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.]

Ever Been Stuck?

Of course, you have been.

Charlie Brown got totally stuck when the little red-headed girl walked by. I don’t think he ever got unstuck!

Family Systems Theory considers three indicators of “stuckness.” The first indicator is like tire-spinning, the trying experience when you (or a committee) keep trying harder and predictably producing banal results. Trying to stand up is a lot more difficult than standing up.

A second stuckness is when one thinks in either/or categories, like “I win, you lose.” Binary belief systems produce teeter-totter relationships where if someone is “in” then the other is “out.” Reminds me of couples in conflict. Religions do binary thinking a lot, as do political parties. Makes quitters of even the most faithful. In marriage its called divorce.

The third stuckness is cramping answers into predictable questions, rather than recasting questions in fresh contexts and perspectives. “Business as usual” is all about this — thinking we know the questions, so our task, we figure, is to find answers that fit, rather than “appreciatively inquire.” (Appreciative Inquiry is a great way to focus on new questions.) Of course, its usually more about the question than the answer.

For more Family Systems Theory wisdom see, Edwin Friedman in “A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix” (pp. 40-46).

———————————————-

I wrote this post in 2011 and I am updating it now because so many of my clients describe being unable to decide. How do you decide to marry, let alone who to marry? Stuckness in marital conflict is a recurring theme. New clients are signing up to do vocational assessment. What job works best for him or her? How does personality relate to occupation? What about call?

It is easy to get stuck and harder to get unstuck.

[You are welcome to comment on this blog or anything else you see on my website. Please suggest improvements or ideas, or just dialogue. Thanks.]

Masks of Melancholy

“Masks of Melancholy” is the name of a book on depression written by a friend, Dr. John White, who was a psychiatrist and a church leader (he died several years ago). This phrase has always struck me as a great description of depression. John was bipolar and he knew a lot about “The Masks People Wear” (see an article on my web site about such masks).

Depression puts on a mask. The mask can look needy or agitated or “pissed off” or apathetic and all kinds of other miserable things. The mask depends pretty much on our genetic wiring and what was emotionally practiced in our family of origin.

I have been depressed lately. I visit this state periodically like I am checking in with how bad life can really be. My mask is “agitated anger.” People I love bug me. I long to be left alone but I am lonely when no one is around. I ask for help in a way that keeps anyone from really caring. I isolate when I want to connect. Even coffee and chocolate (both vital food groups) fail to inspire me. “Pissed off” pretty much summarizes how I feel it. “Stay away” is what my mask reads to others.

So now that I have told you more than you want to hear, let me refer you to some resources that might be helpful to you.

So now that I have told you more than you want to hear, let me refer you to some resources that might be helpful to you. Visit Wing of Madness – this is a great sight. As well, this is where I would start with consuming anxiety. This is a blog spot so you get lots of interaction with real people.

The assessments will give you a pretty accurate reading of where your emotions are right now. Print off the results and take it to your doctor or counsellor if you wish. (If you are visiting with Carole or me, do bring the results with you.)

As for me and my treatment, I think I am going to take off my mask (it doesn’t fit very well, anyway), visit Crema Café a few blocks from my office in West Vancouver, eat a piece of their wheat-free chocolate cake, and drink a grande latte. It won’t cure my depression but it does put a smile on my face.

[Updated in March, 2019.]

[You are welcome to comment on this blog or anything else you see on my website. Please suggest improvements or ideas, or just dialogue. Thanks.]