Dancing with Danger

An Adult Child tends to partner with another Adult Child in their relationships. As kindred spirits with intergenerational family secrets, they don’t realize they are at risk for heartache. Without awareness of their family histories, they get lost in a dangerous dance that tosses them in-and-out of Persecutor, Victim and Rescuer roles in the closed system of the Dysfunctional Triangle. These roles surface and play out in endless cycles of Rupture and Regression inside each individual, between each other, and within their families. Overwhelmed and confused by unexpected yet familiar feelings of shame, they struggle. Only when the dancing slows down enough can the Adult Child begin to access the depths of their concealed pain and sorrow and achieve emotional safety and secure connections.

You may recall Clare started therapy because of her distress about getting herself entangled with Charles and his family’s business. This post and posts through the end of the year will continue with Clare and Charles and will explore the complexities of the Dysfunctional Triangle and Rupture and Regression in the 4Rs Model. 

Clare and Charles

As Clare’s therapy session started, she let me know she was anxious about telling me what had occurred during her recent lunch with Charles. She was nervous and excited as she waited for him at the restaurant and was pleased when he happily greeted her. During their meal, Clare recalled how much she enjoyed a particular lunch in Italy when they chatted comfortably together for hours. Charles agreed it was a perfect afternoon. Clare told him that because so much had changed since their return to work, she had started seeing a therapist to sort out her feelings about the distance between them. She told me Charles appeared ill at ease as he told Clare his father had expected him to buckle down and focus on work after the trip. Clare allowed as she thought maybe there was more to it and yet she couldn’t figure it out. Charles told her he was feeling overwhelmed with panic. Clare expressed concern and asked Charles if he would like to meet with her therapist together. “What would that mean?” he asked. Clare answered, “She could help us talk about how things changed and our feelings. She could help us stay connected as we figure things out.” Charles said he would like having someone help him talk with her. He asked Clare to see if they could have a session together. As her session with me was ending, Clare said she was feeling nervous. “I hope it was alright that I suggested he come with me to see you. Would you please meet with us together?” Yes, I think it could be helpful.

When they came in for their joint session, I asked Clare to start by sharing with Charles some of what had been challenging her so Charles could get a feel for the work of a therapy session. Clare began by telling Charles she felt special that he chose her to be his date at company events. Laughing nervously, she added she’d become confused since they had returned from the cruise. Clare turned to me and asked if it would be okay to ask Charles some questions. I asked Charles if he wanted to just listen or if he wanted to respond to Clare’s questions one at a time. Charles asked, “Can I see how it goes?” “Certainly, just let me know what you need as we go along.” Clare asked Charles how he had decided to ask her to be his date for company business functions. Charles cleared his throat and said he wanted to answer her question. “Clare, I am so embarrassed about what I am going to say because I am afraid you will think less of me. Actually, my father suggested you as my plus one since you know the business and are comfortable with our clients. If I’m truthful, because it was work-related, I was relaxed on our dates or assignments.” Clare said she appreciated knowing this and that it actually led to her next question. “How did I end up traveling with you and your parents in Europe?” Charles said, “My best guess is that my mother enjoyed your company and suggested to my father the cruise would be a great reward for a job well done.”

