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When a Man Loves a Woman

Updated on February 24, 2013

The movie I chose for this assignment is When a Man Loves a Woman. The character I have chosen is Jessica, the older of the two children in the movie. She is the daughter of Alice, an alcoholic, stepdaughter to Michael, and older sister to Kasie, who is her little half sister. Jessica is an eight-year-old child who acts far beyond her age. During the movie, we see Jessica take on the role of acting as a mother to Kasie; She often cuddles her doll Samantha for comfort, and attempts to be strong and brave whenever her mother and father are fighting.

In the scene where Alice hits her, Jessica goes to her room and tells her doll Samantha that she is a good girl; perhaps simulating how she had wished her mother would have treated her. When Alice falls through the shower door, Jessica thought her mother had died. Jessica worked through her fear of watching her mother fall through the shower door, and in turn behaved adult like as evidenced by calling Michael on the phone to tell him what happened.

When Alice leaves home to enter a treatment facility, she says good-bye to the children and asks them to take care of each other and their father. Jessica very clearly takes on the role of mothering her little sister. She makes meals, does her sisters hair and tells her everything will be all right. She tries to rationalize her mother’s behavior to make Kasie feel better. Michael, her stepfather, often down played her efforts. For example, when Kasie stated her mother had done her hair better than Jessica, his response was, “ Mom does everything better, she does your hair better, cooks better, cleans better and looks better”. Jessica also takes on the role of comforting and informing Michael. She tells him of her mothers prior to treatment.

Michael continues to discount her at very painful levels. He reminds her in one scene that her biological father never calls her or keeps in touch. She cries and runs’ away stating that she wants her mother. Michael blames Alice for Jess having to be inconvienced by going to her grandparent’s home for a few days while Michael has a trip. Additionally he apologizes to her for the discomfort her mother has caused Jessica. Yet, ironically he tells Jessica it is not okay for her to be so upset, that life is not fair.

Jessica’s life has been greatly impacted by the things she has experienced while living in the home of an alcoholic and a co-dependent. Because of this, she has taken on roles that are developmentally not appropriate.

I chose this movie and this character because I am an adult child of an alcoholic. Both my parents are recovering alcoholics. My childhood was laden with many of the same issues presented in this movie and my adult life has been riddled with the repercussions of living with an alcoholic. I welcome the challenge of viewing at least one aspect of this experience through different lenses.

For a traditional theory of human behavior, I chose Erik Erikson and his theory of the eight stages of man. Erickson (1985) believed the healthy ego of a child would move the child toward the next stage of development; he viewed each stage of development through the life cycle. The main recurrent theme thus concerned the shadow of frustration, which falls from childhood on the individual’s later life and on his society. He suggests that to understand either childhood or society, we must expand our scope of knowledge to include the study of the way in which societies lighten the inescapable conflicts of childhood with a promise of some security, identity, and integrity. (Erikson, E. 1985). Erikson was primarily concerned with a theoretical framework, which addressed the capacity of the ego (the executive arm of the personality) to act on the environment. (Green, R. 1991).

The eight stages Erikson defines are; (1) Trust vs. mistrust - birth to 2 years, (2) Autonomy vs. shame and doubt - 2-4 years, (3) Initiative vs. guilt - 4-6 years, (4) Industry vs. inferiority – 6-12 years, (5) Identity vs. identity confusion – 12-22 years, (6) Intimacy vs. isolation – 22-34 years, (7) Generativity vs. stagnation – 34-60 years, (8) Integrity vs. despair – 60- death. (Green, R. 1991).

If Erikson were to look at Jessica who was eight years of age, he would evaluate her first four stages from birth to 12 years. I believe he would conclude that Jessica may not have completed these four stages successfully. In the movie it is implied that Jessica is inappropriate in her maturity while attempting to attain an industrious role of care taking.

In evaluating the first stage of man, trust vs. mistrust, Jessica appears to have a low self-esteem, as well as a tendency to withdraw. These behaviors are an indication that the establishment of enduring patterns for the solution of the nuclear conflict of basic trust verses mistrust did not exist. For example Jessica often looked down when spoken to and /or cowered behind objects or doors.

