If you want to go to a store down the street, you don’t start by driving around the corner—but many people take detours like this in their relationships.
Any relationship—with family members, romantic partners, friends, or coworkers—involves disagreements. A disagreement is a kind of roadblock. Some roadblocks are easy to clear, while others take more work.
When there is a traffic roadblock, people will reluctantly follow detour signs and take the long way around. Detours work well when someone else is cleaning up the mess. But in our relationships, try as they might, no one else can repair the potholes or clear the debris.
People can spend a lifetime avoiding roadblocks rather than addressing others directly and working to clear misunderstandings, talk about fears or contentious issues, and repair injured feelings. Sometimes, the alternate routes we take around a conflict end up adding significantly to the existing tension in the long run.
Can you think of a time when you were angry with a family member and turned to a friend to vent or badmouth the person? Or a time when you avoided talking about a difficult issue with a loved one by engaging in another activity (working late, drinking too much, etc.)?
In family systems theory, this is called triangling. It can feel like tension between two people has receded when you focus attention on another person or activity, but the conflict between the original two people remains because it has not been addressed.
Triangles can temporarily stabilize conflictual relationships—for example, a parent covering for an under-functioning student, or a spouse beginning an emotional or physical affair rather than acknowledging unhappiness in the marriage.
The anxiety remains, though it may shift from place to place. A parent who steps in to do homework for an unprepared child may quiet the concerns of the child’s teacher. For a time, there may no longer be a conflict for the child at school. The student has not learned the work, though, and eventually he or she will need to complete another assignment. If the child doesn’t do the work or ask the teacher for help, tension may build again.
The child may turn to the parent (the long way around) and put pressure on him or her to “help” complete the assignment. If the parent succumbs, the anxiety shifts, but the roadblock remains, and there will be no easy passage on that route. If the parent stands back, the child will have to face the problem and start working on personal change.
Not every detour is unhealthy. Good counseling often uses a triangle relationship to help a person work through his or her issues and problems head-on. The counselee begins by coming to the therapist to talk about a difficult relationship or situation. The counselor then helps the counselee sort out the issues and learn how to make positive changes, both personal and in the relationship. Sometimes this involves learning how to de-triangle oneself.
If you find yourself taking unhealthy detours in relationships, here are a few suggestions for moving toward positive change.
1. PAY ATTENTION
Change begins by paying attention. Notice the roadblocks in your life. If you are upset with someone, do you address the true issues with him or her directly or do you tend to gripe to other family members or find activities that help you avoid the person? Notice situations where you avoid conflict. How do you avoid it?
Where is the anxiety in your life? Do you have people, situations, or topics that you stay away from? What do you do to avoid these?
Some people avoid conflict at all costs, which means they might do the equivalent of driving around the entire city to avoid a two-block-long traffic jam. How far do you go to get away from difficult subjects?
Next, imagine how you might clear out a roadblock. Where is the real block or true issue? What have you set up nearby to fool yourself or others about the true issue?
What would it take to name the issue directly to yourself and then to the other person? What feelings does this stir up for you?
Is this a situation you can handle yourself? Or would you benefit from the help of a counselor who will allow you to share your thoughts and feelings about a difficult issue and guide you in making the changes you desire?