Interpreting Smoke Signals
In the early days of my relationship with George (a former boyfriend), George’s mother, Eleanor, told the story several times about one of George’s previous girlfriends, “She was trying to say something negative about my son, and you just can’t do that.”
I didn’t know if Eleanor was trying to give me a message indirectly, but I suspected so. Anyone who knows me very well knows that I’m all about open and direct communication, so it’s frustrating for me when I’m put in a position to read smoke signals.
I, of course, had and have no intention of bad-mouthing George to his mom, and it was bothersome to feel like I’d been lumped with one of George’s former girlfriends who hadn’t been so discreet or principled. Eleanor’s statement put me on guard; open communication felt shut down before we’d even had a chance to establish a relationship.
The Mother-in-Law Triangle
Eleanor was actually expressing a standard rule from a family systems perspective. In-laws are essentially out-laws. It doesn’t matter who’s truly responsible for what; we tend to automatically blame the person who’s not our kin.
I witnessed this with my own mother, to my great frustration, as my brother’s marriage broke down. Whatever was the problem, it was always my sister-in-law’s fault (whom my mother referred to as “she”), not my brother’s. I know that any relational breakdown takes the work of both parties, as does any relationship that works well. Often the contribution of one is harder to see than that of the other, but both have contributed equally.
Over- and Under-Functioning
For example, in the breakdown of my own former marriage, my contribution was difficult to spot. Being a high achiever can easily turn into being an over-functioner in a relationship, and this is an insidious blight to a relationship. In the end, it’s every bit as damaging as the contribution of the under-functioning party…perhaps more so, because the over-functioner usually feels self-righteous and looks like a non-contributor compared to the under-functioner, leaving the under-functioner full of shame and even more paralyzed to do anything pro-active.
When the over-functioner finally realizes his or her contribution and steps out of the rescuing position, the relationship then has a chance to develop a healthier dynamic. It can allow the under-functioner the space and the need to step into the productivity vacuum.
Certainly, this shift often reveals the real cancer in the relationship and signals the beginning of the end. Continuing a relationship with such inequitable and unresolved dynamics, however, does no one any good, least of all the children, if there are any in the mix. Children are extremely perceptive of their parents’ dynamics, although they usually don’t have words for them, and they learn about themselves and what relationship is all about by watching their parents interactions.
Leave Your Other People Out of Your Marital Conflicts
Since both parties agreed to the relationship, it is the job of both parties to mend relational breaches. Bringing your family or your partner’s family or a child in on those dynamics will always increase the tension between the couple, so if you want to make the problem worse, tell someone in your family.
The alternative is to discuss the problem open and non-defensively between you, and if that doesn’t lead to a resolution (several discussions may be needed, depending on the values that are in conflict), seek a non-biased third party, preferably a professional trained in family systems therapy.
Loyalty to What is True Over Loyalty to Kin
Unless you have an uncommonly emotionally mature adult family member who is objective enough to not take sides, leave the family, friends and children out of your conflicts. If you have a relative who values loyalty to what is true over loyalty to kin (or kindred spirits, such as friends), you may occasionally escape the tension and division of triangulation, but such an unbiased relative is highly unusual, and no matter how consciously aware such a person may be, triangulation is likely to creep in. When it does, everyone will pay.
Let the tension build, facing and dealing with your own emotions, until the tension forces you to reach a solution together. If it seems you’ve reached an impasse, get help from someone who can help you find creative solutions–someone who can do so without getting sucked into the gravitational pull of your family emotional system.