Emotional Triangles: when elephants fight, it’s the grass that gets crushed.

I think I would lose a bunch of my business if my client-friends figured out emotional triangles. I usually suggest they read Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue by Rabbi Edwin Friedman. A tremendous book that is one of my top 10 resources.

You can also read from a presentation I made in New Orleans some years back. I entitled it “Illusions of Power” and it focuses on the three predictable roles of emotional triangles: Persecutor, Rescuer, and Victim.

The basic principle of triangles is that when any two parts of a system become pained or stressed with one another, they will “triangle in” or focus upon a third person, or issue, as a way of reducing the pain in their own relationship with one another. This is what gossip is; blab about somebody else and their deficiencies to make your dyad seem somehow better.

In families or communities, a person may be said to be “triangled in” if he or she gets caught in the middle as the focus of some unresolved issue. This happens when couples fight and then triangle around finances, or sex, or their kids or some other hot issue.

Triangles typically happen when there is too much closeness, as in parent-child relationships — we call this “fusion.” A teenage client that I have seen for a couple of years gets a lot of criticism unloaded onto her. Now she is no innocent but the crap that gets dumped is beyond reason. Makes one think that the parents have a few issues that they project. Of course, she will act out to the measure of their hostility — and she does.

A Swahili proverb states, “When elephants fight, it’s that grass that gets crushed.” I also like Proverbs 26:17 that says, “Getting involved in an argument that is none of your business is like going down the street and grabbing a dog by the ears.”

De-triangulating in these conflicts is complicated and takes some practice. (I guess I will have my job for a bit longer.) Mostly it is about not getting involved in the triangle in the first place. But do you know how hard it is to not gossip? I remember when I was building up a gossipy story that prejudiced someone I didn’t care much about and the person I was talking to interrupted me with “she is one of my best friends.” Well, I shut up really quickly.

Another way of de-triangulating has to do with writing a fresh narrative. If I think of myself as life’s “Rescuer” (see above), I might want to re-think that. Or if I anticipate most people rejecting my interest in them, I might want to approach people differently. I am probably doing something that causes the rejection I so dislike.

When kids grow up, parents have to de-triangulate, especially when they marry or have kids of their own. Benevolent disinterest is a difficult grace indeed.

 

[You are welcome to comment on this blog or anything else you see on my website. Please suggest improvements or ideas, or just dialogue. Contact me at life@theducklows. Hear from you soon. Thanks.]

Bark, Bitch and Belittle: the bitterness of microaggressions in intimate relationships

A microaggression is a term used for commonplace verbal or behavioural indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative prejudicial slights and insults toward any person or group. That’s part of what Wikipedia says, and I believe it because I see it.

But mostly microaggressions are unseen by the aggressor. It is just what happens and no one stops to look at it. There is no interruption or time out. So the bitterness just carries on because it is viewed as ordinary.

Oftentimes, to end the bitterness, one or both will attempt an apology. Apologies are often superficial, social constraints. (I have written about how to apologize in another posting.) Mostly, as I see it, the attempt at an apology maintains the structure of continuing microaggressions.

This is what I see. A husband has been barking (shouting), bitching (criticizing) and belittle-ing (demeaning) his partner of 7 years. And it is unremitting and it has become the background to everything that goes on between them. And then something happens: she has an affair or an emotional breakdown. And she is impugned to be promiscuous, or weak, or her having faulty genetic wiring.

Then the triangle happens. The community (family, church, neighbourhood, etc.) colludes with the barker, rallying against the weaker member. The community offers reprobation and saccharine consolation in about equal measure. Oftentimes, the actions of the community push her back into acquiescing to her bully spouse. If she does not comply, she will be further judged or ostracized or perhaps hospitalized.

I love my job. I get to see what others can’t. I get to see through the eyes of the bully what he or she sees and get to tell him about another way of seeing and being. And I get to see through the eyes of the bullied and see hopefully and realistically what can change.

Someone once said, “I see men as trees walking,” as if she sees “through a glass darkly.” It is good to help people look again.

 

[You are welcome to comment on this blog or anything else you see on my website. Please suggest improvements or ideas, or just dialogue. Contact me at life@theducklows. Hear from you soon. Thanks.]

Never-Ending Problems: Like Dandelions in the Grass

I like solving problems – always have. I like to think triangularly, question appreciatively, figure out what has not worked before and suggest something that I think is brilliant, create a plan for real change, and measure the anticipated success. I was taught all this in grad school, some of my female friends tell me that this is such a “man thing,” but I have lived this as far back as I can remember – when I was 8 years old I tried marriage counselling with my folks! I think I did pretty good.

