C. R. (2013), The Semantics of Power among People with Eating Disorders, Journal of Constructivist Psychology, vol. 26, 1, 62-76, DOI: 10.1080/10720537.2013.740263.
Castiglioni M., Pepe A., Gandino G. e Veronese G. (2013), Self-Other Positioning in Obesity. A Pilot Study Using Repertory Grid Technique, The Open Psychology Journal, vol. 6, 61-68, DOI: 10.2174/1874350101306010061.
Castiglioni, M., Veronese G., Pepe A. e Villegas, M. (2014), The Semantics of Freedom in Agoraphobic Patients. An Empirical Study, Journal of Constructivist Psychology, 27, 2, 120-36, DOI: 10.1080/10720537.2013.806874.
Faccio E., Belloni, E. e Castelnuovo G. (2012), The Power of Semantics in Self and the Repertory Grid Representations. A Comparison between Obese and Normal-Weight Adult Women, Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 3, DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00517.
Faccio,E., Belloni Cipolletta S., Iudici A., Castiglioni M. e Mannarini S. (2016), The Power of Weight and the Weight of Power in Adolescence. A Comparison between Young and Adult Women, Journal of Family Studies, 1-15, DOI: 10.1080/13229400.2016.1187660.
Ugazio, V. e Fellin, L. (2016), Family Semantic Polarities and Positionings. A Semantic Analysis, in P. Rober e M. Borcsa (a cura di), Research Perspectives in Couple Therapy. Discursive Qualitative Methods, Springer, Cham, 125-48, DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-23306-2_9.
Ugazio, V., Negri A. e Fellin L. (2011), Significato e psicopatologia. La semantica dei disturbi fobici, ossessivi, alimentari e depressivi [Meaning and psychopathology The semantic of phobic, obsessive, eating and depressive disorders], Quaderni di psicologia clinica [Bergamo], 2, 69-100.
Ugazio, V, Negri, A., e Fellin, L. (2015), Freedom, Goodness, Power and Belonging. The Semantics of Phobic, Obsessive-Compulsive, Eating, and Mood Disorders, Journal of Constructivist Psychology, vol. 28, 4, 293-315, DOI: 10.1080/10720537.2014.951109.
Ugazio, V, Negri, A, Zanaboni, E. e Fellin, L. (2007), La conversazione con i soggetti fobici è dominata dalla semantica della libertà?[The conversation with phobic patients is dominated by the semanticic of freedom?] Quaderni del Dottorato in Psicologia Clinica [Bergamo], 1, 103-33.
Veronese G., Procaccia R., Romaioli D., Barola G. e Castiglioni M. (2013), Psychopathological Organizations and Attachment Styles in Patients with Fear of Flying. A Case Study, The Open Psychology Journal, vol. 6, 20-27, DOI: 10.2174/1874350101306010020.
Ugazio, V., Negri A., & Fellin L. (2017). Libertà, Bontà, Potere e Appartenenza: le semantiche dei disturbi fobici, ossessivo-compulsivi, alimentari e dell’umore. Rivista italiana di costruttivismo, 5, 1, 2017, pp.4-27.
Ugazio, V., Guarnieri S., Anselmi P., Castelli, D., Pandolfi, M., The therapeutic relationship with clients with phobic, obsessive-compulsive, eating and depressive disorders: Which meanings prevail? Journal of Constructivist Psychology, 16 October, 2020 on line. To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/10720537.2020.1828203
Ugazio, V., Guarnieri, S., Anselmi, P., Castelli,D. e Pandolfi.M. (2021). La relazione terapeutica con i pazienti con disturbi fobici, ossessivo-compulsivi, alimentari e depressivi: Quali significati prevalgono? Rivista italiana di Costruttivismo, 9,1, 19-46.
The most surprising and unexpected result came from one of our studies (Ugazio, Negri, and Fellin 2011 and 2015) which showed that semantics are able to correctly identify the type of psychopathology in 59 out of 60 cases.
WAS THE MODEL ALSO APPLED OUTSIDE THE CLINICAL FIELD
Yes, in literary analysis by Tim Parks and other authors, and within organizations by David Campbell.
The writer Tim Parks developed a literary perspective, inspired by FSPT, based on reciprocal novel-writer-reader interactions. It challenges the thesis of “biographical fallacy”, which banishes the author’s personality from the practice of literary criticism.
Parks T. (2008) Semantic Polarities in the Writings of Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence Merope, vol. 53-54, 5-46.
Parks T. (2014) Romanzi pieni di vita [Novels full of life], Laterza Roma-Bari 2014.
Parks T. (2015) The Novel. A Survival Skill Oxford University Press New York.
This perspective is inspiring other analyses of literary works and film:
Dell’Aversano, C. (2009). L’analisi posizionale del testo letterario.Lettura di W;t di Margaret Edson. Roma: Aracne Editrice.
Guarnieri S. (2011), Mrs. Dalloway tra esclusione e appartenenza [Mrs Dollowey between exclusion and belonging], Quaderni di Psicologia Clinica [Bergamo], vol. 2, 159-80.
Serri F., Lasio D., Lampis J. e Melis A. (2018), L’appartenenza familiare tra significati, differenze e contesto culturale. Il caso della famiglia Stark de «Il Trono di Spade», Psicobiettivo, vol. 39, 2, 166-74.
David Campbell, of the Tavistock Institute of London, in collaboration with Marianne Groenbaeck (2006), developed a creative application of Ugazio’s semantic polarities model to develop a model of intervention within organizations.
Campbell D., & Groenbaeck M. (2006). Taking Position in the Organization. London: Karnac.