Intimate Partners - Page 2
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Emotional Triangles: The Family

n emotional triangle is an ongoing, repetitive cycle of interactions that involves three people. Triangles develop, as a number of systemic theorists have noted, when a problem that two people are having cannot be talked about (much less resolved); the focus of their attention needs to be diverted onto something outside the dangerous area —outside their own tense relationship. "Triangling in" a third party (a lover, a child, an in-law, or even a therapist) offers a means of deflecting or detouring but in any case lowering the intensity of the primary conflict. Emotional triangles come into being because they offer a disaffected and distressed couple a way of not confronting the problems and disappointments that one or both of them are simply too scared to think about, let alone talk about openly. If the conflict is enlarged in such a way that a third person becomes involved, the tensions in the relationship can often be successfully obscured from every one of the people concerned. And while getting into a triangle inevitably commits the pair to a series of endlessly repeated skirmishes, it helps them to stave off the all-out battle that might well end in the defeat of one of them or the destruction of the emotional system itself.

The mere mention of a triangle usually evokes the notion of the "eternal triangle," the romantic threesome of a couple and an intimate other (who, once she or he has made an appearance, is usually seen as the a cause of all the painful problems in the original relationship). But love triangles are just one of the various kinds of triangular situations that exist. Less noticeable and dramatic, but nevertheless ubiquitous, are the emotional triangles that develop within ordinary families—mothers, fathers, and children, for example.

The psychiatrist Murray Bowen has postulated that because two-person relationships are so inherently volatile and difficult to maintain in a balanced state, triangles inevitably occur within any emotional system (and an emotional system is what every family is). In his view, triangular situations always have two closely involved players and one person in an outside position.

"Patterns vary," Bowen writes, "but one of the most common is basic tension between the parents, with the father gaining the outside position—often being called passive, weak, and distant—leaving the conflict between mother and child." Although the original difficulty was in the parents' relationship, the father can remove himself from the battle and hold the coats while his wife and child fight it out.

Bowen describes this triangular pattern of relating as the "family projection process." The difficulty has been removed from the arena of the couple's relationship and is now, by means of projection and displacement of the conflict, seen as friction, strife, and contention between a parent and a child. "Families replay the same triangular game over and over for years, as though the winner were in doubt," he observes, "but the final result is always the same. Over the years the child accepts the always-lose outcome more easily, even to volunteering for this position. A variation is the pattern in which the father finally attacks the mother, leaving the child in the outside position. The child then learns the techniques of gaining the outside position by playing the parents off against each other."

What are the underlying advantages of a triangle to the distanced and disaffected marital partners? The answer is that when anxiety rises in a two-party relationship, the couple's possible responses are limited. The partners can resolve the issues, by confronting and dealing with their relational problems, or be forced, as the emotional pressures escalate beyond endurance, to end the relationship. Bringing a third person into the interaction allows for a variety of responses other than these two extremes (that is, settle it or break up).

A three-person group allows for a number of different coalitions. Any two of them can join together, covertly or overtly, against the third member of the triangle. The "perverse triangle" described by the therapist Jay Haley—a covert alliance between a parent and a child, who band together to undermine the other parent's power and authority—is one possibility. Another was described in the example above, in which the original conflict between the parental couple became an ongoing quarrel between the mother and the child. When handled in this roundabout manner, a couple's distress can find expression in fights that don't threaten the existence of the marriage.

In still another kind of mother-father-child triangle, the marital partners are able to unite around the problems they are having with their "bad," incorrigible child. In this sort of circumstance, familiar to most therapists, the couple usually see themselves as lovingly in unison; they have no difficulties aside from the ones that they are having with their unmanageable offspring.

"One may find," the family theorist Lynn Hoffman writes, "an unalterable pattern around the 'bad' behavior of a child." Hoffman gives a schematic rendering of such a repeating cycle: "Stage one: Mother coaxes, child refuses to obey, mother threatens to tell father (father-mother against child). Stage two: When father comes home, mother tells him how bad child has been, and father sends child to his room without supper."

Then, however, the mother sneaks up after the father has left the table, bringing the child a little food on a plate. The new configuration of the triangle, Hoffman notes, is mother-child against father. In stage three, she continues, "When child comes down later, father, trying to make up, offers to play a game with him that mother has expressly forbidden because it gets him too excited before bedtime (father-child against mother)." Finally, at stage four, the mother scolds the father, while the child, "overexcited indeed, has a tantrum and is sent to bed; and the original triangle comes round again (mother-father against child)."

In this example there is covert dissension between the parents that is being worked out through the ongoing struggles with their "misbehaving" child. The parents need not be deflecting any particular and specific conflict onto the offspring: their distress might have to do, more globally, with underlying feelings of futility and emotional impoverishment which both of them are experiencing. There may be a sense of deadness within the relationship that neither partner would dare to talk about—or perhaps even to think about, consciously. Getting into a triangle helps the pair to relieve some of their latent, suppressed emotionality without opening the Pandora's box of their unmet needs or confronting directly their own feelings of disconnection. Fighting with their child also adds some excitement to an atmosphere that has, because the unsayable and the unsaid have a way of sucking up all of the available vitality, become lifeless and flat.

