The Adult Child longs for love and yet avoids emotional closeness.
The Adult Child grows up wanting the loving connections promised in TV shows and movies. They struggle to connect in their relationships in the hope of insuring success. As forgotten emotional vulnerabilities threaten, the Adult Child’s “as if” wish to thrive in a relationship is forgotten and they return to their proven coping strategies in order to survive.
Clare and Charles
Charles is a senior manager in his father’s business and Clare works for the company’s administrative support team. Charles thought Clare was pretty, amusing and agreeable. Clare thought Charles was emotionally dry and somewhat awkward. Since it was important for Charles to attend business social functions, his father suggested Clare as someone appropriate enough to be Charles’ plus-one. She knew the business and was comfortable with their clients. This seemed to work well for everyone including Charles’ mother, who enjoyed being seated with Clare at these functions. Charles’ mother loved to tell Clare all about their family’s travel adventures in exotic places. She would also brag on Charles as his father’s right-hand man, noting that he would someday inherit the business. Clare politely listened to these tales of wealth and privilege with an engaging smile plastered across her face. It wasn’t long before Clare realized her purpose at these events was threefold: as eye candy on Charles’ arm, a companion for his mother, and someone to document the interests of clients. It annoyed Clare that she was expected to dress up for these parties with her own money while working additional hours without pay.
Despite all their courteous chatter, Charles and Clare knew little about each other’s lives beyond what she’d learned about him from his mother. Clare was surprised when Charles’s mother suggested she join the family for a European cruise. When Clare told her mother about the invitation, she was chastised for being a puppet in their charade. Clare realized she was probably invited so she could perform the same tasks she attended to at local business events. Clare made it clear to Charles that if she were to join them; she would have to receive her regular paychecks while away with them. Charles felt caught off-guard by Clare’s conditions and she felt anxious about standing up for herself. Charles agreed to meet her requirements and make them happen. He and his parents were pleased when Clare formally accepted their invitation to join them on the cruise.
Clare was surprised at how much she enjoyed traveling with Charles and his parents. Easy connections were established between them on the trip with his parents. These connections, however, reverted back to an awkward distance between Charles and Clare after their return. Clare complained to her mother that she felt jerked around by Charles. Her mother welcomed this opportunity to tell Clare how foolish she was to think they cared about her. Clare was offended by her mother’s outburst, “You’re just an employee to them!” All she wanted was a little sympathy because the shift back to work was so difficult. Clare realized she was caught in a situation she didn’t understand and needed to talk to someone. She came in to meet with me.
Before describing the Dysfunctional Triangle and the significance of its convergence with the reactive stages (Rupture and Regression) in the 4 Rs model, let’s first review the meaning of term “Adult Child.” This term is not a reflection of the present-day trend of adult children living with their parents. Instead, it refers to anyone who was emotionally neglected as a child due to a family history of intergenerational shame and distress. In relationships, the Adult Child manages real and perceived threats to this inherited vulnerability by dodging danger.
The Dysfunctional Triangle is a complex closed communication system composed of three adaptable and interconnected roles: the Persecutor, the Victim and the Rescuer. Each role is made up of rigid thoughts and behaviors that play out within the Adult Child as well as between and among others. The Persecutor role includes learned behaviors and “shoulds.” It assumes a position of authority and is demanding, irritable, punitive, and shaming. The Victim role is composed of anguish and misery. It assumes a position of disgrace and is consumed with guilt, shame, resentment, and rage. The Rescuer role assumes a compromised position of apprehension and dread. It is avoidant, defiant, placating and compliant.
Rupture and Regression, the reactive stages of the 4 Rs model, serve a central function in the closed system of the Dysfunctional Triangle. The Persecutor, Victim and Rescuer roles rotate compulsively in varying arrangements of Rupture/Regression as well as Regression/Rupture. The Persecutor role expands and powerfully puffs up with accusations, judgment and blame about the meaning of a rupture. The Victim role shrinks into humiliation as it fumbles to give reasons for innocence about a rupture. The Rescuer soothes and comforts inwardly and outwardly both in regression and in a rupture. These dynamics allow the Adult Child to slip away from the anxiety of emotional vulnerability, even if it hurts them and others, by resorting to an upper hand, a dejected hand, and/or a pleasing hand. The Adult Child continues to torment themselves with the reoccurring behaviors in the closed system of the Dysfunctional Triangle as long as they avoid discovering and exploring the painful experiences of their childhood.
Change can occur for the Adult Child. Yet without an awareness of their early difficulties, any efforts toward change are not easy. This seems to be true for Clare and Charles. They are both being impacted by forces at work described in “Dysfunction Junction.” They are caught unaware in interconnected, closed systems of the Dysfunctional Triangle: internally, between each other, and with their parents. The manipulations by Charles’ parents and the shame reflected in Clare’s mother’s outrage palpably capture influences of Rupture and Regression. Charles and Clare are caught up in these multiple relationship binds and choose to “keep the peace” regardless of whether they are functioning in a Persecutor, Rescuer, or Victim role.
The proactive stages in the 4 Rs Model (Repair and Resolution) offer the Adult Child resources for change. Finding a doorway out of the closed system of the Dysfunctional Triangle is essential; and there is only one role that provides an open door. Is it possible the Rescuer role could be the way out? It appears to have a capacity for taking action, but on closer examination it bends to the needs of the other roles rather than creating change. The passivity of the Victim role can be excluded because its position merely suffers to a greater or lesser extent. The Persecutor role provokes distress for the other roles, which implies it actually has an ability to be proactive as well as reactive. This means the Persecutor role, in either a closed- or open-system, maintains its function for making the Victim and Rescuer roles uncomfortable. Even if it were to use its power for responsible action, the Persecutor role would continue to be experienced as “mean.” Every time the Persecutor role disrupts the status quo of the closed system’s illusion of safety, it is an advocate for change.
The suggestion of the Dysfunctional Triangle as an open- rather than closed- system reminds me of “Camelot’s” King Arthur. He suggests creating: “A new order where might is only used for right! To improve instead of to destroy…Might for Right!” The Persecutor role is the only proactive position on the Dysfunctional Triangle. While it usually uses its “might” for spite, its “might” can also be used for “right.” The key to opening the door out of the Dysfunctional Triangle is found in Repair.
Slipping back into familiar stuck patterns of the closed Dysfunctional Triangle will occur since leaving it puts the Adult Child in direct contact with their dreaded fears. Diversions constructed by any of the roles in the Dysfunctional Triangle make real change a challenge. For example, the Rescuer role may attempt to distract the Adult Child with faulty assurances that something known is better than the frightening unknown. As the Adult Child learns to accept distressing regressive feelings as helpful instead of dangerous, they can view anxious feelings differently.
In Repair, the Adult Child’s efforts toward change will take time. They will come to understand and appreciate their early need for surviving the dangers of emotional exposure. As they make progress in Repair, the frantic pace of their anxiety will slow down. The Persecutor’s new stance of “might for right” creates healthy options for the Adult Child. As new relationship behaviors develop, thriving within secure connections can unfold.
Stay tuned for the next post, “Dancing with Danger.” Discover more about Clare and Charles and delve into the hazardous complexities of the Dysfunctional Triangle as a closed system.