Triangular Communication: a Common Problem in Dysfunctional Familes

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Dysfunction doesn't end with quitting drinking.

My just-out-of-high-school nephew asked, "Do you remember when family liked having you around?"  So . . . this one's for you, you little red-headed stepchild.

I personally feel that many of us get trapped into family systems that are dysfunctional and stuck in problems from the past. In my case, I have written articles that briefly described alcoholism as well as other problems that I have had to face in my life, but my dysfunctional family system has perpetuated itself into yet another generation. Please understand that the alcoholic as well as the other half of that equation (called the enabler in classic studies of dysfunction) in my life have been deceased since 1986 and 2004, respectfully.

However, it has been my observation that many people raised in the second and third generations of dysfunction never move beyond what they were taught as children; in other words, the problems endure even into adulthood; particularly in the areas of communication, healthy relationships and personal self-esteem.

Growing up and leaving home are hard enough, but for people raised in dysfunctional family situations, the pain imposed can cause some to get stuck in communication ruts, so to speak. There really is no mystery in this fact, since dysfunctional communication seems to demand compliance.

Dysfunctional families are taught to communicate through triangulation. "Tell your father that dinner's ready!" was a common command when I was a child. The really hilarious part about this command for me was that my father was in the same room, and to the best of my knowledge, there was not anything wrong with his hearing. In my case, I found it best to not even participate in triangular communication in adulthood.

In triangular communication, there is no free speech because the opportunity to discuss the problem never happens or is not tolerated. Usually the person who is angry or upset is (in all actuality) frightened to communicate directly with you. In other words, communication occurs in a triangle, with one person within the family basically demanding you to comply through the use of manipulation in communication. In school or work, this type of communication has another translation:  gossip, but for some reason, we never really see this as maliciousness in our families.

The negative message comes to you second hand, leaving you no way to deal with the conflict that has arisen. This type of communication is also heavily loaded with guilt and shame, and that is the most damaging part of this dysfunctional communication trap, because it scars the psyche. It appears to be the way a lot of parents might think they are keeping their child in line, but the truth is that we all grow up! The do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do style will cause problems within any relationship. At some point, everyone speaks their own mind; this is usually the conflict that arises during the teenage years between parents and young adults--call it the generation gap "attitude" if you want, but every parent and child experience this rift. As we grow older, learn more about the real world and become responsible adults, communication changes between parents and their children, at least this is the way that the relationship is supposed to work.

Some adult children get stuck in the need for their parents' approval in a dysfunctional system. Conflicts do arise in triangular situations, and that is one of the hardest lessons for a young adult struggling with his/her own identity to learn. At some point, a person must forge their own sense of morals and values, and choose to not participate in a triangular situation. If you are in this type of communication trap, never expect that this will not upset the powers that be. I would recommend reading a book by Melanie Beatty titled Boundaries. She teaches in depth how to set healthy boundaries, find support to help reinforce your decisions and encouragement on how to stay positive in the face of negative situations.

I’m not advocating that you stop talking to your family, but always stand your ground. If you do not want to call your sister for your mother or father, for example, remember that it does not mean that you are a bad person. Every human being has a god-given the right to say no!

Self-esteem is another area that adult children raised in dysfunctional homes struggle with, sometimes all of their lives if the person never makes the commitment to self-improvement. Sadly, people hold their emotions in, keep score of wrongs done or perceivably done to them, and never learn how to communicate to one another; and if you start the walk with low self-esteem-it's like a cement block tied around the neck!

Propagating itself for generations, this can cause adult children to be co-dependant in their own relationships. Many people stumble through life trying to please other people instead of being true to themselves and their own future. In a truly healthy marriage, partners support and celebrate each other's accomplishments-in all areas of each other's lives. Think of your own relationship for a moment. If your spouse or significant other were to suddenly start putting you down in an attempt to control what you do for a living, how would you react? You might try to understand the criticism for a while, but if you have healthy self-esteem, eventually you will turn away from a nagging, controlling partner. If you operate from the position, "I have to be good and please everyone else," you will most likely end up an unhappy person. However, a person with low self-esteem will give up some of him/her self, give in to the demands of the other person--be it a spouse, parent or employer. Everyone has something to offer, and if you feel that you do not--well, perhaps continuing to work on your own self-esteem is something you need to investigate further for yourself. There are multitudes of resources today both online and off to find literature and support groups if standing up for yourself is a result of low self-esteem, but if you are in some sort of domestic-violence crisis, please remember that getting help needs to be the first step. If you are in such a position, there are resources in every community to help, and there is always help at the domestic-crisis lines.