Category Archives: Relationship Skills

The Insidious Triangle: Should you avoid triangulation?

“Mo’ Air” — Jonny Moseley by Mimi Stuart ©

Have you ever felt uneasy when a friend complains about his or her partner? Triangulation involves one person complaining to a third person about a primary relationship in order to vent anxiety. They are not trying to gain insight into how to deal with a problem.

Why do people triangulate?

Triangulating someone into your angst-ridden relationship temporarily relieves anxiety. People who feel helpless to change their relationship patterns sometimes seek to relieve their frustration through criticizing and complaining about their partner (mother, son, friend, etc.) Through the power of secrets, they may also temporarily feel connected to the person they are triangulating — a connection that may be lacking in the primary relationship.

However, the temporary feeling of connection and release of anxiety are like the effect of a drug — short lived and you always need more to get the same relief next time.

Insidious

Triangulation is as insidious as mold growing in the walls. While it’s hard to see the destruction, eventually the structure crumbles. In the end, complaining and listening to complaints is emotionally exhausting and corrosive. Being asked to take sides rather than having a dialogue is draining, futile, and brings everyone down.

The worst is when a parent complains to a child about the other parent, which puts terrible pressure on the child. Children generally want any kind of connection they can get with a parent, even if that entails becoming the parent’s confidant. But they pay for their parent’s emotional venting with growing disrespect for the complaining parent and feelings of guilt for betraying the other parent.

Complaining about family or close friends erodes all three relationships within the triangle. Trust fades for someone who complains about others behind their backs. Respect also diminishes for someone who listens compliantly to endless fault-finding.

Interlocking triangles

Often, when anxiety overloads the initial triangle, one person deals with the anxiety by triangulating others into the process, thus forming a series of interlocking triangles. For example, a mother complains about her husband to her son, who then complains to his sister, who then complains to her father. Each person’s alliance is dependent on other people’s anxiety and inability to relate directly to the person with whom they are experiencing problems. This is not a good foundation for life-enhancing relationships.

Life-enhancing relationships

The key to sustaining healthy relationships is to learn both to handle anxiety and to speak calmly and rationally directly to people about one’s feelings, needs and expectations within the relationship. Instead of blaming either ourselves or others, it is far more helpful to become aware of our own participation in the relationship dynamic. Awareness of how we perpetuate negative patterns through our tone of voice, behavior, talking too much, not speaking up, etc. is a prerequisite for change, growth, and wise decision-making.

Avoiding triangulation

We should avoid taking sides, but remain in contact with both sides. We can express neutrality and objectivity, or use humor while relating to the mature part of the person venting. Here are some examples:

“I think it would be more helpful if you talked to him about how you feel, rather than to me.”

“Since we can’t change her, let’s figure out how you might have participated in this situation.”

“I value my friendship with both of you. So, I would prefer not being in the middle.”

“I’m sorry you’re suffering so much, but I feel uncomfortable when you tell me such private details of your married life.”

“I don’t feel qualified to give you advice. I think this is something you might bring to a therapist.”

“I think I know how this story is going to go. Do you see a pattern in the situation? Maybe you could do something differently.”

Conclusion

Venting through triangulation diminishes you and those around you. Instead, if you focus on improving yourself and understanding others, everyone will benefit. Asking others for help in how to deal with a situation or to improve a relationship is very different from triangulation, and can be a good way to gain insight into your relationship dynamics. The key is to be open to feedback about your own behavior rather than just venting about someone else.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Family visits:
“I feel overwhelmed thinking about my family visiting next week.”

"Orchestra Assemblage" by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

When facing a family visit, people often have ambivalent feelings, wanting to make everyone happy, yet dreading the work and potential personal conflicts that loom ahead.

Expectations

You may feel obligated to put everyone up at your house or prepare the meals because you think that’s what is expected of you. While giving to others can be deeply fulfilling, it’s best to give at a level where you can do so wholeheartedly and lovingly rather than resentfully. You don’t want to slip into martyrdom.

Instead of succumbing to what you think is expected, decide what you are willing to do and state so up front.

If, for example, you are happy to prepare one meal or one dish, graciously invite everyone for that meal or to a potluck. “I invite you all for dinner on Friday night. On Saturday, we can go out,” or “You’re on your own.” “You can pick up your favorite breakfast groceries at the store down the street.”

People like to know what is expected in the way of itinerary, sleeping arrangements, kids’ rules, differing holiday traditions, and dogs. If you clarify expectations and don’t promise too much, you can be giving without becoming exasperated and resentful. When you communicate clearly ahead of time, people are less likely to be disappointed because they understand the game plan and your expectations.

