Triangulation and addiction

In my last blog, I introduced the idea of triangulation and how that shows up in the story of Cain and Abel, which remains relevant to our relationships today. Rabbi and family therapist Edwin Friedman expands on the idea of triangulation:

The basic law of emotional triangles is that when any two parts of a system become uncomfortable with one another, they [one or both] will “triangle in” or focus upon a third person, or issue, as a way of stabilizing their own relationship with one another. A person may be said to be “triangled” if he or she gets caught in the middle as the focus of such an unresolved issue. Conversely, when individuals try to change the relationship of two others (two people, or a person and his or her symptom or belief), they “triangle” themselves into that relationship (and often stabilize the very situation they are trying to change). (Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, 35-36.)

Triangulation doesn’t occur simply by having three-party, or triangular, relationship. From the perspective of Genesis 2, every marriage is triangular because every marriage has three parties, a man, a woman, and God who brings them together, but this doesn’t mean that every marriage is triangulated. Indeed, because the triangle is the most stable geometric form, humans tend to relate to each other in a network of triangles: mother, father, child; husband, wife, in-law(s); two friends and a noble cause; members, rabbi, and a shared vision or problem or dogma. The surest and most stable triangle is two individuals and God, as in the primal marriage of Genesis 2. But people find God to be too scary or too pure and often substitute some other third side to the triangle.

Triangulation happens when issues between two parties are projected on to the third, or when a third is brought in, or steps in, to protect or control one of the two parties. Again, Genesis 2 sheds light on this issue: “For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife.” The one-flesh union of man and woman requires a de-triangulation from father and mother, and in-law problems can often be understood in terms of triangulation. A mother still sees herself as mother to her daughter, and therefore in some measure of competition with the son-in-law. Or a wife feels overwhelmed in her new role and underappreciated by her husband, and draws her mother or father in as an ally against him. I can cite plenty of additional examples, but the underlying appeal, and threat, of triangulation is that it allows one to redirect energy away from a difficult relationship to one that seems more manageable.

Rabbi Friedman’s last sentence in the quote above provides some insight into addiction, which is a rampant malady today, comprising not only alcohol and drugs, but activities like online pornography (linked with masturbation), video gaming, out-of-control shopping, gambling, etc. Stabilizing “the very situation” that you’re trying to change is common in families dealing with addiction of whatever sort. The sober parent or spouse triangles into the relationship between the addict and his or her drug of choice by condemning the drug or the druggie or both—thereby driving them closer together. The classic excuse of the alcoholic, “I drink to get away from my nagging wife [or parents or boss],” just gets stronger. The drug becomes the third member of a stable, or stuck, triangle. Indeed, this triangulation might be the defining feature of addiction, that which distinguishes addiction to a drug or activity from simple use or overindulgence.

It seems to provide a measure of control over a scary or unsatisfying relationship. Addiction happens when the drug or activity becomes a third side of the triangle, a friend and ally to the user, who in the end only makes the problems worse. So, how does a friend or family member relate to the addict in ways that might help, rather than reinforcing the addiction? I’ll modify the application points from my last blog, based on the story of Cain and Abel:

  1. Keep lines of communication open. Cain is not favored, but he’s also not rejected. God doesn’t give him the silent treatment for his distress and his fallen face, but keeps him in dialogue, even after he kills Abel. This doesn’t mean we’re obligated to remain in dialogue with a murderer, but it does mean that we can keep the doors of communication open with the lesser offenders in our lives, including the addict.
  2. Stay calm. One of the most powerful antidotes to unhealthy triangulation is simply to remain present and engaged without reacting or escalating the situation. Don’t walk away and don’t react.
  3. Articulate options. Cain, despite his distress and anger, still has a choice, as the Lord reminds him:
    “If you do right,
    There is uplift.
    But if you do not do right
    Sin couches at the door.”
    Likewise, we can’t make the addict seek help or stop using, but we can (calmly) remind him or her what the real choices are, and take care that we’re not protecting him from the consequences.
  4. Let the addict be responsible for his choices. God exhorts, but doesn’t manipulate. As the one who gave humans free will, the Lord respects their freedom to make even the wrong choice, and we need to as well. Don’t take on responsibility that really belongs to another, and don’t neglect the responsibility that belongs to you.

It’s never easy being the friend or family or loved one of an addict, but we can learn some responses that at least make it livable, and that allow us to cultivate hope.

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