Shawna feels stuck between her mother and her younger sister. Mother complains about sister’s rude behavior, lack of motivation, and marijuana use. Sister vents about mother, calling her a “nag” and “controlling.” Shawna feels sorry for her mother and thinks her role is to provide support in an abusive situation. Even so, she tends to listen passively to her sister’s grievances rather than risk setting her off.
John’s wife and mother have never gotten along. His wife tells him that, as her spouse, he should take her side over his mother’s. If he’s honest, he doesn’t always agree with his wife, but it’s easier to avoid his mother. Mother blames his wife for the distance. John believes he’s an innocent victim of the war between the women.
Kaiya’s parents divorced several years ago, but they still can’t stand to be in the same room. Her mother likes to confide all the ways her father was a bad husband. Kaiya is sympathetic, but she loves her dad. She worries that he’s depressed and lonely. Kaiya maintains relationships with both her parents but keeps them separate and private to avoid upsetting anyone. When she’s with one, she feels she’s betraying the other.
These three people share the view that they are stuck in the middle between two of their loved ones. They see themselves as only wanting to keep the peace and are trying their best to do that by mediating, avoiding conflict, and being supportive.
Learning about the nature of relationship triangles enables them to see that not only are they not helping, but they inadvertently perpetuate their family problems by taking a “stuck-in-the-middle” position.
As Murray Bowen observed:
A triangle in moderate tension characteristically has two comfortable sides and one side in conflict. Since patterns repeat and repeat in a triangle, the people come to have fixed roles in relation to each other. (374)
Through coaching in Bowen theory, Shawna, John, and Kaiya begin to understand that their calm relationships with the other two people in their triangles come at the expense of the scratchy twosomes’ ability to solve the problems between them. They get clear about the ways each member of their triangle is participating equally to maintain the status quo. In their own ways, they start to experiment with the principles outlined in the following quote:
When there is finally one who can control his emotional responsiveness and not take sides with either of the other two and stay constantly in contact with the other two, the emotional intensity within the twosome will decrease and both will move to a higher level of differentiation. (480)
Shawna tells both her mother and her sister that she will no longer let them bad-mouth each other to her. She informs them that they have to work out their problems on their own. After several weeks of taking this stand, they stop trying to rope her in, and she gets the sense that they aren’t fighting as much. At some point, Shawna realizes she can’t remember the last time she’s had one of her migraines.
John starts visiting and calling his mother more often. When his wife complains about it, he tells her he can’t choose between his mother and his wife and that he’s no longer going to be on anyone’s side but his own. At the next family dinner, he notices the women chatting together. He realizes with a smile that they are gossiping about him! The following month, John receives a long-desired promotion at work. He suspects that he has carried into his professional life the positive effects of being ‘his own man’ in the triangle with his spouse and his parent.
Kaiya decides that every time she sees one of her parents, she’s going to mention it to the other one. She openly reminisces about good times before the divorce. Within a few months, mom and dad agree to get together for lunch with Kaiya. This is pleasant for everyone, especially when Kaiya recognizes that she’s no longer avoiding either of her parents and that she and her partner aren’t arguing as much.
In some ways, getting out of the stuck-in-the-middle position in an important triangle is one of the easier moves someone can make in an effort to live a more responsible life. The results, though, may be dramatic.