Saying “No.”

If your relatives or friends tend to ignore your requests, hints, and desires, or are generally unpleasant, then there’s no need to accommodate them with meals or housing, unless you are willing and able to live up to Mother Theresa’s philosophy: “People are generally irrational, unreasonable and selfish. Love them anyway.”

You can say “no” while still communicating warm-heartedly. For example, “That’s not a good weekend for us to have visitors. We would love to see you though if you come into town. Call us and we’ll meet for coffee/a drink/lunch.”

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “Dreading intrusive questions at family gatherings: “It’s none of your business!”

A Better Way to Break-Up: 20 Ways to Leave Your Lover
by GUEST AUTHOR Dr. Jennifer Freed with Molly Green

"Grazia" by Mimi Stuart ©

“Grazia” by Mimi Stuart ©

GUEST AUTHOR Dr. Jennifer Freed with Molly Green writes:

The dissolution of any romantic relationship is invariably painful: At its worst, it is devastating and harmful and leaves a lot of emotional collateral damage in its wake; at its best, it’s done with tenderness and care, and both parties put aside a desire to just be done with it in favor of taking the time to separate with patience and love. The latter is difficult to achieve, but ultimately a more expedient path to peace. Below, Dr. Jennifer Freed, a therapist, astrologer, and the founder of Santa Barbara’s AHA!, together with her colleague, Molly Green, explains what needs to be reckoned with.

Paul Simon suggested:

“You just slip out the back, Jack
Make a new plan, Stan
You don’t need to be coy, Roy
Just get yourself free
Hop on the bus, Gus
You don’t need to discuss much
Just drop off the key, Lee
And get yourself free”

This song hit a national nerve precisely because people tend to leave their lovers in the most hideous and harmful ways. There may be any number of causes or triggers—an affair (physical or emotional), growing disdain, physical rejection, addiction, and anger—but when the betrayal results in often-public drama and fireworks, rather than a calm, loving, and honest reckoning, it lays waste to all the joy the couple in question might have experienced together, coloring the entire relationship with pain. It begs the question: Why do so many people, who have often spent years loving one another, leave their relationships in such hurtful, harmful, and unconscionable ways? How can it be done differently?

People leave their love relationships in tatters because they:

1. Are too frightened to actually face their own unhappiness and take responsibility for it.

2. Are unwilling to face the pain in their partner’s face when they tell them the relationship is over. They don’t want to witness the loss band-aid being pulled off in slow motion and thus feel responsible for the hurt.

3. Selfishly tell themselves that what their partner doesn’t know will not hurt them.

4. Want to punish their partner emotionally for what they have experienced as coldness, distance, or waning desire.

5. Are addicted to novelty and idealization at any cost.

6. Are unable to face the material consequences or insecurities of their decision to leave.

7. Blame their partner for their lack of success or dissatisfaction with their own life.

Any of the choose-your-own-adventures above indicate that there is a lot of pain between lovers that has not been addressed in an appropriate way, and that a lot of collateral emotional damage could be spared if people felt good enough about themselves, and had the correct tools, to deal with immense fear, insecurity, and emptiness. It takes tremendous courage to actually face relationship despair head on. Instead people bolt, cheat, lie, withdraw, get addicted to things, or trash the whole thing with an abrupt cut-off and hostile attack listing every imagined resentment and flaw. Rarely do people face each other and discuss the dying elephant in the room. To do so would be to take an honest look at the demise of the dream, the failing of the promises, and the personal sense of inadequacy and hopelessness that intimate relationship endings bring.

If we are to truly absorb and assimilate the grief of a coming ending—in its raw and undistracted state—we actually need to confront our own shortcomings. Both parties need to look at their parts in the deterioration of the connection and the many personal patterns or flaws that contributed to the dying of attraction and affection. This is the psychological work of warriors, quite frankly, and many folks just do not have the inner muscles or resolve, or outside resources to flex that deeply.

However, if we could all agree that it is in the best interest of ourselves, and our communities, to get into some serious intimacy shape, we could begin to deal with the reality and the sorrow of relationships that are fizzling out, and do so with dignity, maturity, and kindness. We could support one another to take regular inventory of the health of our love relationships and not go into cruise control or denial about intimacy erosion. Once we start hearing the whisper of the death rattle through long periods of emotional disconnection, avoidance of sex, constant bickering or fighting, increasing times apart, and a vapid joylessness, we can roll up our sleeves and wrestle these emotional demons. If all efforts fail to revive the romance and quality of connection, then everyone can feel more empowered to move forward.

