Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Are you a part of a relationship triangle?

Every family system has stress and conflict. To relieve this, people develop triangles with other people, with organizations, and with activities. Triangles surface when there are power struggles. They often involve two people in alignment against a third.

Some triangles are healthy: they help to balance the system. For example, a couple in the empty nest phase of their lives learning a new skill or language together, becoming more active in church, or finding a common interest, is a healthy and productive triangle. Siblings often triangulate with other siblings or with friends in order to ease the competitiveness of activities in the relationship. A pastoral counselor provides a temporary positive triangulation for a stressed couple.

Other triangles are unhealthy and disruptive. Some examples are entering into an affair, asking a parent to intervene in an adult child’s marital squabble, using work as an escape from problems at home, aligning with a child as an ally against the other parent, or feeling responsible to solve another couple‘s problems for them.

How do you know when you are in a triangle? The following are examples of triangles which can be positive, neutral, or unhealthy:
  • Whenever a threesome exists in which the functioning of two people influences the functioning of a third, it is a triangle
  • When two people are joined in some kind of battle with a third, there is a triangle
  • When there is a shifting three-person relationship with one person always in the “out” position, there is a triangle
  • If a very strong emotional reaction to one person takes place and another is sought out for solace and support, there may be a triangle
  • Those who are overly involved in trying to solve one person’s problem with someone else, are probably in a triangle
  • If words like mediator, fixer, rescuer, or buffer seem to describe a role, there is a triangle
  • If a person feels stuck in a relationship or cannot seem to let go of certain feelings, like anger or resentment, it may mean that a triangle has formed to avoid confronting these negative feelings
  • Triangles occur more frequently when we are going through some kind of major life stress
Family Therapists Philip Guerin and Leo Fay, authors of The Evaluation and Treatment of Marital Conflict identify six main triangles that negatively affect marriages:

The Extramarital Affair Triangle - generally it’s a spouse who is under great discomfort and anxiety in the marriage who chooses an outside affair in a dysfunctional way to relieve their stress. The short term result is a temporary reduction of stress, often making the person more pleasant in the home, which makes them feel the affair is a positive thing. However, this is short-lived, especially when the other spouse finds out about the affair.

Social Network Triangles - Feelings of pressure within the marriage lead partners to look outside the relationship for relief in the form of activities with friends, social organizations, or key social contacts. The husband might golf every weekend with his buddies, the wife may volunteer or take monthly trips with her friends. They begin to invest most of their time with their social group instead of one-on-one time with their spouse. Church activities, when used as a substitute for family or spousal connection time, fall into this category. Other people begin to commiserate with the individual spouses, taking sides, offering advice that is supportive of their friend's point of view, fostering a sense of victimization for the friend, while the absent spouse is seen as the “bad guy.” While it does offer relief, it does not foster healing and creates further division.

In-Law Triangles - Separating from one’s parents after marriage is a process, not an event. Well-meaning parents who want to “help-out” their newlywed children often cause stress in the area of loyalty and significance for the grown child’s spouse. Example: when the couple is learning to live within a budget, and one spouse’s parents keep slipping their adult child money. Competition among in-laws for attention also causes stress. Example: where to spend the holidays.

Primary Parent Triangles - If a grown child is emotionally enmeshed with one of his/her parents, they will feel they are dishonoring the parent if they set boundaries to protect their spouse or the marriage. Example: a parent uses guilt to keep a grown child at their beck and call. Compare Eph 6: 1 and 2 regarding children. The second is more applicable to an adult child: Eph. 6: 1 "Children obey your parents;" Eph 6: 2 "Honor your father and mother." Gen. 2:24 "For this reason a man will leave his father and his mother, and shall be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh." God tells us once we are married, our spousal relationship is now primary and our parents are still to be honored, but not necessarily obeyed.

