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Roadblocks to Intimacy & Trust IV: Emotional Triangles

Often seductive to the person fought over, triangles also result in great pain.

Note to reader: As a licensed psychologist, I strictly adhere to the ethics of confidentiality; therefore, I do not use/make reference to any patient/client information in the pieces I write. The only data I use to explore these psychological issues is my own. The Roadblocks to Intimacy & Trust Series will include several pieces related to the effects of early relationships on the development of trust and intimacy.

The effects of having an ambivalent mother and passive father resulted in lifelong trust and intimacy problems for me and my siblings, and our mother’s demand for devotion often resulted in emotional triangles. She insinuated herself into virtually every relationship we had. The most painful of these centered on my sister—the oldest of the four of us – my sister and Dad, she and her friends and she and her husband. And our mother’s competition with all.

Sadly, C felt that Mom didn’t love her. Rather than a lack of love, I believe it was Mom’s possessiveness that fueled her rejection of C—she simply had to come first. Always quick to attack, she was envious of my sister’s close relationship with our father, and Dad’s closeness to her. Because he had a special nickname for her and was attentive to her (and her of him), Mom often felt abandoned by both of them. Mom also deeply resented C’s friends (as she did mine). She had no friends of her own and didn’t like any of ours. She didn't trust them. Why did we? They weren’t worthy of us. She knew what we deserved, and she never met anyone who ever came close.

As a young girl, C had an active and successful social life. In fact, of the four of us, she and S had the most normal teenage years. They hung out with a crowd. They, at times, preferred friends to family; they smoked, listened to rock and roll music, liked the opposite sex and had the usual secrets that teenagers do from parents. But rather than viewing these as signs of a successful transition from childhood to adulthood, Mom read them as a rejection of her. When C preferred to shop for her own clothes or with friends, Mom saw that as a betrayal. Sadly for both of them, Mom took on every outside interest or friend of C’s as an opponent and as proof that C preferred them over her. That hurt both of them. I don’t think that Mom ever forgave C for not choosing her for all activities, and C never got over the fact that Mom seemed to love her less than she loved me and our brothers—especially me.

You were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, C always complained. That meant I had Mom. And in a sense she was right. I put no one before Mom when I was a kid and well into adulthood. She had more control over me and was able to mold me in ways that she couldn’t with C. I did what she wanted me to do, became who she wanted me to be. I was the abnormal one—socially uncomfortable except for my lack-luster girlfriends and terrified to do anything that would disappoint Mom or Dad or would smack of sin. C and S, my two older sibs were just average kids doing their share of breaking away but still staying close to home and family. But their very natural and age-appropriate assertions of identity and independence were violations of trust and abandonment for Mom.

Not unlike all of our siblings, C’s confidence was very low. Convinced she wasn’t smart, she didn’t want to be noticed and had a hard time expressing herself among all the big mouths at our dinner table. Unlike the rest of us, she wasn’t aggressive so she was often shouted over. Eventually, she just stopped trying to talk. Like Dad, she kept what she felt private and never developed the ability to stand up for herself. (Sadly, trust in oneself was never encouraged in our family). Her dilemma intensified when she decided not to go to college and chose instead to study business (which she excelled at), but she never got over her feelings of inferiority – especially with our younger brother, J and me. Not only were we louder and more aggressive than she was but we both went to college and that elevated us even more in Mom’s eyes and intensified as he and I went on to get advanced degrees. To this day, C believes that we’re more intelligent than she is because we’re better educated. To Mom and therefore to C, education equaled/equals intelligence.

Regrettably, friendship never came easy for C and me. Though we tried as adults, we kept missing each other—always one step ahead or behind the other. When she was ready, I wasn’t; when I was, she wasn’t. At a certain point, we lost contact completely. Her belief that I was Mom’s favorite and Mom’s seeming preference for me and the boys, carried over from childhood, made it impossible to be friends. Anger, particularly repressed, has always been a cancer in our family, so it backed up in each of us and spoiled whole casks of our lives.

Though we did eventually reconnect and started having weekly lunches, we continued to struggle--particularly about my relationship with our younger brother, J, and his wife—a triangle which never included her.

Have you heard the latest from our wonderful family? C asks. My stomach sinks. I don’t want to have this conversation.

“What do you mean?”

Mom called and yelled at me for not calling J to remind him to pick her and Dad up at the airport Saturday. He forgets and she blames me! Typical.

“That’s Mom. She can’t get angry with J. He’ll turn her off completely. She gives you the hardest time of all of us, C.”

