by Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., author of The Dance of Anger
Judy is a real estate agent and Victor, her husband, is a salesman for the telephone company. On this particular day Victor has a meeting after work and phones Judy to tell her that he will not be home until seven o’clock. Judy has been with the children all afternoon and finds herself tense and tired by the time the evening meal rolls around.
She cooks dinner for the children, who, sensing her mood, act out more than usual, which only puts a greater strain on her. She cleans up, and watches the clock for Victor to come home. At seven-thirty Victor walks through the front door.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” he says. “There was an accident on the road and I got stuck.”
It is an entirely reasonable excuse, but Judy is furious. Not, however – as she experiences it – because of her own needs. She is not able to acknowledge that.
“I’m really upset!” she says, with intense anger in her voice. “Johnny and Mary [the children] have been waiting all day for you to come home. Now it’s almost their bedtime. And I’m especially worried about Johnny. You’ve hardly been with him this week. He has been missing you terribly. He is a son without a father!”
What is happening here? The question of Victor’s parenting may be worthwhile subject for discussion, but it is not to the point. At this moment Judy is using the children as a deflection from an important issue between her and Victor. Victor, too, may have his own motives for colluding with this deflection.
Perhaps Judy feels that she has no right to be angry about Victor’s late return. After all, the meeting was an important part of his job and the traffic jam was not his doing. Her belief that her anger is not rational, legitimate, or mature may prevent her from being able to articulate it, even to herself. Or it may be that the issue is a loaded one. Victor’s lateness may touch on Judy’s long-buried anger regarding the extent to which Victor is pulling his weight in the marriage.
If Judy and Victor have a flexible relationship, free from unmanageable levels of anxiety, the triangle will be temporary and of little consequence. When Judy cools off a bit, she will be able to share her feelings with Victor, including what a hard day she had and how angry and frustrated she felt when he did not return at five to offer her company and relief. But what if Judy does not feel safe speaking to Victor in her own voice? What if this couple is rigidly guarded against identifying the underground conflicts in their marriage?
Over time, a triangle consisting of Judy, Victor, and one of the children may become rigidly entrenched. Judy may find herself constantly blowing up at one of the kids instead of at Victor or she may intensify her relationship with Mary or Johnny in a manner that will help keep things calm on the marital front. This can happen in a number of ways:
- Mother and Johnny may form an overly close relationship that will compensate for a distant marriage and help keep father in an outside position in the family.
- Mother may complain to her daughter about her husband, rather than confining these issues to the marriage, where they belong.
- Or one of the children may become a major focus for concern, perhaps through the development of an emotional or behavior problem, thus drawing Judy’s attention away from her own dissatisfaction in the marriage and perhaps enabling Victor and Judy to experience a pseudo-closeness as parents attempting to care for their trouble child.
The third leg of the triangle need not be the child. It could be Judy’s mother, an in-law, or a person with whom Judy or Victor is having an affair. Triangles take on an endless variety of forms; but in each case, the intensity between Judy and a third party will be fueled by unaddressed issues in her marriage, and marital issues will become increasingly difficult to work on as the triangle becomes more entrenched. Of course, Judy’s anger at her husband may be gaining steam from unaddressed issues with others, such as her own mother or father.
People of both sexes and all ages participate in multiple, interlocking triangles that may span several generations. But, as we have seen, women often have a greater, exaggerated fear about rocking the boat in an important relationship with a man. Thus, we are likely to avoid a direct confrontation and instead detour our anger through a relationship with a less powerful person, such as a child or another woman.
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