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.
Posted Nov 23, 2017
What can they possibly be thinking? Third-parties who — consciously or unconsciously, deliberately or unknowingly — interfere with a love relationship are usually motivated to maintain their own self-esteem or manage emotions of fear, frustration, anger or guilt. In “Third-Party Motives That Can Threaten a Couple” I described some ways these motives manifest. When the motives are conscious, they become “intentions”.
These motives can lead to many behaviors, including some that undermine a couple’s integrity, others that create conflict, and still others that derail one member of the couple resulting in disruption to the couple itself. In “Third-Party Behaviors That Threaten a Couple”, I explored these behaviors.
Today I list some signs that can tip off a couple that they are reacting to a toxic third-party influence, along with some possible responses. As always, the human dilemma applies: We must struggle with when to adapt, when to change the situation, and when to wait and see if circumstances change.
How can you identify a threat to your relationship?
- You and your loved one begin snapping at or withdrawing from each other.
- A couple’s (or one partner’s) go-to self-maintenance behaviors are working less well in maintaining equilibrium.
- One or both partners have trouble sleeping, maintaining a routine, concentrating, or show other signs of stress.
- One or both partners’ self-discipline and normal resilience are eroded.
- A partner resents an upcoming event they had both been looking forward to.
- One partner becomes ill or suffers an accident or develops an allergic reaction or otherwise becomes unavailable. Often.
Actions to take when you think a third-party is threatening your relationship.
- First note what is happening in your couple, what each person is thinking and feeling, and how they are reacting.
- Observe your own internal dynamics so that you can describe them to your partner. Ask yourself if your emotional response is related to the current event or to an old hot button that is responding to some similarity of a current experience to one in the past.
- Discuss your experience with your partner and try to identify if the source of the threat is internal or external.
- If the threat is external, decide together how to proceed. (If it is internal, decide what you might do about it.) Begin by identifying what might have motivated the third-party’s behavior. DO NOT ASSUME that you know, just explore possibilities.
- Next you can broach the topic of what happened with the third-party to see if they acknowledge their behavior, see it the same way, and understand why they acted as they did. Always ask what they intended the result of their behavior to be. The simplest resolutions come when an intention has been misunderstood or had an ineffective, unintended and harmful expression.
- You can tighten your boundaries by acting to protect the amount and nature of time you spend with the third-party, the type of exposure you have to them, the definition of behavior that is acceptable and that which is not, and the consequences of unacceptable behavior.
- When someone is triangulating, you need to decide if you are committed to endorsing: “Do not make me choose; you will lose.” Or not.
- On the other hand, when a third-party’s motives are based on other emotions, perhaps fear or anger or frustration or guilt, successful approaches can be broader and potentially more successful. Map some strategies that show your love to them. Many "Life, Refracted" posts in this series, “52 Ways to Show I Love You”, offer suggestions.
How can you show love to the third-party and to your partner?
- Acknowledge the roles that the third-party plays in your life or that of your couple and any vested interests they may hold.
- Has the third-party been a go-to companion to one member of the couple, a role now taken up by a partner? Does he or she feel lonely? Was the person a confidant, a “friend with benefits”, a playmate? Did the third-party enable a destructive behavior like an addiction? Does he or she feel abandoned? Perhaps they have kept one partner on the straight and narrow, helping him or her with self-care. Does the third-party now feel useless? Unappreciated? Perhaps they have been the recipient of care-giving. Do the resources you or your partner provided need to be replaced? Can you provide them in a new way? Or are you suddenly leaving a dependent person without resources? If so, can you remove them more gradually? Explore the situation, separating out motives, intentions, behaviors and consequences.
- Do not put the third-party in the middle! Appreciate that you and your partner may not share the same perception of either the third-party or the overall situation. Your lover may see your best friend as a needy energy-vampire, your mother as intrusive, your father as overbearing, your sister as jealous, one brother as competitive, another as exploitative. And so on. All this may or may not be true. Your partner may be projecting fantasies or making assumptions based on his or her own experiences — or not. When you and your partner disagree on perceptions, you need to find ways to resolve the conflicts without turning for support to a third-party who has a separate involvement with you. Few things are more disrespectful to your partner. If, on the other hand, you and your partner decide together that you could use more input, that together you could find information or ideas elsewhere — being sure you have ground rules between you concerning what specifically you are looking for and what kind of counsel you wish to seek — then turning to an outside third party could be helpful, rather than harmful. Think therapist, counselor, clergy, even contractor or career coach. You get the idea.
- Identify at what point the third-party relationship became toxic and to whom. Find ways in which the process that took place might be modified in the future to have a less damaging or more beneficial result. Sticking to the specifics of the present experience can help keep this approach from degenerating into replays of old scripts. Everyone knows when a record is on “replay”.
What are some concrete steps you can take to limit future damage?
- Set limits (amount of time, topics of conversation, how to spend time together, types of behavior).
- Establish in your couple how much (time, energy, money, drama, interference) is enough and accept that your decisions may never be acceptable to the third-party creating the challenges.
- Hopefully come to agreement about what can be shared with which third-parties and who can reach out to whom when and how. Devise a process to entertain the exceptions that will inevitably arise.
- Make clear that you will ask for help from the third-party when you want it and that you do not want his or her unsolicited help or input.
- Insist on taking care of yourself. Without self-care, showing love to someone else becomes so much harder and less effective.
To recap, people who are outside of a relationship can — consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or unintentionally — present threats to a couple. These last three articles are intended to help a couple understand what might motivate a third-party, identify the third-party’s behaviors that may be problematic, become aware of the ways in which the couple is affected, and find ways to address the assault. Showing love to a partner can mean protecting the bonds of the couple from challenges posed by a third-party.
How have you or your partner recognized that your relationship was under threat from a third-party? What steps did you take to communicate to each other your reactions to the threats from the third-party? Were you able to agree on an approach to that person? A plan for neutralizing damaging behaviors when they occurred? Ways to deal with the situation if the impact could not be stopped, minimized, or effectively dealt with? What happened then?
Copyright 2017 Roni Beth Tower
Visit me at www.miracleatmidlife.com