Triangles with Children - A child is a quick and convenient way to defuse issues or dilute tension
between a husband and wife. The focus on the child hides the marital conflict, which is never addressed, because all the attention, mental and emotional focus, is on the child.
There are three main ways a child is used in a triangle:                                           

A. Child as a Refuge - a child becomes a place of refuge and comfort, usually for one parent, placing the child in an adult-role. The child becomes the confidant, buddy, or in the worst cases, an object of sexual attention.
B. Target Child - the child may be very special to one parent, and an object of wrath to the other. This child is caught in the middle and often becomes self-destructive, forcing their parents into an artificial alliance to deal with them. Example: one parent excuses a child’s bad behavior, leading the other to be more punitive; one parent dotes on the child whereas the other resents the child for having attention that used to belong to the spouse.
C. Tug of War - Both parents attempt to be closer to, and more influential, over the child. The child may then manipulate the parents for their own gain. Family rules and stability will be lost. Frequently happens during and after a divorce, or once a new love interest enters one of the parent’s lives.

Step Family Triangles - Triangles within step families fall into one of the following four categories:
A. Wicked Stepparent - there is open warfare between stepchildren and stepparent and the natural parent is pulled back and forth between them.
B. Perfect Stepparent - the stepparent may try to treat the child as their own, often in response to an implicit demand from their spouse. The stepparent operates as the rescuer, moving to “straighten out” the child, or make up for the past. This is most often seen with an overly close or involved stepmother and a distant  biological father. This also occurs with a stepfather trying to “make it up” to the child for an absent, divorced, or deceased biological father.
C. Ghost of the Former Spouse - the wife or husband is reacting to the partner’s relationship with a former spouse, usually the children’s mother. Conflict surrounds alimony and child support, also nature and frequency of contact with the former spouse. There is an attitude of “If only we didn’t have to deal with X, we wouldn’t have any problems.”
D. Grandparent - if the grandparents are forced to deal with a former son or daughter-in-law with whom there was a great deal of reactivity before the divorce. Again the child can become part of a tug of war, or the grandparents seek to undermine the relationship with the other parent or obstruct visitation, etc.

Why do people remain in triangles even when they know they are unhealthy? People have great problems breaking free of unhealthy triangles, mostly because of fear:
  • Fear of separation
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Fear of conflict
  • Fear of change
  • Guilt feelings
  • Fear or rejection or retaliation
  • Fear of anger
  • Fear of the unknown
  • Fear of confrontation
  • Fear of self-examination
  • Need to protect oneself or others
Emily Marlin, author of Genograms, offers these four tips to extract yourself from an unhealthy triangle:

Decide - be aware that you are in a triangle, and that it is best for you to be out of it. Your anxiety level is your best gauge to tell you when you need to disengage. The higher it is, the more important it is for you to find a solution. Make a conscious decision to get out of the triangle.

My note: in this stage it is important to repent of taking control of the situation, to ask God to take control of the situation, to ask Him to lead you out of the triangle, and to thank Him for having your best outcome in His heart. ("For I know the plans I have for you…" Jer. 29:11)

Defuse - look at the amount of emotional energy you’re expending in a troubled triangle. If you are constantly reacting to what the other two parties in the triangle are saying and doing, you’re depleting your energy needlessly. Calm down and cool off. Try to stop reacting. Be a listener and observer, rather than emotionally involved participant.

My note: Continue to pray, asking God to lead and guide your reactions, to give you self-control, and to take authority over the situation, to help you close your mouth and listen without giving your opinion or input. (James 1: 19 "Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.")

Detach - stop trying to control other people. Realize that you really don’t need to fix anything or anybody. Take your focus off the other two sides of the triangle and put the focus on yourself. Affirm your own importance and autonomy.

My note: stop betting on the outcome. Detach from needing a certain outcome. Let go and let God. Place it in His hands and refuse to take it up again, reminding yourself that the Creator of the Universe knows all your needs and can handle this far better than you or I. (Prov. 3:5-6 "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways submit to Him and He will make your paths straight;" Phil. 4: 6-7 "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.")

Distance - you may have to temporarily physically remove yourself from the two parties in order to get the emotional distance you need to separate. You aren’t fleeing forever, you’re just changing the constellation. My note: in the case of children or families, this distance might involve merely a walk away from the house, or taking a long bath, in order to gain distance and perspective.

Resources: Working With Relationship Triangles, Guerin, Fay, Fogarty, Kautto, Basic Books, NY 1997 and Integrated Temperament Couple Therapy, Twerell, J. Terry, Dr., NCCA,  1997

In Christ, Karen 

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