Erikson would likely have noted in evaluating the second stage of man, autonomy vs. shame and doubt, that Jessica expressed trouble in holding on and letting go. She often appeared to be estranged from her parental figures. She displayed what appeared to be feelings of failure and a lack of self-confidence. One example occurred in the scene where Michael, her stepfather, down- played her efforts to mother her little sister Kasie. Kasie had stated her mother had done her hair better than Jessica. Michael’s response was, “Mom does everything better, she does your hair better, cooks better, cleans better and looks better.” Jessica averted her look away from Michael and Kasie. She looked down, quit preparing food, and appeared hurt.

Erikson (1968) explains that the third stage of man, initiative versus guilt, the child’s family is the radius of social relation for the child. The child should be willing to go after things (initiative) and to take on new and age appropriate roles. In doing this, the child develops a sense of purpose. The hazard of this stage is a sense of guilt over the goals considered and the acts initiated by one’s enjoyment of new power of skill. If guilt is heavily present, inhibition or restraint of freedom of thought and expression will prevail. The child may now over-manipulate herself and develop an inappropriate sense of moral responsibility. The child may over- control and over- constrict him/her to the point of self-obliteration; where they develop an over-obedience more literal that the one the parent has wished. For example, the scene where Jessica was taking on the maternal role in the absence of her mother, she had purpose. However, the guilt she must have felt in not living up to the expectations of her sister or her stepfather kept her from continuing her task. She would have to do more (over-obedience) to care for her sister and her step- father in order to live up to the expectations of herself.

The fourth stage, industry verses inferiority, is a stage where the child now learns to win recognition by producing or making things. She is also eager to make things together, to share in constructing and planning. This is the stage at which children now attach themselves to adults they want to watch and imitate. The hazard of this task is the development of an estrangement of the task - the well-known sense of inferiority. Jessica was estranged from herself and her tasks. For example, in the kitchen scene we see her taking on a maternal role verses the role of a child. She was performing, but did not complete the adult tasks in which she was involved.

It is at this stage that the wider society becomes important. Jessica may find that the background of her parents directly reflect her worth; the human propensity for feeling unworthy may be fatefully aggravated as a determinant of character development. Jessica is a child of an alcoholic mother who publicly made her children the center of attention, the result of some very negative circumstances (parental background). As evidenced by , the description Alice gave in her six-month sobriety speech about leaving a child in a store and not remembering which store until the storeowner brought the child home. Jessica may not have a great deal of self worth. (Erikson, 1968).

My second choice of an applicable theory is Virginia Satir and her belief in ‘change’ and the human potential to be congruent (harmonious) within oneself. Satir believes that the true goal of therapy is to raise a client’s self-esteem, let them be their own choice-makers, be self-responsible and be congruent.

In her early work, Satir wrote, “The family is the ‘factory, where this kind of person is made. The family, then are the ‘people makers’.” She notes that troubled families have four primary issues in common: Feelings and ideas one has about him/herself, (self-worth), the ways people work out to make meaning with one another, (communication), the rules people use for how they should feel and act, which eventually develop into what is called the family system, and finally the way people relate to other people and institutions outside the family, (the link to society). (Satir, 1972).

It is also from Satir that the concept of four patterns of communication within family units has derived. Those four patterns are placating, blaming, computing, and distracting. The four patterns of communication (or at least one of them) are always present within family dynamics. Satir calls these patterns universal patterns of response that people use to get around the threat of rejection. Those patterns are:

Placate– used so the other person(s) won’t get mad. An example of a placater

might be to say, “Whatever you want is okay. I am just here to make you happy”. A placater is a typical ‘yes man’.

Blame – used to make him/herself superior. An example of a blamer might be to say, “If it weren’t for you, everything would be all right.” A blamer is a fault-finder and a dictator.

Computer – used to appear calm, cool, and collected. An example of a computer

might be one who uses the longest words possible, even if he/she is not sure of the meaning. A computer is one who wants to be careful and appear as though he/she never makes mistakes.

Distracter – used to move attention away from the issue at hand and provide the persons he/she is dealing with something else to concentrate on. An example of a distracter might be one who replies to a direct question with a silly answer that has no bearing on the question. A distracter is insecure and wants to remove attention from him/herself. (Satir, 1972).

