16. NuclearFam Proj- Triangulation - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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16. NuclearFam Proj- Triangulation

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Ghost Guest Family Past

Ghosts and Guests of Family Past in Relationships and Therapy
by Ronald Mah

Scripts, schemata, templates, or expectations- the individual does not experience the relationship as a wholly new experience.  Inevitably, the individual brings prior experiences, especially from his or her family-of-origin into the new relationship, new couple or newly created nuclear family.  If unacknowledged, these expectations act as scripts… as the uninvited guests and ghosts that can cause the individual to enforce and repeat negative patterns of behavior.  This can occur not just in a couple or new family but also in any new grouping of individuals.  Each person that joins together in a created community brings expectations, experiences, rules of relationship, role expectations, and communication patterns into that community from their previous families and community systems.  As there are significant differences between any two people, there are exponentially more differences among members of a more numerous system.  The rules, expectations, roles, and so forth of the created community may be different from any of the members' prior models.  In a created two-person community- an ostensibly egalitarian American-style couple, the new rules, etc. are negotiated often with significant tension.  In addition, the new rules, and so forth are in part, prescribed in part by environmental pressures.  They are negotiated through couple and family processes and/or community processes.  In some situations, the new standards for functioning remain vague through the lack of an effective community process.  This can be highly dysfunctional and lead to presentation for couple's or family therapy.

A major problem in new relationship systems is the possibility or probability of negative scripts being brought into it by its members.  Such scripts may involve expectations of negative behavior and motivation from fellow members.  One key manner by which individuals acquire relationship schemata is called the nuclear family projection process.  "The specific manner in which a child incorporates certain family belief systems is not merely a matter of imitation but is more likely due to a deeply ingrained process of internalization, which is refined over years of exposure to family-of-origin experiences that incorporate basic beliefs. (Dattilio, 2007, page 361).  Parents transmit their immaturity and lack of differentiation to their children.  This occurs usually with the least mature child who is most prone to fusion.  Family-of-origin principles suggest therapy identify any problematic issues in the parents or family-of-origin for each individual, including for example clarity issues, inconsistency, ineffective or absent follow through, and so on.  The degree of transmission to children derives from the intensity and length of family relationships.  Individuals and of course, children tend to emulate if not outright copy significant influential people in their lives.  Parents transmit the level of differentiation and patterns of functioning at an emotional level to their children.  Attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviors for living with and relating to others transmit both consciously and unconsciously from parents to children.  The ability to function autonomously and to think logically without being overwhelmed or over-influenced by strong emotions during childhood predicts adult functioning.  Children need to develop balance between emotional attachment with and autonomy from the intimate caregivers in order to function well throughout life.  An angry, punitive, and demanding father figure for example, may project to especially to the same-gender child a model of functioning that proves harmful to his intimacy relationship.   

George comes from a family experience where George's father was a controlling narcissistic parent who emotionally annihilated anyone in the family who dared to question him.  His mother had not been able to protect herself, much less George.  George's father, Herbert had been an emotional tyrant.  In his marriage, George experienced requests from his wife Laura as arbitrary and hostile even when her intentions were relatively benign.  As a result, George instinctively reacted defensively and/or hostilely.  "What if I don't want to?  You can't make me!"  Laura was stunned by his reaction.  It was undeserved, unexpected, and incomprehensive.  "What's the big deal?  How come you can't just cooperate once in a while?"  In her childhood, Laura had felt dismissed as inconsequential as the third daughter among six children by her ineffectual mother and in particular, her dominating oldest sister Florence.  She was careful in asking for anything because she was leery of being discounted… again.  She anticipated new intimate others, including George to bulldoze her as she had been bulldozed in her family.  When George continued blaming her for being bitchy, Laura eventually reacted with her own anger.  To George, her response was not a counterattack but additional injustice against him.  He unknowingly and unconsciously had elicited what he had feared.  Teaching better communications skills or a straight structural approach (reorganizing the system for greater efficiency) can both be sabotaged by one or both individuals.  In this case, George continued to perceive Laura's words and behavior as negative or dangerous.  Laura saw George as perpetuating her life script of neglect.  Although, they could understand the skills involved, each of them still perceived the other as toxic.  

At home and in therapy, one or both partners can or will subvert the structural changes and the redefining of roles and boundaries.  Both partners had been triangulated in their family-of-origin and at risk to triangulate one or more of their children dysfunctionally into their dynamics.  In therapy, one or both may attempt to triangulate the therapist into their dynamics dysfunctionally.  "The triad is considered the most basic stable element of human relationships.  Members of the dyad, like parents, cannot alone persistently regulate their emotional climate without an outside, third, reference point.  When two partners become either too close or distant, to the extent that there is discomfort, the more distressed member will involve a third party in the relationship as a point of reference to regulate the emotional climate between the pair.  That is normal human functioning.  If, however, the pull on the third party is too strong, the triad becomes a 'triangle.'  When the emotional stress of the dyad is highly escalated, there are interlocking triangles established, for example, the police, schools, social services, and the courts.  The third drawn in person is termed 'triangulated.'  The position is maintained at a price, not only for the third, triangulated party but also for the other two members.  One basic aim of Bowen's therapy is to assist in the dissolution of the dysfunctional triangulation process by enabling the clients to become consciously aware of these emotional processes.  It encourages them to act on their thinking, rather than to follow an automatic instinct" (Farmer & Geller, 2005, page 70-71).  Triangulation had occurred in both their families as children.