Now John Gottman comes along as a marital researcher and says that about two-thirds of relational problems are perpetual, like dandelions in the grass. Some troubles are unsolvable he says, and lots of arguments never accomplish a thing other than rehearsing for the next squabble. Never-ending — sounds discouraging.

Carole and I have a bunch of unsolvable problems, mostly the same ones we had when we were first married. No matter what I do to “persuade” (coerce) her to do what I want (or she me), the problems keep flowering. The solvable ones delude us into thinking that we are pretty good at conflict solving, and it’s true that we’ve had some dramatic successes. It is the unsolvable ones that really bug me.

Here are some perpetual problems that you are probably familiar with:

Personality or “your way in the world”: Who is the most introverted in the dyad and who is the most extroverted? This probably doesn’t change much. Neither does the tension between the one that is most emotionally intuitive with the one that is perseveringly logical. And some people are emotional stuffers (always have been) while their devoted other is pretty much a feeling gusher (always has been).

History: You can’t change a person’s history. The times in which you were born, and the ways in which you were raised, or dynamics in your family of origin – this is set in history. The goodness of your connection has a lot to do with how winsomely you accept each other’s life before you met.

Sensitivities: How do you react to failure, or criticism, or loneliness, or unpredictability, or being excluded from a group? This is well-wired by the time a child becomes an early teen.

Some things change really slowly. Things like your view of what success or failure means in life, or what a worldview might be. Our relationship to money, emotions, work, conflict are hard to change, but change they do.

Habits change slowly as well. If you are an early-to-bed kind of person and you are married to a late night email addict, this too can change. Savers always seem to marry spenders – at least in my practice. Maybe that is why they come to therapy. Habits change – slowly.

I have discovered that unsolvable problems require different strategies than solvable ones. First off, you need to be willing to distinguish solvable from unsolvable problems. Make two lists of your problems. What can be negotiated (solvable) and what cannot (unsolvable)? What is most important to you (grade this 1-3)? What can you let go?

Secondly, focus 80% of your resources towards the good things that you already do well. Show a little “benevolent disinterest” (differentiation) towards the problem areas. It is not a moral failure to take a break from working on faults while you celebrate the good stuff you do now. Over-focusing on problems (many of which you can’t solve anyway) is a serious waste of good humour and friendly faith.

 

[You are welcome to comment on this blog or anything else you see on my website. Please suggest improvements or ideas, or just dialogue. Contact me at life@theducklows. Hear from you soon. Thanks.]

Lunar Tide Spirituality (Guest Blog)

This blog is written by a client-friend who has endured enormous hardship and abuse and has found clarity and confidence in herself and in God. Amazing really. Here is part of her story.

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There are many forms of spirituality that scatter the landscape of Christianity. Having at a young age already experienced severe trauma and witnessed the suffering of my mother due to a terminal illness, I was always perplexed by those with a full solar spirituality. Barbara Brown Taylor describes this type of Church:

“You can usually recognize a full solar church by its emphasis on the benefits of faith, which include a sure sense of God’s presence, certainty of belief, divine guidance in all things, and reliable answers to prayer. Members strive to be positive in attitude, firm in conviction, helpful in relationship, and unwavering in faith.” 

I have travelled my own dark night, both spiritually and personally, several times. I learned that my relationship with darkness was safer than another person’s solar spirituality. I have encountered darkness and I have survived.

I would describe my faith as a “lunar tide.” God is the moon, ever present, best seen in the dark. I am the tide being pulled out into the deepest parts of self and then pulled back into the landscape of others. I submit to the ebbs and flows of life by the sheer grit and grace of this lunar pull.

There is a deconstruction of certainty when one is pulled into the deep, tossed around and then pulled onto a new shore. When one has waded into the depths, relationships with others are disoriented, never to find a shared sense of common experience. This only adds to the loss of bearing.

Lunar tide spirituality teaches me about God. He is always there in fullness but, depending on where I am, I may only catch a sliver of Him. If I am in the deep, I may not catch a sighting.

I no longer believe in the safety of my spirituality. I’ve buried too many friends, held suffering babies, journeyed with others through chronic illness, and suffered myself with debilitating depression.

I’ve given up trying to be more spiritual than God. Every pull into the deep has brought me to a new level of embracing my own humanity. That may, in the end, be the grace of this lunar pull.

 

[You are welcome to comment on this blog or anything else you see on my website. Please suggest improvements or ideas, or just dialogue. Contact me at life@theducklows. Hear from you soon. Thanks.]