I know. Do you hear much from J?

“No. I keep telling you that but you don’t seem to believe me.”

Well, you’re his favorite. You must hear from him. Mom keeps telling me to call him. You too. I’m tired of calling you guys. All I hear from Mom is how great you two are. I’m the one who does everything and you two are the heroes. I guess because you’re the educated ones.

Clearly, C was resentful. How could she not be? As an adult, she was a completely devoted daughter—by the time she was in her early twenties, she was telling Mom everything, calling her every day from work and handling all of my parents’ day to day business and financial concerns. Ironically, Mom finally had what she had always craved—C’s preference for her company over any other. Mom was C’s best friend (but she was still quick to criticize her—or tear down anyone new who entered C's life), and she was more sure of C than she was of the rest of us. At a certain point in our lives, each of us began to stand up to her, and she knew that there’d be repercussions with me and the boys if she gave us a hard time. But C, so like Dad, seldom ever spoke back to her, and Mom took advantage of that.

Fiercely loyal, C did the same thing with her second husband. After her first marriage broke up, she had custody of her young son and remarried a few years later. Though I believe he loved her, her new husband was very openly critical of her, her friends and family. Particularly Mom. How like her he was, both so quick to tell C what a disappointment she was, how she chose everyone else over them. It was uncanny how they duplicated each other. I used to dread being in a room with the two of them—C’s husband and Mom competing to be right all the time. They fought over everything—each committed to being the one that C listened to—neither of them tolerating anyone else having greater influence over her than they did.

(On the surface one might say that it was a great coincidence that C chose her husband. How unlikely that she'd choose one so like Mom. On the contrary, the defense mechanism, repetition compulsion results in our unconscious drive to repeat the relationship with the parent (usually the mother) in subsequent love relationships. Hence C's choice of someone equally narcissistic who treat her just as Mom did. Though it might seem that this is an unusual occurrence; it's relatively common in people who've had multiple failed marriages or serious commitments--on further examination (usually in therapy) they often find that they are choosing virtually the same person-- thus the same results. Likewise, one often finds a similar profile in people who can't keep a job or have problems with authority figures--their repetitive behavior (they keep walking into the same wall) must be explored in depth before they can break the cycle).

The family triangle! It seemed that our family was/is always constructing, or if not constructing, then caught in emotional triangles, and everyone I can think of was instigated by Mom and later C's husband. But triangles can be seductive. Though very stressful, they can offer the one fought over great affirmation and for us there were great wells of longing that needed filling, and certainly two loved ones fighting for one’s attention goes a distance in filling those wells (at least temporarily). I don't know if that was true for C. I know the battling caused her heartache. Eventually, her husband became ill with breathing and heart problems and hence needier and more resentful of C’s relationships with friends and family. No, they wouldn’t be coming for Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving...It was clear that C would never leave him—like she would never leave Mom—especially after he got sick. She finally retired and a few months later, he died following a fairly simple surgical procedure. This was one year after Mom died.

I’m convinced that C’s husband’s and Mom’s deaths were C’s liberation. With both gone, there is no one there to criticize or undermine her. No one to defend herself against or to compete for her devotion. There are no emotional triangles. While Dad was alive, she continued to handle his business needs for which he was enormously grateful. For the first time in their lives, their devotion to each other stirred only pleasure in those around them. And very importantly for both of us, she and I have again rekindled our friendship which we watch over carefully – requiring honesty and directness from ourselves and each other. Of the four siblings, ours is the only relationship to have survived our past. Having no framework from childhood for closeness to fall back on, we have to invent as we go. We still struggle; we are who we are, and we know it. We’re trying to accept it.


Unlike my relationship with C, my younger brother, J and I were close friends until well into adulthood. Joan is me in ‘drag’, he often said describing me to people who hadn’t met me. Like that between S and C, the bond that held us in childhood flourished in adulthood. The family caretakers, we took care of each other and together we took care of everyone else. And the affection was reciprocal. J always said I was his real mother; I took care of him as a child and continued to do so as he grew. I encouraged him to go to college, but like all of our siblings, he questioned his intelligence, so I countered with how smart I knew he was. Just as years later I followed him to NYU for graduate school, he followed me to St. John’s for undergraduate school and there we shared many of the same friends. We shared everything. We protected each other. We were the team that we were as kids.

