An Unconventional Approach
If it’s not already obvious, let me state directly that this blog takes an unconventional approach to relationship. First of all, the material presented here sees healthy and unhealthy relational dynamics as part of emotional systems—everyone contributes his or her part—and when one person changes, for better or worse, every individual in the system reacts in some way. There is no black sheep to blame for all the problems and no hero to credit for the solutions. It takes significant effort to identify the emotional patterns that characterize a particular system, how each person responds to them, and what it would take for the patterns to become more conducive to healthy interactions.
Second, the outcomes expected from this approach are not short-term outcomes. A long view is necessary to assimilate these principles, so if you want a quick fix, the material in this blog is not for you. (Honestly, there’s really no such thing as a quick fix when it comes to healthy relationships.)
Your Best Tool
If you’re interested relating in a healthy way, as presented by the principles in this blog, the most effective tool you have is yourself. If you can identify your own emotionally reactive patterns, you can start by changing yours truly. The material I present in this blog will continually direct you back to yourself, not to your partner, because if you can change yourself, your relationship will inevitably change, too—probably not exactly in the ways you imagine, but you’ll still be quite satisfied with the results. If your goal is fundamental change so that you don’t have to be empty inside or stressed out in your love life, you’ll never regret the focus on your own contribution to relational dynamics, because that’s all you have control over anyway, and that’s all you can change.
(In case it matters to you, rest assured that I use principles myself, and I have found them to deliver exactly what they purport to deliver. If they hadn’t worked for me, I wouldn’t pass them onto you. Of course, you can always beg to differ, but I hope you’ll at least give the perspective an honest effort.)
That said, most couples have so much difficulty focusing on themselves and what they may be contributing to the issues, that they usually pull in a third party. This process is called triangulation.
In Bowen (Family Systems) Theory, the triangle is the smallest emotional system, and is made up of three individuals, two of whom are close (a dyad) while the third occupies a more outside position. A dyad is stable during calm, but when anxiety increases, it involves another person, object, or process to siphon off the tension. When the tension in the triangle becomes too great, it involves still others, becoming a series of interlocking triangles—AKA a huge mess.
Like the dyad, a triangle is stable during times of low stress, but when stress kicks up, everyone in the triangle feels it. The twosome tries to keep the tension at a minimum so that neither becomes uncomfortable and forms a better dyad elsewhere.
While being on the outside is an uncomfortable position during times of calm, it’s the desired position during times of stress, and all three parties clamor for that spot. When the forces in the triangle fail to relieve the tension, a fourth person is drawn in, leaving the former third party for re-involvement later on. The emotional forces in the new triangle simply mirror the emotional forces in the former one. This process continues until the original triangle is reinstated and achieves calm again.
The most common triangle is the father-mother-child triangle. This pattern often involves basic tension between the parents leading to the father’s move to an outside position (often taking labels such as weak, passive or distant), leaving the mother and child to form an unnatural attachment, in which the child is called upon to relieve the mother’s tension. The mother (often called aggressive, dominating, emasculating) wins over the child (who will later experience chronic functional impairment). Families triangulate in the same patterns over and over again for years, resulting in dysfunction in the child.
Sometimes a therapist is called on to form the third leg of a triangle, which can be an effective way for couples in conflict to address the tension when it gets too high or too complicated. As long as the therapist is intent on remaining in the outside position, not taking sides with either party, and refusing any attempt by the couple to elevate the therapist to an all-important position, both parties can learn to identify and take responsibility for their own reactivity, and then to take credit for making their own tension subside, which then results in system-wide changes.
Scattered throughout this blog, we’ll look at several more of the most common triangles, and how couples can diminish conflicts that result from them.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at how emotional systems operate between partners, and what they do, in addition to triangulation, to diminish tension.