Getting into a triangle with one of their children enables the marital partners to contain their underlying uncertainties and anxieties for a period of time. Eventually, though, the developing child will—owing to the inevitable biological and psychological push toward separation and individuation—struggle to get out of the repetitious three-person game. The other parties involved, whose own conflict is being handled and rerouted through that particular child, will experience alarm and will frequently react by attempting to block their offspring's self-differentiating efforts. This occurs not as part of any manipulative plan but at an automatically reactive level.

For, should the third member of the triangle manage to leave, the tense pair's pre-existing problems and difficulties would predictably return and intensify. Their conflict, which the triangular situation has served to cover over, will now have to be confronted and resolved, or the family system may be destroyed. At such a juncture the child—whose natural impulse toward increasing independence is running counter to his parents' need to keep him in his special position—is highly likely to develop symptoms of some sort.

The triangulated child becomes involved in either destructive or self-destructive behaviors, and lo and behold, it is not the couple but their son or daughter who is deeply troubled. What's more, the couple can often unite around caring for their depressed, or phobic, or anorexic child or, alternatively, unite around fighting with their promiscuous, drug-taking, thieving, or otherwise delinquent offspring. The marital problem, whatever it may be, remains well underground and out of sight.

Emotional Deals: Projective Identification

n trying to understand couples and the ways in which they put their relationships together, I have found no tool more powerful than the concept of projective identification. This important theoretical construct explains just why it is that marriages—paradoxically, it seems—become stronger and more intimate to the degree that the overall rules of the interactional system permit the partners to be separate and different people. The basic idea of projective identification, once grasped (not only intellectually but also emotionally) by the members of a couple, can alter the fundamental nature of their transactions and turn their relationship completely and surprisingly around.

For once a member of the pair has had the experience of "taking back" a projection—accepting that, for example, the craziness, hostility, incompetence, depression, or anxiety that is being perceived in the partner may be emanating from the self—everything has to begin to look different. Alternatively, once a mate has refused to accept a projection—refused to behave crazily, angrily, become depressed, or the like, in order to express the spouse's suppressed and dissociated feelings—changes have to start occurring in the relationship. When the unconscious trading-off of projections slows down or ceases, the emotional system itself shifts about. The familiar, constrictive, inflexible, rigidly demanding yet never consciously acknowledged rules of the game can be changed. Things can be different in ways that would have been unimaginable earlier.

Projective identification is at once easily intelligible and complicated—by definition difficult to discern at work in one's own life, because the exchange of projections is a psychological barter that occurs at an unconscious level.

The concept of projective identification (which is called by many another name in the clinical literature—"irrational role assignment," "externalization, " "trading of dissociations," to name a few) was first introduced into the psychoanalytic literature by one of Sigmund Freud's early followers, Melanie Klein. Klein was a forerunner of the object-relations school of analysis, a deviation from pure Freudian thought. Freud conceived of human development as a lengthy, sequential unfolding of instinctually based inner imperatives. His theory focused on the internal, intrapsychic world of the growing child as it underwent successive changes—as the infant and then toddler shifted from primarily "oral" concerns to the "anal" and then "Phallic" stages of psychosexual growth, and ultimately confronted the Oedipal calamity.

This is, of course, the pained renunciation of the opposite-sex parent as a possible erotic partner, which Freud viewed as the central tragedy of every human being's early life. Freud emphasized the internal struggles of the developing, changing child, whose inborn sexual drives were opposed by the civilizing demands of the society, which inevitably overwhelmed and tamed them (often producing neurotic symptoms along the way).

The object-relations theorists, while not in essential disagreement with this model, came to see human personality development as determined less by instinctually based sexual forces (and, as Freud later added, aggressive forces) than by the newborn's crucial experiences in the primary intimate relationship. There was no such thing as an internal world, they suggested, that existed independent of what happened in that magical first human attachment between parent and child. Theirs was and is a concept of the self as an organizing, experiencing system into which the "other" is inextricably woven.

The blueprint of the personality comes into being, according to these thinkers, far in advance of the Oedipal crisis (which occurs somewhere around age five); it emerges within the first months of life, in the caretaking duet between the nurturer and the dependent child. The utterly needful baby's internal programming develops within the setting of his or her powerful first attachment to the protecting, caretaking parent. Object-relations theory is, clearly, a far more interpersonal than intrapersonal, or individual, approach to the understanding of psychological growth and development.

