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, which 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 between "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.
What are a third party’s motivations that challenge a couple?
1. A potential threat to self-esteem — Some people define their own worthiness by the 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. These are four of the most common pathways by which self-esteem may feel threatened:
2. 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:
Loneliness — Any number of factors can contribute to loneliness. Those influences can be disconnected from other people — for example, weather, hearing loss, or 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 their 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 and interaction.
3. 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.
4. Those who distort — Perhaps a third party projects problems they 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 will describe behaviors that can result from these motivations, and the following week, I 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
Visit me at www.miracleatmidlife.com
Simpson, J.A. & Rholes, W.S. (Eds.) (1998). Attachment Theory and Close Relationships. New York: Guilford
Wood, J. V. (1989). Theory and research concerning social comparisons of personal attributes. Psychological Bulletin, 106(2), 231-248. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.106.2.231