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Relationship Triangles

My mom bought a card for me to give to my aunt for her birthday and has been nagging reminding me to mail it. She says she wants to make my aunt feel good/special on her birthday and it’s very important, etc. etc. etc.

Which is all well and good. I get where she’s coming from. But I’m an adult now; I need to have adult relationships with my family members. I wasn’t thinking of getting my aunt a card, to be honest – I just planned to write “happy birthday” on her Facebook. However that might have made influenced her to feel is – or at least should be – between my aunt and me. But with my family, that’s not always the case…

I’ve noticed a pattern with how my mother and I relate, and I’ve finally figured out a concrete way to express it. In the image below, “Aunt A” could really be replaced with just about anyone, including my husband.

relationship triangle

ways of relating with my mom and a third person

The first (left) triangle simply illustrates that there are 3 people involved. Notice that Mom and I are closer to each other than to whomever the third person happens to be. This represents our enmeshment.

The second (middle) triangle shows what healthy relationships would look like. I have a 2-way relationship with my mom, independent of the third person. Mom and I each have a 2-way relationship with the third person, independent of each other. This is what I want, what seems most natural and logical to me, what I tend to see happening regardless of what the reality may be.

The third (right) triangle shows what’s been happening; I’ve noticed it in this case and when she nags encourages me to remind/help/coerce Fox (my husband) to do certain things. She has the healthy 2-way relationship with the third person (blue line), whether she chooses to use it or not. (She uses it with Aunt A – her sister – but I think she tends to ignore it when dealing with Fox.) And she uses me to influence the third person. I represent this in the image with a line that literally covers most of the word “Me,” making me invisible. The line is a shade of green that I consider repulsive, to demonstrate that this way of relating is unhealthy.

the third relationship triangle by itself

the third relationship triangle by itself

I didn’t draw the line representing my healthy 2-way relationship with Aunt A in the third triangle. If I had, then Mom’s green line would be obscuring that, too. She’s not just extending her power in her relationships by using me – she’s also controlling my relationships. I think this is the more important point – at least for me.

I’ve tried talking to her about it. I set a boundary by telling her that if she has an issue with Fox, then she should talk to him about it and not me. I told her that I would rather pick out my own card to send Aunt A for her birthday. I even told her I felt like I was being controlled.

But I’m not sure how to get to the root of what’s going on, except perhaps to show her this post. The boundary I truly need to set goes so much deeper than birthday cards or even in-person conversations about important things that Fox should be doing on his own without reminders from Mom or me. It has to do with me as a separate person, me with my own relationships. It’s saying she can’t use me as a way of relating to or influencing other people. She has to rely on her own (abundant) resources. She has to be honest with them.

And it’s taking responsibility for my own relationships. I get a lot of my family news from her (e.g. “How’s my godmother doing?”) and rely on her to convey messages (e.g. “Tell her I love her.”). I need to communicate directly with people I care about. I know that; it’s a work-in-progress.

But at least I’m honest about it. I don’t put her in the position of having to pretend she’s not conveying a message from me.

To be fair, I guess the most accurate relationship triangle with my mom and a third person would look something like this:

a more accurate relationship triangle with Mom and another person

a more accurate relationship triangle with Mom and a third person

That’s a lot of a repulsive shade of green being pointed at someone Mom and I both care about! It’s obscuring both Mom and me and hurting all our relationships – especially our relationship to each other (double whammy!). That’s not okay.

But now I can see it, and that’s the first step toward doing something about it. This is one of the many resources I’ve gained from therapy.

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2 thoughts on “Relationship Triangles

  1. Being able to describe the problem clearly is halfway to solving it. The challenge is that you may not be able to change your mom’s behaviour, but you can at least model better relationships with your own behaviour. Lots of wisdom in this post.

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