Saturday, August 7, 2010

Try Never to Triangulate

Triangles are great for geometry, but they are not healthy for relationships. When I work with couples and families, I often map out the communication patterns. Going direct to the person you have a concern about is generally much more constructive than telling a third person. It requires integrity, emotional bravery, and honesty to do so.

Let's pretend you are married, and you have a complaint about your partner, and how they are treating you. You could choose to discuss that gripe with a friend, your coworker, the children, your former partner, your sibling, or your mother. These are not the best choices from a therapist's perspective. It would TRIANGULATE a third person into a relationship that should be a two-person relationship dyad. A marriage relationship is a sacred trust, and you violate that when one of you "invites" someone else into that trust. Also, rarely do people present a balanced view of what they themselves are contributing to the conflict when talking to an outsider. It is tempting and easy to make yourself the good guy and your spouse the bad guy. The truth is probably in between, with both you and your partner contributing when there is dissatisfaction.

In all relationships, we do communication dances. If we change our dancesteps, it can create pressure for the other person to change their dancesteps also. When you
are not at ease with someone who matters to you, I encourage you to schedule some quiet, uninterrupted time to talk with them and get their perspective. An attitude of curiosity about yourself and the other person is very helpful here. Don't approach the other person from a superior or know-it-all position. Instead, try to express your concern and ask for their perspective. Surprises are not good in this part of a relationship, so meet to discuss changes that are needed only by appointment with each other. No surprise attacks as your partner heads off to work in the morning!

Direct communication feels better. It feels terrible to hear someone close to you is badmouthing you behind your back, and this is a wimpy and ineffective approach. Only the other person you are in a relationship with shares the power with you to make things better between you.

If you need coaching on how to become a more courageous and positively assertive person, see a therapist. A good therapist can help you understand your communication style, how your family communicated when you were growing up, and better ways to do it now. A competent therapist can help balance your view, and take responsibility for your part of the communication dance. In healthy relationships, we recognize everyone contributes to what is being experienced. There often isn't a bad guy.

Direct communication works well in parenting, too. When there are changes in the family, we need to be able to say the truth to children and teens,at age-appropriate levels, about what is happening, and how it might impact them. This could be true about talking about a vacation, a move, a parents' job loss,expectations with school starting,illness,or family changes like a separation or divorce. Children and teens feel worse when they sense impending changes but noone is talking about the elephant in the room.

It is also important to be direct with positive communication, like appreciating the good things another person brings to a relationship. Buckets of tears have been shed in my counseling office over the past 20 years by children, teens, and adults who are in close relationships with people who are so broken that they can't say 'I love you' or share what they appreciate about the other person. Like we are supposed to mindread? Expressing directly what you LIKE about the other person and APPRECIATE about their behavior is powerful. Why would you deny yourself this connection?

When in doubt in your relationships this week, find a way to go direct. Your relationships will get stronger, and you will like yourself better. Your relationships can only be as healthy as you are. Your relationship skills dictate the quality of what you experience. Truly, as scientist and writer Jon Kabot Zinn,Ph.D, titled his book on mindfulness, "Wherever you go, there you are". Let's leave triangles to geometry class. To build great relationships, let's be grown-up, courageous, and direct.

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