Just as in childhood his friendship saved me from utter loneliness and muted (as much as was possible!) the bite of S’s rage, in adulthood, J soothed me through the pain of a failed marriage. He and his wife willingly shared their two sons with me and included me in family vacations and all holidays. He also set about convincing me to go back to school to get my doctorate; he prescribed the same program at NYU, a joint practice (he was already on his way to his Ph.D. in psychology), independence and the financial security to buy my own home. I balked, refused, and finally agreed.

Years later, we opened Westchester Psychological Services office in Hartsdale, NY. Plopped in the middle of the huge empty box that became our offices, we were new kids on the block masquerading as major leaguers. Sleek brass door signs announced us: Gerald P.Cusack, Ph.D., Joan M. Cusack, Ph.D. We had no patients but our waiting room could accommodate 15.

Eventually, people were referred to us. We worked as a team as often as was feasible clinically. Two brains focused on a case was reassuring. Less lonely. Dealing with the emotional and psychological vulnerability of patients humbled us greatly. We knew well how critical each intervention was. Each word, each nonverbal cue. Neither of us was so confident that we didn’t labor long hours over cases. And long hours examining our own counter-transference (feelings triggered in the therapist during treatment that must be analyzed, so that they don’t distort his/her clinical judgment and patient analysis). Our partnership was our saving grace.

But then I met Alan, my second husband, married, had a child and left our joint practice to establish one closer to home. I was very sad, however, to leave J. Though he insisted that he fully supported the move—it was the logical thing to do, it also marked a complete change in our relationship.

"What’s going on J. I never see you anymore. You’re always busy. Can’t we at least get together for lunch?"

We see each other all the time—you guys are coming over for a barbecue on Sunday.

"But you’re very remote. It would be nice to get together – just the two of us to catch up. We haven’t spoken alone since I left the office. I miss that."

Things are pretty much the same with me. Nothing to talk about. Give D a call; she could use a lunch out or a day of shopping. You know me, I never had much to say.

J was gone from me. But he left Mom and Dad too.

Thank God, Dad and I can always count on you and J when we need help or advice, Mom often said. And they often did. We were always the ones called on—particularly about our older siblings (and so the family triangles multiplied!). But most of these crises took place when J was a young father of two boys and his only family life was more than full—he was juggling family, school and full-time work—meanwhile, being called by Mom to help with the crisis of the day in the family. Sadly, I was less available to help and in some cases more needy of attention myself—first because of my own fractured marriage and life, then my graduate studies and life as a single person and finally my second marriage and motherhood. Eventually, the signs of wear were beginning to show on J. I suspect he was feeling overloaded, tired of caregiving, and abandoned. He became very moody and receded into himself. Clearly, he wanted to be alone. He let his wife take his place in all relationships. Even with me. I missed him terribly and kept trying to reach him but he was unresponsive. I was hurt and resented being ‘turned over’ to his wife. Our friendship, almost overnight, became the familiar triangle with her replacing him and him a shadowy non-participant. Not surprisingly, like Dad. Eventually, I stopped pursuing him.

But life was more than a loss for J. As he moved further and further inside himself and away from family, he discovered sculpting. Though remarkable in his own right, he had lived most of his young life in S’s shadow. His gift for art wasn’t really taken seriously by us until well into adulthood when he began to sculpt. In reality, his talent was completely eclipsed by S. Not surprisingly, today, he sculpts as he lives: privately. He prefers not to be known. He sculpts for the pure love of the art and the act of the art, yet he proudly shows his work to family and friends. In fact, it was sculpting that started us talking again.

At a family gathering, I asked, “How’s the work going?”

Come down to the studio, he offered. I’m working on a new piece of Mom and Dad.

Then later, "Don’t they look like they’re standing on the church steps after Mass?"

“It’s uncanny. It’s them bowing toward each other—she whispering a secret, him giving his undivided attention.” I was stunned at the power of the work. His subjects appeared to move in space and speak. They were alive. He began to give pieces to me for Christmas, a birthday...

This new relief looks like you. Take it. I cast an extra.

Thus began a renewal of our friendship which took the form of a delightful monthly lunch that pleased both of us. For awhile. Inevitably, another incident would occur that would separate us again. The last, a conflict between me, his wife and son was six years ago. Aside from a periodic phone call to ask me about our sister’s health, we haven’t spoken since the day of our father’s funeral. I don’t expect that to change; despite our close friendship for so much of our lives, J and I ‘matured’ into siblings who do not trust each other. That’s very sad. But fortunately we were there for each other when we most needed it—as children.

Our fourth sibling, S, will be explored in my next post. His is an even more complicated story but also true to our collective mistrust of family and love.

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