Triangles are the most stable natural configuration, I’m told, and Harriet Lerner in The Dance Of Anger (and The Dance of Intimacy too) talks about how we form relationship triangles. I’m paraphrasing, but a relationship triangle is what happens when two individuals form their relationship at the expense of a third party.
For example, you have a sister who is a real trouble-maker. Mom calls you every other day to tell you what your sister has done wrong this time. You gripe at Mom. Mom gripes back at you. You give Mom suggestions. She ignores those suggestions or implements them half-heartedly.
Meanwhile, Sister and Mom butt heads constantly and Sister calls you to gripe about Mom while you try to smooth things over between Sister and Mom.
That’s a relationship triangle, and if you nodded when I described that, you’ve either been in one or have witnessed one. According to Lerner, relationship triangles are stable because they take the negative energy from one relationship and transfer it into a different relationship, enabling all parties to continue for decades in this pattern.
It’s unhealthy, by the way, despite being stable, and if you find yourself in one, you need to withdraw. Just say, “No, Mom, I don’t want to hear about Sister any longer. She’s an adult and can make her own choices.” And similarly, “Sorry, Sis, but I don’t want to hear about your argument with Mom. How’s your job going?”
While listening to the Prodigal Son reading this past Sunday, I realized the older son reacts with anger at the younger son’s return; that the older son reacts exactly as if he’s involved in a triangle.
The outrage he expresses is unexpected, and when the father comes out to him, he baits his father to be angry with the younger son, listing the younger one’s crimes and making them personal to the father.
I always tangle with the prodigal son story, and I’ve even done so before on this blog. But today it struck me that the older son appears to be calling on a long-standing pattern of “Yeah, Younger Son really behaved like a jerk.” “I can’t believe he did that.” “What an awful thing.” “He’ll be sorry someday.”
And when it comes right down to it, the father tries to call on his relationship with the older son and the older son, it turns out, tries to relate to his father by saying, in effect, “Don’t we both hate him together? Didn’t he waste YOUR money?” (Instead of, “Didn’t he blow all his own money?”) And then, “You never celebrated having me. It was always all about him.”
Triangles: two people having a relationship at the expense of a third party. But that’s not really a relationship at all, is it?