This series, “52 Ways to Show I Love You”, has been filled with techniques, musings, reflections, and possibilities for two people who love each other to show it more effectively. Only one post, Expand the Circle, focused specifically on the importance that other people play in a romantic love relationship.
Couple relationships that include other people are necessary for its survival, but they can also pose threats to the love relationship itself. This week I review some conscious or unconscious motives that others may have that can render them anywhere from annoying to toxic. Different motives can result in the same behavior, or a single motive can be expressed through many different behaviors. If it is conscious, it can become an intention. Although there are important distinctions among “what happened”, “why” and “how”, a couple in harm’s way can pretty easily agree when a problematic behavior is coming from someone else. They are more likely to deal with it effectively when they understand the motive that propels it.
In the interest of clarity, I will call the disruptive person the “third person” and the couple struggling to maintain their loving relationship, “the couple” or “the partners”. A third-party’s role in a couple’s life — e.g., friend, child, sibling, in-law, coworker —may or may not be relevant. Motives and intentions are more important, cutting across roles that people play in each other’s lives, providing a different lens through which toxic interactions can be viewed.
As we move into the intensely social winter holiday period from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, how can we better identify potentially toxic influences and prevent them from damaging a relationship? This week I describe motivations that can become problematic. Next week I explore damaging behaviors that can result from them. The following week I propose some constructive responses.
What are a third party’s motivations that challenge a couple?
- A potential threat to self-esteem. Some people define their own worthiness by ways in which they experience their relationships to others. When one of those others is a member of a couple — or the couple itself is the reference point for self-esteem — and the dynamics between the couple or one of its members) and the third-party feel threatened by the inevitability of change, the third-party may become fearful. Four of the most common pathways by which self-esteem may feel threatened are:
- A need to feel “special”. In this scenario, the third-party derives their sense of value from how he or she is treated. Does he or she receive special privileges? Attention? Resources? Are his or her unique needs addressed, whether those needs are related to something as specific as a special diet (when invited to dinner) or as global as wanting to be seated next to the loved one or listed first in a group email?
- A need to feel wanted. In this instance, a person depends on loved ones for reassurance that they are lovable. An internal entitlement to be alive in this world has been damaged, and the person searches the people who surround him or her for confirmation that he or she is included and wanted.
- A need to feel important. Basing one’s self-esteem on external reflections can pose two dilemmas. First, some third-parties may rely on feeling “helpful” to others for their self-esteem. They risk prolonging — or enabling or promoting — dependency in the people they love. That unnecessary dependency in adults can have negative consequences on their relationships. For example, when one partner in a romantic couple regularly turns to a third-party for help or advise or support, the other partner may feel that the couple relationship itself is no longer safe. Second, the search for feelings of importance can become focused on confirmation from external markers of “value”, such as money (how much did you spend on my gift?) or time (how much of your free time will you spend with me?) or energy (how willing are you to disrupt your own life to pay attention to mine?) The first dynamic, creating dependency, asks someone to sacrifice their own competence and the second, providing displays of importance, asks them to allocate more resources than they should. Compliance with either such third-party demand can challenge a couple’s relationship.
- A compulsion to compare. Social comparison theory argues that a major portion of our identity is drawn from conclusions we form when we compare ourselves to others. A recent update on this process looks at the potentially devastating consequences of social media impact as people distort who they present themselves to be and others then see their own lives as lacking. Those who are closest to us can offer the most powerful standards to measure ourselves against. Is my sibling happier than I am? More loved? Am I doing better in my marriage at my age than my mother did? Potential competition and damage to relationships is obvious.
- Frustration, anger, fear and guilt. When a third-party becomes frustrated (or angry or fearful or guilty) in obtaining what they want from a person who is in a couple relationship or from the couple itself, they can experience emotions that lead to disruptive behaviors. Some common sources of such frustrations are:
- Their own dependency. When the third-party has not developed the necessary resources to take care of himself or herself, they may rely on others in ways that are inappropriate (the other cannot fill the needs), excessive (no amount is ever enough), or demanding (they insist on their own timetable which may not be feasible). When the target (an individual in the couple or the couple itself) does not comply, anger — expressed directly or passive-aggressively — can result.
