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Triangles occur in all kinds of families and are a very destructive force for relationships. The triangle might be between two siblings against a third sibling with shifting alliances, between one parent and one child leaving the other parent energetically separate, or with one partner and their own parent challenging the other partner. Setting boundaries includes refusing to interact in triangles but instead building a clear energetic bond with your partner, or an inclusive family atmosphere between siblings.
More and more people these days get divorced and remarry. Stepfamilies have a built-in potential for jealousy, competition, loyalty conflicts, and the creation of painful triangles. That experience can go hand-in-hand with one partner being unable to find their voice in these triangles and being caught between the loved ones in their life, for example between the ex-spouse and the current spouse, or the current spouse and the daughter/son, or the father/mother-in-law and the spouse, just to name some possible combinations. On the surface, the family members in the triangles might appear angry, jealous, and competitive. Underneath their anger though is desperation and the lack of clear boundaries and clearly defined roles and responsibilities.
In her book “The Dance of Connection” Harriet Lerner devotes an entire chapter to the phenomenon of silent men and angry women. It is of course also possible that a female partner or same sex partner is the one who feels unable to be assertive and set boundaries and therefore retreats into silence. Using the example of stepmother Alice, teenage stepdaughter Donna, ex-wife Carol, and father Bill, the author describes how easy it is to be cast in the roles of the “awful ex-wife”, the “difficult daughter”, or the “wicked stepmom”. Being stuck in any of those roles is, as I have seen repeatedly with my own clients, painful for all involved.
As assertive as Bill was at work, at home he felt voiceless and afraid to speak up and take a clear and consistent position. He had always deferred to his ex-wife Carol for all parenting matters and his new wife Alice jumped in to fill the gap that Bill left empty, not knowing what his own position on parenting issues was. Turning his daughter over to “the woman of the house” was the surest way to put Alice in the role of the wicked stepmother. “A teenage daughter is her mother’s loyal torchbearer, with her stepmother as the natural target for her anger” (Harriet Lerner), especially if like in this case Donna also had different ideas about parenting and focused on “shaping up” her stepdaughter, her lack of neatness around the house, or her taste for what she experienced as inappropriate clothing for a teenage girl.
Bill felt insecure and uncertain where he stood in most parenting questions. He was afraid to speak up to all three women, set boundaries with his ex-wife, ask his current wife to be less critical with his daughter and instead accept the hands-on job of daily parenting his child himself. Once he understood that his silence and tendency to defer to others was the key problem, things began to shift.
Bill needed to strengthen the bond with Alice, help her feel loved, safe, important, respected, supported, and be very clear with her that she was his partner and therefore he was on the same team with her. He had to set clear boundaries and time limits with his ex-wife Carol to protect his marriage. “So he learned to speak up to Carol and say things like. ‘Alice and I are cooking dinner right now, and then we’re going out. I’m sorry, it’s not a good time to talk. When can I call you back tomorrow?’” (Harriet Lerner)
Both, Alice and Bill, also had to understand that the daughter Donna lost her special role as Daddy’s comfort and caretaker, which she had enjoyed while the two of them were living alone together after her parent’s divorce. Seeing Alice as her competition and enemy was born out of the situation. Bill had to create an appropriate father-daughter relationship with Donna and reassure her of his love.
Bill was fortunate to have that opportunity. Fathers can lose touch with their children after a divorce and especially getting remarried because they feel helpless and clueless on how to navigate all the relationships with the different significant adults in their children’s life, for example the ex-wife, the ex-in-laws, the new wife, or the new husband of the ex-partner.
When men do not deal with an infringing ex-wife or intruding mother themselves, it leaves the new wife exposed and desperate to set the boundaries or fight what is really his battle. “When men lay low and refuse to step into the ring, it’s the women in their lives who often end up slugging it out.” (Harriet Lerner)
The price the whole family pays when the husband and father retreats into silence is enormous. However, with the help of a coach or therapist the family can gain clarity, and the husband (or in other cases the wife) can learn to become assertive and set clear boundaries. That releases the women in his life out of those painful roles as the evil stepmother, crazy ex-wife, or angry daughter.
Do you feel that you are cast in a painful role?
Are you wondering how you can get out of destructive triangles and build a strong relationship with your partner?
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