George and Laura's respective families (George's parents and Laura's mother and sister Florence) had unconsciously used their children's needs for belonging and contact to regulate their own feelings of insecurity and isolation.  George's father and mother was a dominant/passive pair.  While there may have been affection within the couple's dyad, respect and self-respect was compromised.  Herbert could not hold respect consistently for a partner who was so passive and deferential- so easily intimidated by him.  His wife, Patricia frustrated him even though she idealized him.  He would become angry at her for being so submissive.  At a deeper level, this caused him to feel like a bully.  This enraged him and perpetuated his bullying behavior.  Shifting his attention and rage at George allowed him to back off of his wife.  Mother/wife and son were in awe and sometimes in fear of Herbert.  He was intimidating, with his intellect and verbal dexterity.  Patricia often did not agree with him, but seldom could she hold her own arguing with him.  It was too frustrating and she knew that he could fly into an insulting rage at any moment.  Sometimes, being passive-aggressive worked best for her.  Frustrating Herbert with her feigned incompetence or ignorance was often the best she could do "get" him back.  His aloof patrician demeanor frequently stymied Patricia's need for intimacy and nurturing from him.  Although, George was his mother's comfort, George identified with the dominating father instead.  

Although she was the second daughter rather than the first, Laura and her mother were very close as she was growing up.  She had been the "good" daughter to her mother in contrast to the "tough" daughter Florence.  Florence was born ornery according to the family mythology.  She was stubborn, relentless, and unyielding.  She battled everyone to make her place in the family.  The oldest daughter but the third child, she raged against the superior male hierarchy of brothers above and behind her.  In the family and ethnic culture, as the oldest daughter Florence was supposed to be mother's helper.  Meanwhile the boys were given more freedom to be unencumbered by family responsibilities.  Overwhelmed herself, their mother recruited Laura to be the good daughter that helped with the household responsibilities.  Patricia used Laura as the good model daughter to criticize Florence.  Not surprisingly, Florence came to resent "goody Laura."  She made life miserable for Laura in retribution, but also because attacking her mother was not as acceptable as attacking her surrogate.  Laura knew instinctively that Florence ill treatment of her was because Florence also envied the intimacy in Laura and their mother's relationship.  Yet, Laura also knew that she was perhaps too close to her mother.  In addition, despite their bond whenever Florence pitched a fit, Laura felt that her mother would throw her- Laura under the bus emotionally.  Florence would get her way and Laura would be on the side licking her wounds.  Both George and Laura brought dysfunctional triangulation experiences into their relationship.  In the couple's dynamic, George was psychically dealing alternately with Laura and his poltergeists: his father Herbert or his mother Patricia.  Laura on the other hand was dealing with George and her ghosts: sometimes her sister Florence or other times her mother.  Unrecognized triads including the uninvited guests from their respective families-of-origin complicated resolution of apparently dyadic issues.  

"A further point is that the kind of reversed attachment that is sometimes evident across the generations usually reflects not only the situation in the parents' family of origin, but also the situation in the parental couple, characterized by marital (emotional and/or actual) betrayal and disloyalty.  As a consequence, children become potential scapegoats for such betrayal, leaving them with an uncomprehending experience of themselves as unfaithful and unthankful children.  In adult relationships these children may continue to conceal their feelings and never openly discuss relationship issues, distancing themselves from others in their attempt at self-protection.  Consequently, they may come themselves to feel betrayed and abandoned by their partners and unworthy of their trust" (Erzar and Erzar, 2008, page 33).  The respective attachment issues and family-of-origin issues for George's parents: Herbert and Patricia and for Laura's mother were not completely clear to the couple.  There was some indication that Herbert was reflecting with George a dynamic he had experienced with his father.  Laura's mother came from a cultural and probable family tradition of female subservience that Florence rebelled against and Laura perpetuated.  Beyond dealing their couple's issues, George and Laura need to take care that George Jr. and Lisa, their children do not become prime candidates to be recruited into new unhealthy triangles.  They potentially can become parts of additional dysfunctional triads for the couple to deal with emotional process of being too close or too distant for another generation.  The therapist should be aware that he or she is also a prime candidate to be triangulated into George and Laura's dynamics.  However, the therapist can be an appropriate point of reference to regulate the emotional climate between the two individuals.  The key would be to be an intermediary developmental third point that facilitates strengthening and stabilizing the dyad.