If Virginia Satir were to observe the family dynamics in which Jessica and her family are involved, she would most certainly point out that when one member of a family is involved in any type of mental illness (which Alice was afraid she might have caused for Jessica by her alcoholism) then every member of the family is also involved.

When we witness Jessica attempting to gain her mother’s approval by showing her the drawing, which she said Samantha (her doll) had completed on the computer, we see Jessica in the role of the distracter. Also, when Jessica is comforting her doll after her mother hits her; we are seeing the rules of the family being played out. Jessica is transferring her wish for comforting and for a feeling of good self esteem to her doll.

Further, if Virginia Satir were this family’s therapist, she would point out that the rules the children had learned in the home of Alice and Michael were destructive. When Alice went from the home into treatment for alcoholism, she told Jessica to take care of her sister and her daddy. Jessica immediately became the “star” of the family drama. (Satir, 1983). At 6:00 a.m., Jessica was cooking scrambled eggs for Kasey. Her daddy found her and asked why she was cooking at that time. Jessica’s answer was “Kids!!! First she wanted French toast, then tuna, then a cucumber sandwich…know what she ate? Fruit!” Clearly, Satir would label this behavior as placating.

The implied message we get in this film is that Jessica has a perceived fear and distrust of both her mother and her father. She distrusts her mother because of the alcoholic behavior that was so disruptive to her. She distrusts her stepfather because he appears to belittle Jessica’s feelings. He tells her she should care for her little sister, but then discounts her efforts in doing so. He also tells her that her biological father doesn’t care for her.

There are major differences between the theories of Erikson and Satir.

Erikson’s theory is based on the development of man, a stage theory, whereas Satir is based on family dynamics, self-decision and the human potential. Erikson posits that there are eight stages of man and that each stage of development builds on the success of previous stages. Each stage of development is characterized differently than that of the foregoing and subsequent stage. Erikson focuses on the individual. Satir focuses on the family and self-worth, communication, family rules and the link to society. She focuses on the patterns of the family.

The strengths, which I believe are present in the Erikson theory, are the presence of a well-defined expectation of developmental levels. A clinician has a good guideline from which to proceed with therapy. The weaknesses in his theory are exactly those expectations. Since every person develops at his/her own pace, depending on many factors (i.e. environment, socio/economic strata, size of family, and educational levels of parents) the guidelines are too strict and unforgiving.

The strengths of Satir’s theory are that of the obvious family interaction. If a clinician uses Satir’s family reconstruction process, each meaningful event in each family member’s life is noted. A genogram is designed which brings each individual’s behaviors and roles in the family. A child may then be able to view his/her parents more closely as peers, and his/her own personhood is discovered. In this manner, family rules can be reshaped, new behaviors tried, and the child is able to find what works best for him/her. Satir, V. (1988).

The weaknesses I perceive with Satir’s theory is that so much cooperation from each family is required. The in-depth counseling which is required to attain that level of cooperation is so great that relatively few families, (with families being more and more fragmented in the 2000’s) will pursue this intense therapy.

It was difficult to articulate examples of diversity that were represented in the movie. The two I chose are ethnicity and age.

Erikson views each ethnic group as passing through each developmental level at the prescribed time. Therefore, little can be said regarding the views of Erikson and diversity in this movie or in life.

Satir notes that human living is influenced by experiences in families and groups. Using Satir’s theory, we see that in this movie there are several examples of this. For instance, the family had a nanny of Asian descent who was not shy about standing up for herself. The children also enjoyed spending time with an African- American while visiting their mother at the rehab center. The parents exhibited feelings of comfort with these interactions, and thus the children learned the rules of acceptance of diversity.

The diversity of age, as addressed by Erikson, can be seen mostly by the inappropriate activities performed by Jessica. While needing to meet her own developmental needs, Jessica is forced, by the dysfunction of her parents, to accept tasks that are inappropriate to her age.

We also hear from Alice that she had her first beer at age 8. Clearly she, too, was playing out the role of an inappropriate developmental childhood. As Alice was recovering from her alcoholism, she was forced to face the stages of development that she had missed during her childhood.

As we know, the Alcoholic Anonymous program is based on a 12-step program that, although spiritually based, is not unlike the stages set out for us by Erikson.

