STAR Foundation News
by John Lee
People have always loved the grace and beauty found in geometric designs. Emerson loved circles, saying, “The eye is the first circle,” as did the great singer/story teller Harry Chapin, who said, “All my life’s a circle...” Clearly, Henry Ford was enchanted with cylinders and Ward and June Cleaver were living examples of lovable squares. I and many of my clients and workshop participants have never quite gotten over our love affair with triangles.
My first flirtation with this strong structure was at birth—there was my father, my mother, and me. I was attached to a doting mother who needed care-taking from the moment I left the womb. She thought I would save her from the banal life she was living. Our relationship was pitted against my father’s attachment to my mother—he thought she would save him from his disappointments.
Close your eyes for a minute and see your first triangle. Who was in it? You, your sister, and your father? You, your brother, and your mother? You, your grandfather, and grandmother? Perhaps your triangle was subtler. Maybe it was you, your father’s work, and your mother’s addiction to shopping or material possessions.
I remember when I first became aware of triangulation. I was in my early twenties, and I came home from college for a short visit. I walked into the house and the first thing my mother said was, “What would you like for dinner? I’ll fix you anything you want.”
Dad growled, “What about me? Don’t I count?” I realized that it had always been that way—my mother vying for my affection, tenderness, and attention, my father competing for her attention, and my mother caring too much for the praise my father refused to give her or me.
It would be great if our tendency to form triangles with loved ones ended in childhood, but it doesn’t usually go away so readily. When I was thirteen, I loved Cathy McCrory and she loved Billy Bateson. I was her friend, he was her lover. I wanted her attention, she craved his. When I was sixteen I fell in love with Phyllis, who was going with Jimmy. I got Phyllis to sneak out with me one night and we made out in the back seat of my ‘61 Chevy. Jimmy found out and gave me a black eye for my attempts to make a triangle with him and his girlfriend.
Phyl and I stayed in a love triangle for the next few years, right into college. There was always me, my girlfriend of the moment, and Phyllis. She was in my memory and fantasy to the point that I couldn’t ever, as Crosby, Stills, and Nash said, “love the one you’re with.” I just couldn’t lose my love affair with triangles.
Tom and Nancy, clients of mine, have been married for eleven years. During that time, Nancy, who is a bright, beautiful tennis pro, kept having affairs with attractive young men she taught. Tom, whose mistresses were ESPN and real estate, was always tired and very seldom attentive to Nancy’s needs.
In order to save their marriage, both needed to give up their love affairs with the third point of the triangle that took them away from each other, and maybe from themselves as well. When we looked at Nancy’s history, sure enough, she had been “daddy’s little girl” and was always treated like “a little princess,” receiving attention that should have been shown to her mother. Her mother felt like she was in competition with her daughter for her husband’s time and affections. Don’t misunderstand me—I’m not talking about sexual incest here, but I am talking about emotional sabotage, if not emotional incest.
Nancyhad grown up in a triangle. If she and Tom were to have any chance of cleaning up their marriage, she was going to have to give up extra-marital affairs and he was going to have to get his head out of the TV and deal with his addiction to his work. They have succeeded in doing so, at least for now, but it took a lot of counseling. They both had to do a lot of expressing emotions about how they had been raised to always have some third thing pulling them away from each other.
The other major problem of living and loving in triangles is that triangles give birth to a huge communication problem called triangulation. I talked to mom about dad. Dad told mom how much he loved me but wouldn’t tell me himself. Mom talked to me about dad. But I didn’t communicate directly with dad, and mom didn’t talk directly to dad much. This created a template for the way discussions went between us for decades.
Triangulation strangles most living relationships. It cuts off the air of truth that couples need to inhale and exhale in each other’s direction. I ask my clients, “Have you ever said to your husband or wife what you just told me?” The answer is almost always, “No,” or, “I’ve told my daughter about this, but not my husband.” Or, “I’ve told my parents about this, but not my wife.”
Unhealthy triangles teach us never to go directly to the person that we need to speak to, open up to, or love. Instead we learn to go up and around, or under or behind, and it just plain gets messy. Unhealthy triangles are hard to clean up.
Are all triangles unhealthy and dysfunctional? Not at all. Christians have the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost—the sacred trinity. Alcoholics have Unity, Service, and Recovery (Curiously, they put their triangle in a circle.). The poet Wordsworth’s romantic triangle is, Love of Nature leads to Love of God leads to Love of Man.
When it comes to loving each other, though, let’s give up the people, processes, and substances that pull us away from each other. Let’s fall in love with straight lines or maybe curves in our communication with our children, husbands, wives, parents, friends, and lovers.
John Lee is a psychotherapist and author of several books, including “Facing the Fire, Experiencing and Expressing Anger Appropriately,” “Growing Yourself Back Up, Understanding Emotional Regression,” “The Flying Boy,” and “At My Father’s Wedding.” John’s latest book is “Courting a Woman’s Soul.” He is also a member of the STAR Foundation Advisory Board. For more information and how to contact John, see www.jlcsonline.com.