The therapist must identify"…the nuclear family emotional process," which "occurs when there is a strong tendency in a family to triangulate.  Then the extrication of one member of a triangle will result in the two remaining members co-opting another member to form a new triangle.  Such a pattern is fluid and tends to fluctuate.  When the degree of fusion between the selves of the family members becomes too concentrated, it is manifested in symptoms that can present to a therapist in the following three ways: physical or psychological dysfunction in one or both spouses, for example, alcoholism and depression; marital conflict; or emotional, physical, or behavioral problems in a child" (Farmer & Geller, 2005, page 71).  Both the partners' respective families-of-origin and the current relationship or family nuclear emotional system may need to be carefully examined.  The emotional forces in a family or system operate in recurrent patterns.  The patterns may not be exact behavioral duplicates but may be manifested differently while based on the same core principles.  Alcoholism, controlling behavior, affairs, and eating disorders can be expressions of the same issues for example.  One family member may draw energy and attention from painful emotions by acting out, another through nurturing, and another through compulsive competence.  The rule is to avoid the difficult feelings one way or another.  Such a rule is part of the structure and explicit and implicit set of rules and rituals of a family or system.  The therapist should look at how, what, and who created the rules of the family system.  Who, how and what forces in the family determine how the explicit and implicit rules are defined and applied.  They determine also if the rules can be co-opted or ignored.  The physical or psychological dysfunction may be uncovered should the therapist ask:

What are the rules of the family?  

What are each individual's expectations?

What is each individual's comfort level?

What make each individual uncomfortable?

What is each individual's anxiety level?

What make each individual anxious?

What is each individual's antagonism level?

What antagonizes each individual?

What is each individual's ability and willingness to confront?

How does each individual confront?

What is each individual's ability and willingness to communicate?

How does each individual communicate?

What is each individual's ability and willingness to change/flex?  

What is each individual's depth of resistance?

How does each individual resist?

What is each individual's reaction style when disagreeing?

What is each individual's reaction style when threatened?  

What is family's tolerance level for each of these issues?  

How does the family show tolerance or intolerance?

The response for each individual may be consistent between his or her family-of-origin and the current family.  However, the two partners' responses may be significantly different from each other's responses.  It is essential for individuals to identify their own expectations, rules of comfort and discomfort- in other words, their scripts; and then to see how much they match up with the new relationship or family script.  It is essential for relationship unity to have individuals reach consensus with similar and/or compatible scripts.  Or, have individuals who can set aside their scripts and function as their roles are defined by the new relationship's needs.  Good people with incompatible scripts will not make good partners, teammates, or co-workers.  When exploring characteristics of the members of the family or system, the therapist should prompt the individuals to consider how a member may be similar to other family members- in particular, a parent or other or former family members of an individual.

"The child, most vulnerable to be triangulated by either partner, is a potential casualty of the third profile, the family projection process.  In that profile, the child is 'chosen' by reason of some particular resemblance to a parent or other close family member (e.g., a grandparent).  The resemblance may involve physical characteristics, a distinguishing temperament, a physical or mental incapacity, or a special context in which the child was born (e.g., a period closely following the death of a close family member).  Once chosen, the child is subject to the 'projections' of the parents and is less able to be seen as a relatively distinct person in his or her own right.  He or she is likely to have a relatively low sense of self and tends to have a 'we' experience, a sense of togetherness (family) rather than of individuality, (an 'I' experience).  The profile is called the differentiation of self.  A child grows up with that characteristic.  Bowen regarded such a person as having a relatively undifferentiated sense of self.  We use the term 'relatively' because no one is entirely differentiated.  Bowen maintained that people tend to find partners of the same level of differentiation because they each wish to share the same proportion of self with the other.  One partner, however, often functions on a higher level.  If two undifferentiated partners have children, then one of them is likely, in turn, to be a recipient of the parents' projections, with an even lower level of differentiation.  In that way, the process is transmitted through generations to cause even further dysfunctional families" (Farmer & Geller, 2005, page 71).

Laura's mother with Laura and potentially, Laura with her daughter Lisa, and George with his father Herbert had "we" experiences.  Family-of-origin theory can be seen as descendant or a version of psychodynamic theories.  Psychodynamic emphasizes early experiences and the importance of past events that affect the person's current functioning.  While people usually acknowledge that young children may have an active imaginary world, an adult will often interpret reality from internal perspectives as well.   The individual's relationship to early attachment figures especially around unresolved issues return in some new version with new intimate persons.  Unconscious realities are held in emotional perpetuity, family mythology or scripts, or in the degree of differentiation.  They affect many life choices- in particular intimate relationship decisions that often repeat distressing childhood and family conflicts.  While they may be the presenting issue to work through, also "They may alert the therapist to problematic ways in which negative projective identification can interfere with the couple's ability to relate openly to the real other" (Jenkins, 2006, page 119).  In other words, the problems to resolve are often also clear indicators of the origins of problems and direct potential therapeutic attention.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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