Mutual Emergent Association: An Alternative Model for Forms of Trauma-Based Multiplicity

James Dawkins, 2019 (edited in February 2021) 


Although we do agree that multiplicity can arise through trauma—I believe ours has a significant trauma-based component—we don’t have to marry ourselves to the standard DID model to explain it. We’ve developed an alternative model, which we call “mutual emergent association,” or MEA. Like other forms of trauma-based multiplicity, MEA results from the mind generating several conscious agents to cope with extreme adversity. It’s called MEA because a mutually supportive association arises as an emergent property after traumatic experiences. MEA can look like structural dissociation during a traumatizing period, but can become beneficial over time by creating an internal support system. In contrast, the authors of The Haunted Self claim that DID, or “tertiary dissociation,” must be cured; no form of multiplicity can promote long-term well-being. There is no room for alternative explanations or ways of being that allow system members to exist and confront the trauma they faced in the past. (For more information about the problems with structural dissociation, read Kerry’s exhaustive critique here.)

Admittedly, the recommendations in The Haunted Self are outdated; many therapists tend toward treating the members of plural systems as individual people and focus on cooperation instead of fusion. Moreover, the DSM-5 requires that experiences of multiplicity cause distress before clinicians can issue a diagnosis of DID, suggesting that being plural in and of itself does not require a cure. This is a shift from the previous edition of the DSM, which lacked this criterion. The move away from considering all experiences of more-than-oneness as disordered indicates that there may be room for a theoretical construct of multiplicity that does not treat the system as disordered and simultaneously recognizes the importance of treating the trauma that engendered or accelerated the multiplicity in the first place.

Benefits of MEA versus structural dissociation

In MEA, the language used to refer to plural systems depends on the structure of the system itself. It would be inaccurate, for example, to refer to us as “a person with DID/multiplicity/MEA,” since we view ourselves as several thinking agents. We’re not parts of a single individual; we’re several individuals who happen to interact with the world using the same vessel. Our selfhoods are an emergent property. In fact, all selfhood is an emergent property; it’s just that in our case, we developed more than one based on our life circumstances. Someone who feels as though they do have aspects who are intrinsically part of them, however, may very well find that the “person with MEA” construction fits them perfectly.

MEA allows for the possibility of a system collectively integrating traumatic experiences and memories without system members fusing to form a singular identity. Members of a plural system can recognize that an event happened to them by simply using the collective “we.” For example, we would say “we were emotionally abused growing up,” even if the individual speaker in question wasn’t around during our childhood or adolescence. I arrived here when we were in our mid-twenties and had been away from our primary abusers for about five years, but I can still acknowledge that something happened to us that exerts an effect on system members’ behaviour without disavowing my separate personhood. The use of a singular “I” construction to refer to the system’s autobiographical common memory isn’t required. Fusion and traumatic processing are not identical events and should be distinguished in the literature and in practice. The Haunted Self fails to acknowledge this by offering a binary choice between “disordered and multiple” and “healthy and singleton.”

Collective events affecting individual system members can be likened to light refracting through a prism. While the photons still travel through the prism, the effects of refraction will make them behave differently than if the light were simply shining without interference. We can be individual people and be affected by collective trauma and other experiences. One can also compare these interactions to a filter: individuals’ expressions are filtered through collective experiences. For example, I react to events differently from Lilly or Hess, but I can still be affected by memories, subconscious tendencies, or external influences that we experienced at front.

System members can support each other in processing traumatic memories. For instance, systems can talk about past traumas in in-system meetings or notes passed to one another before talking about them with their therapists or psychiatrists. We do this through in-system conversations about past events. Our nightly check-ins allow us to process the past, discuss plans, and provide support to one another as we go throughout our collective life out here. We then share these topics with our therapist or trusted friends. If it weren’t for our internal mutual support network, we would have had a harder time processing our trauma.

Summary principles of MEA

  • The cause of trauma-based or medicalized multiplicity—abuse, neglect, and other extreme stressors—is the disorder, not the plural system themselves. In trauma-based plurality, multiplicity develops as a way to respond to the traumas.
  • Multiplicity is value-neutral; it can be beneficial, neutral, or harmful to the system in question. This model focuses on beneficial forms of plurality that develop after acute or repeated traumas.
  • Personhood is based on interiority and agency. Clinicians working with plural systems should treat system members as separate individuals if they prefer to be referred to that way.
  • What constitutes being mentally healthy is often dependent on an individual’s, or system’s, specific life context. A kind of rigid normative medical ethics that focuses on conformity is unlikely to apply well to all situations.
  • The integration of traumatic material is not synonymous with the “curing” of multiplicity itself. Conflating the two reflects ignorance, deeply ingrained bias, or outright dishonesty. I think it’s usually the first of the three, but there are always exceptions.


Van der Hart, Nijenhuis, & Steele (2007). The Haunted Self: Structural Dissociation and the Treatment of Chronic Traumatization. New York: W.W. Norton.


Please note that while our system has formal training and professional experience in adjacent disciplines, we are not psychiatrists. This article is for informational purposes and is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or support.