Below, 20 ways to leave your lover with love and respect.

1. Take full responsibility for your part in the ending, as in:

“I gave up a long time ago when we were drifting apart and I just didn’t fight for us.”
“I stopped appreciating you and took you for granted.”
“I need something different than what I am getting with you and I want to move on.”

2. Take time to dissolve the ending by giving your partner notice and discussing reasonable ways to end things.

3. Speak highly of your soon-to-be ex, because what you say about them actually reflects a great deal about you.

4. Spend a good deal of time reflecting on how you got into the intimacy bog and what you could have done differently.

5. Give your soon-to-be ex a lot of space to be upset and remove yourself immediately from any conversations that are hateful or abusive.

6. Pay off all debts and split things up fairly.

7. Seek professional help to mediate finality if you are too frightened and find yourself backing off from your firm decision.

8. Refrain from clingy sex and keep appropriate new boundaries to avoid confusion and undue stalling. Respect your partner’s boundaries and their need for distance.

9. Be kind to all of your mutual friends, as well as the friends of your partner. Avoid taking sides. There are no sides. There is just loss.

10. Use this time to take great care of yourself by getting in shape, not just physically but mentally. This is a very stressful time, no matter how adrenalized you may feel in leaving.

11. Keep your words in the affirmative about the situation and avoid all attempts to make you right and your partner wrong. Again, it is all just loss. There are no winners.

12. Be faithful to your soon-to-be ex and do not involve anyone else romantically in your complicated emotional maelstrom until you are truly separated.

13. Give your soon-to-be ex lots of physical space and let them attend to things without having to see your face.

14. Take up a new class or hobby to help you fill the new free time that is often fraught with compulsive over-thinking.

15. Take a short road trip alone or with friends to get some perspective after the big announcement.

16. Refrain from any social media postings about your status. RESPECT the transition.

17. Keep all your soon-to-be ex’s secret vulnerabilities SECRET. Do not ever reveal intimate facts. That would be tasteless and petty.

18. Let go of all letters and memorabilia as soon as possible, but in a discreet, honorable way.

19. Take time to feel all the emotions without involving your ex in a blow-by-blow battle. It is time for you to feel it all. Get a therapist or friend to be there for you.

20. When you make mistakes along the imperfect road of breaking up, admit to them and move on. Making a mistake is not code for failure.

If you are the friend of someone in the midst of this process, you can be truly helpful by encouraging the person to look in the mirror for the real lessons to be learned, and to keep an eye on the path ahead. There is only power in looking at his or her part of the relationship, no matter how screwed up their partner’s actions seem to be. After all, so much of falling in love is in the feeling we get about ourselves in the eyes of the beloved. It seems fitting that falling out of love is also about bravely enduring the feeling we get from looking in the eyes of one we have disappointed, whether they be our ex-lover’s or our own.

by GUEST AUTHOR Dr. Jennifer Freed with Molly Green. Dr. Jennifer Freed PhD, is a child behavioral expert and co-founder of AHA! (Attitude.Harmony.Achievement.)

How to have a productive argument: “You’re simply wrong.”

"Poetry - Arnold Palmer" by Mimi Stuart ©

“Poetry – Arnold Palmer” by Mimi Stuart ©

To resolve conflict, solve problems, and influence people, you have to be diplomatic and strategic. Argue with the idea, not the person.

1. Find common ground. Start with the part you agree with.

“I understand where you’re coming from.” Or

“Yes, I have also found that…”

2. Find out the reasoning for their perspective.

“That’s an interesting way of looking at it. What makes you feel that way?” Or

“Tell me more about your position.”

3. Separate the idea from the person.

“The issue I have with that idea is that…”

4. Show concern rather than insistence by showing a compassionate side. Watch that your body language and facial expressions don’t convey superiority.

“My concern is…”

5. Broaden the other person’s perspective by posing a question. Even if someone doesn’t concede your point during the discussion, they may start considering it if you are not aggressive about it.

“Don’t you find…?” Or

“What if someone…?”

6. Don’t insist on resolving the issue now.

“Let’s think about this some more and see how we can fine-tune our ideas.”

Being strategic and diplomatic is not manipulative. It will allow you to hear what the other person has to say and you may learn something yourself. If you are soft on the person and curious about the issue at hand, you both might end up with a more nuanced solution than either one of you imagined.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

What to do when people gossip about you.

"Approach - Rory McIlroy" by Mimi Stuart ©

“Approach – Rory McIlroy” by Mimi Stuart ©

“I know people who seem nice but gossip about me behind my back. They are such hypocrites, it’s depressing. Being confrontational hasn’t worked.”

