Triangulation is inevitable in intimate relationships, so the best we can do is be aware of it and try to minimize it as much as possible. Some triangulation is devastating and represents a betrayal of foundational promises, such as when folks triangulate with another partner creating an emotional and/or physical bond (see yesterday’s post). Other moves to triangulate represent less damaging failures of emotional connection and commitment, and are more easily repaired.
Most marriages form in the first three years of a relationship, when the couple is typically still in the symbiotic phase of early romance. They haven’t been sorely tested, yet, so it’s hard for them to imagine there will be difficult terrain ahead. They promise to love, honor, cherish, and be faithful to one another until they die, and they promise this before God and a crowd of witnesses without recognizing that they are promising to do the impossible. They have likely never discussed what each of them means by the words love, honor, cherish, and faithfulness, so when they promise to do these things, they often mean different things by each of these words.
The Necessity of Repair
So they enter a formalized and legalized union that they can’t live up to. Eventually, they will feel disappointed and betrayed that their partner didn’t live up to his or her promises. They don’t realize that promises can be made, kept, broken, repaired and dissolved. Furthermore, they typically go into marriage without considering what a solid repair process would look like, so when someone gets hurt, they don’t know what to do about it. Aggression, overt and/or covert, often takes over when a couple cannot figure out how to repair and resolve conflicts.
After several years of this, couples sometimes seek counsel, often expecting the counselor to fix their partner—to make their partner love, honor, cherish and be faithful to them, like he or she promised. I’m careful at the beginning of work with couples to make clear what I can and can’t do. I can guide them into and through a repair process, but I cannot do their work for them. And it will be work, I assure them—work that both will have to equally commit to and engage in.
This is when couples really find out what it means to be in a committed relationship with another person who is alien to them. Some are able to navigate that process; some aren’t.
Steps to Repair and Reconciliation
A repair process includes several steps, and requires the humility of both individuals. Both must be able to express their disappointments honestly and respectfully, and to hear the complaints of the other without defense. In other words, to get to the other side of differences and hurts, the individuals must be mature and secure. Moving couples toward this place so they can start negotiating their differences and hurts responsibly and non-reactively can take months to years, depending on the baggage they carried with them to the altar.
When we have managed to get to that place, a repair process includes the following, usually in this order:
- The offended party (I assume both parties have broken their promises to love, honor, cherish and be faithful, although not likely in the same fashion or to the same degree) must fully name to themselves, not to their partner, the hurt and injury. (Naming to the partner is a later step). They must fully acknowledge the meaning and cost of the wound.
- The offended party must take ownership of his/her injury. The injured party must refrain from trying to transfer the pain back to the one who broke their promise. The injured party must stop rationalizing the behavior of the other, and accept that permanent change has occurred because of the injury. The harm cannot be undone.
- At this point, the offended party must acknowledge to him- or herself that the other must be held accountable for the harm. It may still be premature to share this with the partner, as the offended party will likely go into that conversation with resentment. The next three steps diminish that likelihood.
- Since there is nothing more to understand about the injury, the offended party can begin to balance the scales. S/he can make different choices, and to gain strength over the injury. S/he can begin to envision what it would be like not to carry the pain of this wound.
- To let go of a wound, the injured party must no longer expect that the offended party owes him/her anything. Of course, if the offending party does not acknowledge the harm and make repair, the relationship will reflect whatever boundaries are needed to protect the offended party from further harm.
- By now, the offended partner can feel the freedom of having forgiven the offender and the offense, and can envision what reconciliation would require. If that process cannot occur, the offended party is secure enough at this point to set up and hold to appropriate boundaries. A desire for reconciliation may still exist, but the demand for it has subsided.
- If the offended party wants, but no longer needs, reconciliation with the offender, it is now time for the injured party to name the offense to the offending partner. This includes acknowledging to the offending partner that what happened was wrong, and that the breach must be repaired if the relationship is to be whole again.
- The offending party must then agree that the offense occurred and that it was harmful. S/he must accept full responsibility for the harm without excuse or blame-shifting.
- The offending party must show genuine sorrow for the pain of his/her partner. (This is not the same as feeling shame for having committed the harm, but it can look the same.)
- The offending party must also acknowledge and accept an explanation of his/her current relational failures that inhibit the potential for repair and reconciliation; and s/he must be open to dealing with those barriers.
- When the offended partner describes what’s s/he needs for moving into a new kind of relationship, the offending partner must express willingness to pursue that path. This path may require many steps and phases, depending on the offense/s, and may need the help of a skilled therapist, as well. In the end, this step gives the offender the chance to make amends, which allows the opportunity for trust to grow again over time.
- When genuine remorse translates into genuine amends, the offended party will need to receive those overtures, although this could take much time, depending on the severity or frequency of the offense/s.
(This process combines material from three sources. The first six steps—the steps of forgiveness—come from Beverly Flanigan’s, When Forgiveness Seems Impossible. In Bold Love, Dan Allender describes the process of reconciliation, steps seven through eleven. The final step, receiving the overtures of genuine remorse and repair, comes from John Gottman’s, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.)
Clearly, the process can be lengthy, depending on the depth or regularity of the offense. In addition, complicating almost every wound is unresolved past injuries, the pain of which often gets included with current hurts.
Kicking Someone in an Old Wound
I often tell the story of a scar just below my right knee, incurred in a soap box car accident. The wound—which had penetrated down to the bone—was stitched up, but it still stings like a scorpion attack if it comes into any direct contact. When someone bumps into it and sees me jumping around in agony, they tend to feel terrible that they have caused such pain, but until I explain, they don’t understand why I’m bouncing around like Tigger. They apologize profusely, of course, but they don’t take responsibility for the original injury.
Nor should they. As is human nature, they feel empathy for my pain and sorrow that they caused it, but they don’t need to take ownership of the original wound. Both the original wound and the current pain are mine to deal with, and if a genuine apology comes my way, I easily accept it. I understand the injury occurred by accident, and we can move on. Of course, I’m a little more careful for a while around that person until I can see that they will be more careful around my right knee, and then I can relax around them again.
Now if they were to intentionally go for my right knee later on, I wouldn’t bother to make relational repair. I just don’t want to have people in my life who would be so cruel and calloused, so I’d simply remove myself from relationship with such a person.
Forgiveness and Reconciliation are Separate Steps
I hope the analogy is clear. Forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same thing. Forgiveness takes one; reconciliation takes two. Forgiveness without repair will result in a letting go of the relationship, or at the very least will require clear boundaries until reconciliation occurs. Repair requires certain conditions—genuine sorrow and trust-building—and when those conditions occur, intimate relating can be restored over time, depending on the nature of the offense.
If a couple is willing to surrender to this process over and over because they simply care deeply for the good of the other, they have finally committed to the spirit of marriage.
I suggest that marriage vows include a promise that the couple will seek to repair every breach that enters their relationship. Without acknowledging the reality of broken promises—even if only due to natural human limitations—unnecessary disillusionment and resentment is bound to poison the relationship, sometimes beyond repair.