This branch of Freud's intellectual descendants tends to emphasize the importance of what happens between emotionally bonded people in the long-lasting attachments that characterize human life. The earliest, deepest wish of every newborn, according to W. Ronald D. Fairbairn, M.D., (whose series of brilliant papers, published in the 1940s and early 1950s, established him as an important founder of the object-relations movement) is for a loving, satisfying connection with the nurturing parent. The forming and maintenance of this crucially important connection—rather than the mere gratification of instinctually based sexual tensions—is the ultimate goal toward which the infant's powerful libidinal strivings are directed.

Here let me note that the word object refers to love object; the term object relations denotes the emotional attachment between the one who loves and the image of the beloved as it exists in the lover's mind. The term is used, in other words, to differentiate between the inner picture of the love object and the actuality of the person who is loved. The subtle distinction being made—which the term object is meant to underscore —is the distinction between an internalized image of the loved and needed other (an image that is colored by one's own experiences and fantasies about those experiences) and a reality external to the self.

The object-relations theorists suggest that we all have internalized mental representations of people and relationships about which we have felt deeply. These internalized objects (Melanie Klein termed them "imagos") have become incorporated into our mental landscapes; they are part of our subjective terrain.

Our inner pictures of the world, formed in childhood, provide the framework for perceiving "objective" reality in adulthood. If, for example, my vision of my father was of a distant, unapproachable man, then I will be predisposed to view intimacy with a male as virtually impossible. My "inner father" will incline me to see all other men as cold and emotionally unreachable.

We relate to our inner objects—old intimacies, shards of intense emotional relationships that once existed—as if they were real. And why shouldn't that happen, given that our first human attachments are at the deepest strata of our personality, and are the stuff of our internal, subjective reality? Difficulties and confusions arise, however, when such mental images affect our perceptions so profoundly that it becomes difficult to discern the differences between the inner object from the past and the real attributes of the intimate partner in a relationship in the present.

Let me give a brief example of how an early fantasy could affect the way in which a person came to see his world in adulthood.

A young toddler's attachment to his mother may have been disrupted by an illness that she suffered, which took her away from her baby for a period of time. If her absence occurred during the critical stage when separation distress can be overwhelming (say, at around age one and a half), the child would predictably respond with terrible anger and fear. She who had been experienced as magically omnipotent would now be perceived to be weak—instead of being kind and loving, Mommy would be absent, sick, ungiving.

Because something has greatly disrupted his small world, and his sense of its safety and predictability, the child would be likely to take in (or "introject") an internal picture of a relationship between himself and an object of his powerful feelings who is not there, although she is desperately needed. This mental representation of the intimate other—from whom his sense of self is still poorly differentiated—may be an inner picture of a vitally wanted being who is frustrating, rejecting, and perhaps experienced as full of hatred and rage.

This image of the mother is, clearly, only the dependent child's frightened imagining; because he lacks the capacity for self-reflection, he finds it hard to differentiate his feelings of loss and rage from those of his caretaker. At this stage of development the boundary between self and other is still so uncertain that he is unclear about what the source of the hostile feelings might actually be. No matter: that helpless fury, which threatens to overwhelm him, must be thrust out of mind—or, as the object-relations theorists would phrase it, "split off" and repressed from the needful youngster's conscious awareness.

The bad, frustrating love object, and the internalized picture of the relationship with her, is suppressed—because the possible loss of the relationship is experienced as a threat to survival itself. And survival is the evolutionary bottom line of this first, intensely important human attachment. Also, in the magical world of the child's thinking, the wish to hurt and the capacity to do harm are not clearly separated, and so there is a lurking fear that his hatred and negativity could destroy the beloved other completely.

The real individual who is Mommy was, all the while, merely ill and in the hospital for a necessary stay. But this depriving, frightening episode, albeit long lost to her child's conscious memory, may leave a residue of irrational fears of being abandoned by the needed other to whom the child is emotionally tied.

Thus, whereas later experiences with the good and loving mother might eventually overlay the "bad object" (the internalized image of the evil, frustrating, and withholding intimate partner), they may never fully eradicate the child's horrendous experience of believing that he has been abandoned —or the expectation that it will happen again.

Often in our adult relationships active yet unconscious efforts are made to shape the intimate partner to a model that exists within. That inner model, which is an image of a once loved and desperately needed other, can pre-empt our capacity for seeing a partner in appropriate and realistic ways. Melanie Klein, when she first defined projective identification, spoke of it as "splitting off parts of the self and [then] projecting them on to another person." Later she added that it also involved "'the feeling of identification with other people, because one has attributed qualities or attributes of one's own to them."

In other words, in the example given above the adult who once felt forsaken—and who had internalized an image of a rejecting, rageful, untrustworthy intimate partner (the mother)—might have no awareness of his own anger at having felt deserted, and yet he may struggle to incite hostility (or even the wish to abandon the relationship) in his otherwise non-angry, non-abandoning mate.

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Copyright © 1986 by Maggie Scarf. All rights reserved. The Atlantic Monthly; November 1986; Intimate Partners - 11.86; Volume 258, No. 5; page 45-58.