“How can you be so rude and insensitive? You always act that way. I don’t know why I come back here every year?”
“As I heard this from my older sister I wondered: What happened??? It had been a great day, lots of excitement and fun with all us sisters being together again. Was this breakdown inevitable?”
The sister’s reunion was fun, something the 4 sisters looked forward to all year, but they all knew the darker sides of each other and inevitably the fun broke down into the old roles and habits each had developed growing up. While this old way to cope did work it got in the way. This reversion, some might even say regression to the emotional reactivity of acting like children again was both distressing and at times hurtful. As always the triangles formed.
From a clinical viewpoint as I listened to my client describe what had happened at the reunion I was not surprised. As I have known for some time the basic stable unit of human interaction is the triangle. Murray Bowen one of the 5-6 therapists credited with the development of family systems theory in the 50’s and 60’s says: “The basic building block of any emotional system is the triangle.”
Many of you may be familiar with the drama triangle: That triad of roles, Persecutor, Victim & Rescuer, we so easily fall into whenever there is tension between people. “As I learn more about this I can see that my oldest sister is often in the blaming (Persecutor) position, somehow she expects us to know what she thinks and wants without ever having to say. I am usually in the Rescuer position soothing one or the other of my sisters after my oldest sister goes off on them.” Over time my client also came to see how she could move from Rescuer to Victim when 2 of her sisters joined together against her. Then she would get hurt and blaming and lash out and become a Persecutor. This is the Drama Triangle when the tension is low 2 insiders and an outsider trying to get in and be a part of a cozy dyad. When the tension is high 1 or both of the 2 insiders want to move to the outside, hopefully more calm position.* The triangle is the coping mechanism to discharge and displace anxiety, the anxiety that arises out of encountering another, their separateness, strangeness and difference.
Triangulation doesn’t just occur with other people, an object or a situation can also be triangled into a dyad. The most common objects to become triangled are one or the others work, addictions of any form, hobbies or recreational pursuits or a sickness, disease or condition. This object is the third silent partner that the couple argues about “He spends so much time on his work that it seems like thats his mistress and I am left here all alone.”
As I worked with my client from this family systems perspective she came to be able to recognize the triangles she was in and then tolerate the anxiety she felt if she did not engage in the old behavior. Detriangulation means to keep up direct contact with each other member of the triangle and not talk or gossip about the other not present third person. This of course is easier said than done. For my client she had to be willing to give up the power of being the understanding one, the helper to others. She was often in the rescuer position in the triangle but understood that even if that was her intention she often was drawn into the victim or persecutor roles. She would later wonder: “How did this happen, how did I end up in this mess again”. Only when she was able to correctly predict her old reactions and allow herself to feel and tolerate the tension of staying separate and continue to communicate with the other two members of the triangle was she free of the confines of the normal triangles she and all of her sisters had developed over the years..
*Low tension is of course relative and subjective to each dyad. A level of tension can be quite hurtful and toxic for most others to be around and be normal for that dyad. When an event shakes the stability of the couple and overwhelms their coping styles then one or the other member will seek the stabilizing of a triangulated person or object.