rottonara.Pixabay
Source: rottonara.Pixabay

Last week I described motivations of people who can, consciously or unconsciously, pose threats to a romantic love relationship. Some motivations are meant to protect self-esteem: a desire to feel "special”, or wanted, or important, or to compare favorably to others. Others are emotion-based, driven by frustration or fear, often evolving into anger. They can reflect dependency, jealousy, loneliness, disapproval, a desire for more or less intimacy, fear of loss, distorted perception or misattribution. Today I look at destructive third-party behaviors that may result from these impulses. I will address ways to deal with them next week.

Behaviors that are toxic to a relationship operate through their consequences. They can undermine the integrity of the couple, create conflict between the partners, or derail one member of the couple. 

Undermining the integrity of the couple.

  • Seducing. How resilient is your couple when someone flirts with your partner? Or offers (more) attractive benefits like tickets to a game or a show? A gorgeous sweater that is beyond your means? An introduction to the employer of your dreams?
  • Being passive-aggressive.  A third-party may manipulate the couple (or one of its members) to feel and express anger that the third-party is denying as their own. He or she might withdraw, be unavailable, not participate, be late, take up too much space or time but not acknowledge that reality, deny that problems with either member of the couple (or the dyad itself) exist. Look for broken dates, chronic tardiness, failure to return calls or messages, sarcastic remarks, sometimes positioned as “teasing”, and pretending that things are not as they are.
  • Creating doubt. When a third-party repeatedly questions someone in a way that causes them to doubt decisions or plans that they have made with their partner, havoc in the couple can ensue. The partners were clear about where they wanted to live, what careers they were going to pursue, who they wanted to invite for a holiday dinner, how they wanted to raise children. Seemingly innocent questions can push them to revisit their agreements with each other, creating insecurity and conflict.
  • Interfering. A step beyond creating doubt is outright interference. Think of the parent who rearranges the living room without being asked, refuses to respect your request that they not give children caffeinated soda, or insists that you include “Aunt Nina” every Thanksgiving, even though Aunt Nina refuses to speak to your spouse.
  • Competing. Some people cannot resist always going you “one better”. When you begin to describe your vacation, they launch into details of theirs. When you suggest a restaurant that you like (and can afford), they up the ante. When you are proud of the meal you have just served them, they describe how their dinner parties were written up in a gourmet magazine. You get the idea. And of course their kids go to an Ivy League school and yours don’t.
Olichel/Pixabay
Source: Olichel/Pixabay

Creating conflict. Some third parties cannot resist creating conflict, either overtly or through more subtle processes. They can get partners arguing over what is happening and what to do about it, or push them into struggles with other people. All methods lead to unnecessary disharmony in the couple; they are toxic. 

  • Forming triangles. One of the most lethal behaviors in a third-party’s arsenal is colluding with one partner in the couple and excluding the other. In one version, the third party can’t wait to get one member of the couple away from the other so that they can share a secret, sometimes involving judging yet another person and sometimes criticizing the absent member of the couple. The partner who is included, sometimes flattered by the invitation to what may seem like intimacy, is manipulated into forming a bond that by definition leaves out his or her loved one. In another version, the partner remains present and is ignored while an engrossing private conversation between their loved one and the third-party takes place in front of him or her. When a third-party relives memories of events shared with only one member of the couple, beware! The present is being obliterated!
  • Generating crises. Some third-parties assert their importance by forever being in a crisis that invites (or sometimes requires?) the attention of one partner or the couple. These crises can create discord between the partners as they flail around trying to rearrange schedules, priorities, assignments, and deplete one or both partners as they scramble to reallocate resources.
  • Exercising authority. Sometimes authority is expressed directly, by a demand. A third-party may occasionally pull rank, intervening in a couple’s tranquility by insisting on longer hours at the office, more frequent visits, stricter adherence to a fitness routine. Sometimes it is expressed more subtly, like when the shrew wearing a velvet glove on her iron claw orchestrates a seating plan you object to or the jovial good-times host urges an unnecessary additional drink or dessert on your partner who is practicing moderation. 
  • Draining resources. Christine Lavan and the Four Bitchin' Babes sing about “Energy Vampires”. A third party who practices theft of energy and attention can create great conflict in a usually loving couple. Similarly, one who demands more time or material wealth than can be comfortably given away, can leave one partner — or both — scrambling to keep themselves and their relationship intact.

Derailing one partner in the couple. The third consequence that can be toxic to a couple stems from behaviors that destabilize one of the partners.

  • Distracting and disrupting. A simple interruption that may appear innocuous to some people can be highly distracting and disruptive to others. When one partner in a couple does not switch gears easily, third-party behaviors that redirect attention can create chaos in that partner’s internal organization and ability to focus. Anger can result and become a couple issue.
  • Annoying — becoming rigid or clingy or demanding or, the seeming opposite,  unnecessarily helpful. Phone calls or texts just keep coming: “Just staying in touch,” he or she might say. The third party becomes a fly who just won’t go away. No matter how pleasant in demeanor and intending only to help, he or she can create a great deal of annoyance to a person in the couple who did not sign on to deal with someone with a temperament (or personality) that is intrusive or inflexible.
  • Stealing time and attention needed for self-care. When a third-party commandeers — through whatever means — time and energy needed for self-care, the affected person can become unable to function smoothly as an individual and especially as a partner in a couple. Before we can effectively love someone else, we need to be able to take care of ourselves through our own self-care. Self-love is essential. Beware the third-party who holds you hostage as they tell story after story that is trivial or irrelevant, subtly puts you down, or, perhaps worse, puts you to sleep.
  • Being incoherent. A third-party can use a challenging communication style: leaving out essential details, making assumptions, being hard to follow, digressing. The one who has difficulty following or understanding what is being expressed can become frustrated, angry, or even frightened that something is wrong. Implications for the couple are evident.
  • Enabling. Twelve-step programs talk a lot about a person who “enables” — engages in behaviors that allow a person to avoid confronting consequences of his or her addiction or encourage them to engage in the self-destructive behavior. When a third-party enables a member of a couple who is working to revise a behavior that is destructive to that person or to the couple itself, damage is being done.

External threats to a couple can come from many sources and from varied motivations. I have listed behaviors that result from various motivations and threaten the integrity of the couple itself, others that create conflict within the couple or one of its members, and still more that derail a partner and thus cause harm.  Next week I will examine ways to deal with  these external threats. 

Were there times when you felt your couple was threatened by a third-party? Can you identify one of their behaviors that caused problems? How did you and your partner react to the behavior? Were you in agreement about what happened, or did you see the actual events differently? What happened to your couple after the incident? 

Copyright 2017 Roni Beth Tower

Visit me at www.miracleatmidlife.com

You are reading

Life, Refracted

52 Ways to Show I Love You: Receive Graciously

Childhood experiences and current emotions can interfere with accepting love.

52 Ways to Show I Love You: Provide Pleasure

Giving a loved one gifts requiring time, energy, or monetary value shows love.

52 Ways: Learn How to Deal with People Toxic to Your Couple

Here are ways to respond with love when a third-party threatens your couple.