Satir addresses diversity of age in the manner in which each member of the family is impacted by the others’ actions. Therefore, the obvious inappropriate expectations of Jessica by her parents (and her grandparents) are merely the result of the rules of communication in this family.

We see diversity of age throughout this movie by use of the nuclear family. The grandparents, parents, and children are viewed as important members of the family, both negative and positive. Satir’s theory that each family has a “star” would indicate that Jessica would be the star in this family and that her age would be insignificant. It would be the role assigned to her by members of the family that would take on greatest importance. Diversity of age, on its own, played little part in this movie.

Erik Erikson, formerly Erik Homberg (changed his name when he became an American citizen), was concerned with the development of identity in his life as well as in his theory. Other than Jean Piaget, Erikson continues to be considered the “last word” on stages of development. However, stages are not a popular concept among personality theorists. Sigmund and Anna Freud fully share his convictions. Other theorists prefer an incremental and gradual approach to development and speak to segments or evolution rather than of clearly marked stages.

It is hard to defend Erikson’s eight stages if we accept the demands of his understanding what stages are. In different cultures, the timing can be quite different. In some countries, children are weaned off of breast- feeding or potty training at different ages. People are married at different ages, and retirement does not exist in some cultures.

Erikson’s stages do give us a framework. We can talk about our culture as compared to others, or today as compared to a century ago, by looking at the ways in which we differ relative to the “norm” his theory provides.

While searching on the Internet and the library, I found reference to thousands of articles done on research of Erikson’s work. I discovered researchers have found that the general pattern does in fact hold across cultures and times and to most of us it is familiar. I believe, along with others, that this theory is useful and will always be useful as a framework for continued research.

Satir, is one of the earliest pioneers in the emerging field of family therapy. There were not a lot of current research articles regarding the use of her work. However, the journal article I chose was an investigation of the practitioners’ views and practices regarding gender and Satir growth model. Quantitative and qualitative data were used to determine if and how Satir based practitioners incorporated gender issues into their work. The data suggests that practitioners incorporate gender in their use of the growth model by (1) paying attention to the societal context in which families are embedded, (2) surfacing and transforming old learning’s about gendered roles, and (3) facilitating the creation of the egalitarian relationships in families. (Freeman 2000)

A quantitative survey was done, investigating practitioner’s views about their therapy and gender, the Satir model and gender- sensitive orientation, and the incorporation of gender issues in their practice of Satir model. The research findings stated that of 234 Satir based practitioners resulted in a 45% response rate. Sixty- five percent were woman and 30% were men (5% did not define themselves in terms of gender.) Fifty-four percent of participants identified themselves as Caucasian. In addition sixty-five percent lived in the United States. The majority of participants have been using the Satir model for more than ten years. A master’s degree was the highest educational degree for 51% of the participants and they defined themselves in terms of a wide variety of job titles. (Freeman 2000)

The Survey items investigated three areas: (1) practitioners’ views about therapy and gender (2) practitioners’ incorporation of gender issues in their use of gender issues in their use of Satir growth model (3) practitioners’ beliefs about a gender-sensitive orientation and Satir growth model. (Freeman 2000)

Satir based practitioners pay attention to societal context in which families are embedded and they recognize the power of the larger societal context. Findings from this research regarding ways in which these practitioners incorporate gender issues in their use of the Satir mode provide guidance for other practitioners about explicitly attending to gender.

I found the research done on Satir was valuable. This particular article emphasized to me that there are many practitioners that agree with her work and therefore it further validates the importance of acceptance and honoring of all parts of human beings as they constitute a unique whole. (Freeman. 2000)


Erikson, E. (1985). Childhood in society. New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company.

Erikson, E. (1968). Identity youth and crisis. New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company.

Freeman, M. (2000). Incorporating gender issues in practice with the Stair growth model. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services. Vol 81 (3) 256-267.

Green, R. (1991). Human Behavior theory and social work practice. New York:

Aldine De Gruyter. 107-144.

Satir, V. (1983). Conjoint family therapy. Palo Alto, California: Science and behavior books, Inc.

Satir, V. (1972). Peoplemaking. Palo Alto, California: Science and behavior books, Inc.


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