Kids fighting over teddy bear

Using Multi-Directed Partiality in Your Family

There are certain concepts I have learned along the way that dramatically changed my understanding of relationships and my role in them. The concept of multi-directed partiality is one of them.

I had the privilege of having Dr. Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, founder of the Contextual Therapy movement, as one of my professors when I was at Temple getting my Masters in Psychoeducational Processes. One of the things he shared with me and the other students was that we needed to be partial to whoever we were speaking with in a therapeutic situation. He said this is very different than trying to be impartial and not take sides. Basically you take sides, but you are taking them with each person.

Dr. Boszormenyi-Nagy formulated his theories around contextual therapy in the 1960s. Contextual Therapy continues to be widely accepted across the world. Dr. Nagy has passed away but lived, taught and practiced in the Philadelphia area as well as in Europe. His concepts are incorporated in many university studies that have programs for Marriage and Family Therapy, such as Hahnemann University, here in Philadelphia.  

Dr. Boszormenyi-Nagy explained multi-directed partiality as the process a therapist and I believe that teachers, husbands and wives as well as parents can use whenever the inevitable issues arise where one or more people feel they are being treated unfairly.

Basically multi-directed partiality means that the therapist, teacher, spouse or parent can be “partial” to each person, as in appreciating that each person has legitimate reasons, what he would call earned rights, for their behavior. Since each person has these “rights,” it is the responsibility of the therapist, teacher, spouse or parent to be partial towards each person, basically acknowledging and accepting their perspectives, logic, feelings, and expectations. Key in all this is that it is not necessary to agree with the other person’s perspectives, logic, feelings, or expectations. This kind of response comes from a philosophical belief in the legitimacy of each person’s perspective.

 Think about a scenario where two children are fighting over a toy. “It’s no fair! You played with it for a long time and now it’s my turn! You’re hogging it!” The other child says, “It’s not your toy, it belongs to both of us. I got it first and you have to wait!” The parent who wishes to practice multi-directed partiality may first have to take the toy and hold it while saying to the first child, “It doesn’t seem fair to you that you’re sister has had this toy for a long time. You want it now because you think that is only fair.” The parent then turns to the other child and says, “You got this toy first and you want your brother to give you more time playing with it. For you that is what seems fair.”

Most kids would agree that what you say is true but then they may want you to make a decision. The parent could then say, “I’m going to hold onto this toy while the two of you talk about this and let me know what you decide might be a good solution that is fair for both of you. Remember you can’t call the other person any names and that in our family we believe everyone should be kind.”

Usually kids won’t want to take a lot of time to have this kind of discussion and one will say, “Fine, she can have it now but I get to play with it in five minutes.” Or maybe they will say something like, “Fine, but I’m going to play with one of her toys until she’s done.”

If the children continue to argue, the parent could say that the toy is no longer to be played with by either child because it would not be fair to pick one child. The goal overall is to be fair and partial to what each child is feeling and to encourage them to appreciate that each person has the right to their perspective.

Some sentence starters for practicing multi-directed partiality: “The way you see this is…” “It doesn’t seem fair to you that…” “What you think is important is…” You need others to understand…”

Pausing to think about how you can be partial to each person in any kind of disagreement is a powerful tool for promoting fairness since each person has some sort of legitimate reason for their perspective. There still can be rules in a home that everyone must adhere to, but we all know that there can be differences of opinion as to what is fair. By being able to use the concept of multi-directed partiality, you can nurture each person and honor their perspectives while not choosing sides.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. Think of a time when you had a disagreement with someone. Was anybody partial to your perspective? Did someone in authority just make a decision without acknowledging where you were coming from? How did that make you feel?
  2. How do you think you would have felt if that person in authority paused to acknowledge your right to your perspectives?
  3. Can you think of times when you might use this concept with your children or others who might be having conflicts? How might it change the outcome of the interaction? How might it impact the self-esteem of each person? How might it improve their relational dynamics?