- Jealousy and envy. When a third-party’s own needs are not being met and they see someone else receiving what they believe they want or need or deserve, jealousy or envy can result and lead to anger. A better response to those emotions would be gratitude. By recognizing that jealousy and envy send a valid message, (a person has an unmet need that they see as being met in someone else) one can accept responsibility for acknowledging and meeting the unmet needs. He or she can find a creative solution, and get on with living life. But unless this emotion is processed, frustration and anger can lead the third-party to behaviors that harm the (perhaps idealized) couple.
Loneliness. Any number of factors can contribute to loneliness. Those influences can be disconnected from other people — for example, weather, hearing loss, lack of transportation. But they can also reflect conditions or changes in actual relationships. The lonely third-party may be over-invested in a single connection, perhaps distorting perception of its qualities and refusing to admit or even recognize that the relationship is not — or is no longer — “good enough”. If one or both of the people in the couple are seen as responsible for a change that increases loneliness, a sense of betrayal can result. Recent research documents the negative spiral that loneliness can have on health and well-being. These consequences can amplify disappointment and anger towards the loved one in the couple or the couple itself when they are not available for the desired amount of companionship or interaction.
- Disapproval. Sometimes a person has a fixed idea of what is acceptable and may disapprove of others who do not follow the same rules, agree with the same beliefs and values, or want the same things out of life. The third-party may feel frustrated (and then angry) that the world disappoints their vision of how life ought to be lived. When they see a couple — or someone with whom they have had a relationship and who becomes part of a couple — embracing new priorities, disapproval can escalate into anger.
- A desire for more closeness or distance. Attachment theory and studies in adult attachment have documented that different people are comfortable with different levels of closeness and unconsciously engage in strategies to maintain what is familiar. A third party who prefers distance can reject a couple’s offers of inclusion, leaving the couple to feel rejected, perhaps leaving each partner to wonder what went wrong. If the third party wants more closeness than the couple is comfortable offering, that person’s unconscious desire can leave them craving intimate contact and feeling angry and frustrated that the couple — or one partner in it — is unwilling or unable to provide it.
- Those that fear loss. Sometimes the trigger of anger is not any of the above, but rather a third party’s awareness that any relationship potentially involves loss. People make geographical moves, become ill, even die, or otherwise become unavailable. Third-parties who have had unresolved losses in their own lives may be primed to fear another loss. Perhaps they worry they will not be able to cope. Perhaps they are unable to deal with what they perceive as a loss because the nature of the interaction changed. Perhaps they fear that access to communal memories and the intimacy they have shared will be cut off. Third-party fears of abandonment or anger at impermanence can be toxic to others.
- Those who distort. Perhaps a third-party projects problems he or she had in another relationship onto your couple. Sometimes analysts call this “transference” or “projection”. They imagine that you experience what they had experienced and feel eager to either rescue you from their own fate or to watch you suffer the same consequences. These misperceptions, in which reality seems to float, can wreak havoc with sane interactions.
Today I reviewed common motives of third parties whose behavior can threaten a couple who share a love relationship. I focused on concerns about their own self-esteem and on emotions (especially frustration, anger, fear, guilt) as forces that can motivate behavior, consciously or unconsciously. Next week I describe behaviors that can result from these motivations and, the following week, will offer suggestions of ways in which they can be addressed.
Have you ever felt that your love relationship was being threatened by a third person? Were you able to identify why that person felt so threatening to you? Did your awareness of their motivation help you clarify how you might approach the situation? Did you identify and examine the third-party’s motives alone or in collaboration with your partner?
Copyright 2017 Roni Beth Tower
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