Clare let me know she was feeling agitated and annoyed and wanted to talk frankly. I asked Charles if he thought he could hear Clare and told him if he got uncomfortable to let me know. Okay, he said. “Charles, I like feeling respected by your father as a good worker and it is unsettling to find out I was only at the company’s business events and on the cruise to assist you and your father and to be a companion for your mother.” Clare exclaimed heatedly, “Typically, a bonus is given for a job well done, not more work disguised as a holiday.”  Charles said, “I am suddenly feeling nervous and angry with Clare.” I asked Clare if she could make an effort to hear him. She nodded yes. “Clare, I went out of my way for you to get paid while we were on the cruise because you said you would only go if you received your regular paycheck.” Then Charles turned to me and said there was more and that he was afraid of hurting Clare. I asked Clare if she wanted Charles to go on. “Yes, and now I’m nervous.” He continued, “When we returned, my father found out that I approved your pay and he was furious with me and with you. He berated me for paying you instead of forcing you to use vacation leave. He told me to tell you that he is disgusted by your ungrateful attitude, considering all the opportunities he’s given you. He said he had been grooming you to join the management team but that it’s been wasted on you since you act like an hourly employee. My parents thought they were doing something nice for you.” I asked Charles if he felt his parents had put him in a difficult and embarrassing no-win situation. “This is the story of my life. My father sets me up and then demeans me. He’ll do this with anyone he thinks has failed or disrespected him. Clare, I am so ashamed and this is why I’ve been avoiding you.  I guess that must mean I’m a coward.” Clare looked at Charles and said, “I’ve been getting a lot of grief from my mother.  She’s been only too happy to remind me that I was stupid to let you and your parents take advantage of me with underhanded maneuvers to get me to work overtime at evening business events without pay. She knew the cruise was going to be work for me and insisted I demand compensation. She’s furious with you for confusing me romantically and is certain this mess will cost me my job one way or another. Charles, I guess I’m a coward too for letting my mother beat up on me.” 

I spoke up, “As I’ve listened to each of you, I am sensitive to your parents’ shaming and blaming behaviors and I wonder if you are aware of this too? I am concerned if you believe you deserve to be treated so harshly, then you are at risk for treating yourselves and each other in these same ways.” Clare looked at me sadly and said she’d never realized how intimidating her mother was until she heard how Charles’ father bullied him. She looked at Charles and said it seemed crazy to discover that her mother and his father were so eerily similar, yet so different: each is fixated on work, suspicious of others, and indifferent to personal connections. Clare said, “I am glad we are here together talking with Trish to help us sort this out.”

Clinical Considerations

Clare’s work in therapy empowered her to connect with Charles. When Clare and Charles dared to be vulnerable with each other, they discovered they were both feeling overwhelmed. Neither of them had any awareness of how the intergenerational components of an Adult Child’s legacy were challenging their growing relationship. 

In the closed system of the Dysfunctional Triangle, all the angles represent dysfunction. The Persecutor is powerful. The Victim is powerless. The Rescuer is avoidant. The Adult Child typically chooses one of these dysfunctional roles as their primary defense. This stance becomes their unique pattern of self-sabotage and suggests the nature of their childhood struggles. Scared people are scary and scary people are scared. Because of these vulnerabilities, the Adult Child will use the Victim’s helplessness, the Persecutor’s intimidation, and the Rescuer’s detachment in seamless ways to create their advantage as the “winner” in a losing battle.

Feelings of insecurity and powerlessness in an Adult Child can, at any point, change into a sense of entitlement that justifies their right to overpower others as they have been overpowered. Using “Might for Spite” alters the fairly stable coping defenses of the Dysfunctional Triangle into erratic and toxic power tactics to dominate, manipulate, belittle, criticize and threaten, as a means to provoke guilt and anxiety in others. These destructive behaviors stem from their early experiences of traumatic abuse, humiliation, and intergenerational shame and express their unresolved rage, unrestrained fear, and aggression. They will use any combination of the Dysfunctional Triangle’s roles with patterns of Rupture and Regression to weaken their target and inflict emotional whiplash. This deep wounding is inflicted by incongruent, convoluted, and unexpected role transitions that materialize as stinging rapid-fire attacks, calculated provocations, and/or a combination of both. Dazed and hurt, the target of this abuse will escape into the Rescuer role to soothe their own injuries with dissociation and/or numbing compulsive behaviors.  

Clare and Charles’ situation magnified their parents’ disgruntled and callous behaviors. In their therapy session, they each enacted versions of their parents’ power tactics, out of their awareness. How they were treated by their parents had less to do with them and more to do with their parents’ buried and unresolved sorrows, as reflected in Charles’ father’s rage and Clare’s mother’s humiliation. As shadowy puzzle pieces shimmered in the light of awareness, Clare and Charles appreciated having an opportunity to identify how their behavior was linked to difficulties in their parents’ histories.

Continue with Clare and Charles and the Dysfunctional Triangle and the 4Rs Model. 

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