Rise above the fray. Don’t allow yourself to dwell on the petty gossip that many people participate in, whether they are gossiping about you or others.

People often gossip out of boredom or envy. Thus, Oscar Wilde said, The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.

This is one of the situations in life where you must create a mental barrier around your feelings. If you become confrontational, fearful, or humiliated by gossip, you increase your vulnerability and give those who gossip power over you. Ignore them and you take away their power. Don’t be hostile, but don’t allow yourself to dwell on what they are saying.

Focus on more positive, interesting people and activities. There are many people in this world who have adequate self-worth and are too busy living their lives to have any time or desire for malicious gossip. Keep your eye out for these people and find activities that you are passionate about.

If you have to engage with people who are prone to gossip, maintain a casual, even somewhat friendly but unconcerned attitude. Convey a lack of interest in what they are saying by simply ignoring them, but avoid acting superior. Thus, you will maintain your dignity and inner strength without giving up your power or provoking more hostility.

Above all, the best way to stay above the banality of scandal-mongering is to maintain a sense of humor, as expressed by Vanna Bonta’s attitude:

Gossip can be entertaining: occasionally, I’ve heard the most fascinating things about myself I never knew.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

Overfunctioning and underfunctioning:
“If I don’t take care of things, nothing will ever get done.”

"Crescendo" by Mimi Stuart ©

“Crescendo” by Mimi Stuart ©

Emotional system

Every family is an emotional system, where the functioning, behavior and beliefs of each person influence those of the others. Overfunctioning is different from simply doing kind things for another person or having distinct but equal roles and duties. It is an ongoing pattern of feeling responsible for the emotional well-being of another and working to compensate for the perceived or real deficits in that person.

Polarization

Overfunctioning leads to the underfunctioning person feeling dependent and entrusting responsibility for decisions and effort on those willing to do the work. As a result, the underfunctioning person becomes “less capable” — a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As family members anxiously focus on compensating for the underfunctioner and trying to “correct” the problem, the family members become more polarized. Examples of these polarities include “overadequate” and “inadequate,” “hard-working” and “lazy,” “decisive” and “indecisive,” “goal-oriented” and “procrastinator.”

Resentment

The underfunctioning person gets comfortable being taken care of, and thus continues to allow others to overfunction. Yet the underfunctioner’s increased dependence and helplessness cause feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing. Meanwhile, the overfunctioning care-taker feels overwhelmed — “I have to take care of everything, or things will go wrong.” Resentment on both sides builds.

Solution

The way out of such polarities is to work on oneself, rather than to attempt to change others. A positive change in one person will have a positive impact on all others, though there may be a bit of resistance at first.

1. Do Less

Those who overfunction need to do less. When mistakes are made, the overfunctioning family member must resist jumping in to take charge, fix things, and make motivational speeches. He or she must be able to handle the frustration of seeing others fumble around and do things far from perfectly.

2. Gradual Change

Gradual change is often less shocking and deleterious than sudden change. If, for instance, the overfunctioning person has been in charge of all budgets, financial decisions, and bill paying, it’s wise to ease into sharing such duties.

3. Explaining Change

Overfunctioners can explain to the underfunctioning family member(s) that they realize that their own well-intentioned overfunctioning has contributed to the current unsatisfactory situation and that they intend to ease off such doing so much. Then they must stand back a bit and allow others to become more autonomous, make mistakes, suffer consequences, develop resilience, and determine their own individual paths.

It helps to focus on one’s own interests and new activities rather than always focusing on other family members’ behavior.

Example: Teenager Laundry

For instance, if the overfunctioning parent has been doing all cleaning and laundry for the teenagers in the house, it’s helpful to explain how and why you’d like them to start doing their own. Teenagers like the idea of independence, although they resist doing “boring” chores that are at the core of being independent.

Explain that such changes are intended to help them become more capable and independent as they will be moving out in a few years and need to develop the habit of taking care of themselves. “Embrace chores, as they are at the core of becoming independent!”

Then you can either let their dirty laundry pile up in their closets, or tell them you won’t drive them anywhere until they’ve done their laundry. In either case, the consequences of not doing their own laundry will eventually provide its own motivation.

Balance and Harmony

After initial resistance, those who underfunction will gain more autonomy, especially if those who overfunction allow them to suffer the natural consequences of their inaction. Although it’s hard work to break patterns, eventually, with more emotional separation and autonomy, a better balance of capabilities and contributions in the household will bring much needed harmony to the family.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen