There are few things more insidious to a relationship than a third wheel. That doesn’t necessarily have to be a romantic party (although that tops the relationship killer category). A third person in a relationship triangle can be a child, sibling or even a best friend.
Relationship triangles are not only an on-going test of loyalty and allegiance but also serve to cover up and distract the primary partners from the underlying problems between them.
Take for example, Dan and Mei Li. When they were shopping for homes, Dan’s mother suggested a new apartment complex near her place. Even though it was smaller and more expensive than what she wanted, Mei Li, being a newly-wed, didn’t want to make waves and went along with it. Soon her mother-in-law was dropping by daily, giving advice on how to take care of the home and even staying late to cook meals.
At first Mei Li didn’t mind. After all, they were both working and it was nice to have dinner prepared when she came home. But then the baby arrived and the knives came out. Dan’s mother would take him aside and tell him all the ways Mei Li was coming up short as a mother. Meanwhile, Mei Li used the bedroom as her battlefield. Furious with Dan’s mother’s meddling, she grew even angrier by what she saw as Dan’s lack of loyalty to her; it was after all, her home and her baby. Thus began the Cold War.
Dan was stuck between a rock and a hard place. He loved his mother and his wife but how could he choose one without hurting the other? By then, Mei Li was coming to a few realizations of her own. She came to the conclusion that the bedroom was the wrong place to talk. By the time they got to bed Dan was too tired and in no mood for a long discussion. So she asked her mother-in-law to baby-sit and Mei Li and Dan went out for dinner where she spoke honestly to Dan about her frustration, guilt and fear that Dan held his mother in higher priority. He assured her he loved her and was committed to the marriage and they discussed ways to solve the issues.
Later, Dan took his mother out for lunch, something which surprised her and for which she was grateful. He told her that both he and Mei Li appreciated all she had done for them and that they wanted her in their lives. He also made it known to his mother that he loves her, but that his relationship with his wife needed to come first in order for his family to thrive. He then he laid out the steps they were going to implement in order to soothe the situation.
Dan’s reassurance to both his wife and his mother calmed their anxieties and they began to work together as allies not enemies.
Harriet Lerner, renowned psychologist and author of The Dance of Anger offers some advice. When removing oneself from a triangle, the three essential ingredients are: staying calm, staying out, and hanging in.
Staying calm means that one should under-react and take a low-key approach when stress hits. Anxiety and intensity are the driving force behind triangles.
Staying out means that the middle person, after acknowledging both sides equally, should leave the two others on their own to manage the relationship. It’s not helpful to take sides.
Hanging in means maintaining emotional closeness with both parties; it doesn’t mean cutting anyone out of the relationship.
Triangles can take many forms, some are benign and some become dangerously entrenched and it takes clear and honest communication between the parties to break it.
Dinah escaped the cold, snowy winters of Toronto for the cold, smoggy winters of Beijing. A wife, mother and writer (not always in that order), she has lived abroad for the past two decades. Married for a similar period to the same man (easier or harder?), she has learned that while love may be blind, sometimes it helps to be deaf (his snoring) and mute (football again?) as well. Read more from Dinah at aletterfromabroad.wordpress.com