Are You Taking the Direct Route in Your Relationships?

Walking on forest trail in the rainIf you want to go to a store down the street, you don’t start by driving around the corner—but many people take detours like this in their relationships.

Any relationship—with family members, romantic partners, friends, or coworkers—involves disagreements. A disagreement is a kind of roadblock. Some roadblocks are easy to clear, while others take more work.

When there is a traffic roadblock, people will reluctantly follow detour signs and take the long way around. Detours work well when someone else is cleaning up the mess. But in our relationships, try as they might, no one else can repair the potholes or clear the debris.

People can spend a lifetime avoiding roadblocks rather than addressing others directly and working to clear misunderstandings, talk about fears or contentious issues, and repair injured feelings. Sometimes, the alternate routes we take around a conflict end up adding significantly to the existing tension in the long run.

Can you think of a time when you were angry with a family member and turned to a friend to vent or badmouth the person? Or a time when you avoided talking about a difficult issue with a loved one by engaging in another activity (working late, drinking too much, etc.)?

In family systems theory, this is called triangling. It can feel like tension between two people has receded when you focus attention on another person or activity, but the conflict between the original two people remains because it has not been addressed.

Triangles can temporarily stabilize conflictual relationships—for example, a parent covering for an under-functioning student, or a spouse beginning an emotional or physical affair rather than acknowledging unhappiness in the marriage.

Not every detour is unhealthy. Good counseling often uses a triangle relationship to help a person work through his or her issues and problems head-on.

The anxiety remains, though it may shift from place to place. A parent who steps in to do homework for an unprepared child may quiet the concerns of the child’s teacher. For a time, there may no longer be a conflict for the child at school. The student has not learned the work, though, and eventually he or she will need to complete another assignment. If the child doesn’t do the work or ask the teacher for help, tension may build again.

The child may turn to the parent (the long way around) and put pressure on him or her to “help” complete the assignment. If the parent succumbs, the anxiety shifts, but the roadblock remains, and there will be no easy passage on that route. If the parent stands back, the child will have to face the problem and start working on personal change.

Not every detour is unhealthy. Good counseling often uses a triangle relationship to help a person work through his or her issues and problems head-on. The counselee begins by coming to the therapist to talk about a difficult relationship or situation. The counselor then helps the counselee sort out the issues and learn how to make positive changes, both personal and in the relationship. Sometimes this involves learning how to de-triangle oneself.

If you find yourself taking unhealthy detours in relationships, here are a few suggestions for moving toward positive change.

1. Pay Attention

Change begins by paying attention. Notice the roadblocks in your life. If you are upset with someone, do you address the true issues with him or her directly or do you tend to gripe to other family members or find activities that help you avoid the person? Notice situations where you avoid conflict. How do you avoid it?

Where is the anxiety in your life? Do you have people, situations, or topics that you stay away from? What do you do to avoid these?

Some people avoid conflict at all costs, which means they might do the equivalent of driving around the entire city to avoid a two-block-long traffic jam. How far do you go to get away from difficult subjects?

2. Imagine

Next, imagine how you might clear out a roadblock. Where is the real block or true issue? What have you set up nearby to fool yourself or others about the true issue?

What would it take to name the issue directly to yourself and then to the other person? What feelings does this stir up for you?

3. Reflect

Is this a situation you can handle yourself? Or would you benefit from the help of a counselor who will allow you to share your thoughts and feelings about a difficult issue and guide you in making the changes you desire?

© Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lynn M. Acquafondata, DMin, MHC-LP, Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Nat

    December 17th, 2015 at 7:34 AM

    I sort of hate it when people are living out their personal dram over social media. I just want to ask why they would rather air all of the dirty laundry in public instead of just trying to talk to the family member. But to each his own I guess.

  • Tanner

    December 17th, 2015 at 11:19 AM

    But wouldn’t you be willing to concede that most relationships always take some wrong turns along the way, and the key to knowing that you are with the right person is one who is willing to work through the twists and turns to get to the right destination? I mean, there is no relationship ever that has not hit a snag or a bump in the road at some time.

  • Lynn Acquafondata

    December 17th, 2015 at 12:20 PM

    Yes. The road blocks themselves are not the problem. All relationships run into them at some point. It’s how we face or avoid the issues that matters. And yes, even if people have taken many detours to avoid dealing with a particular issue, it is possible to turn around, acknowledge the real problem and begin to deal with it.

  • carmen

    December 18th, 2015 at 10:05 AM

    There will always be the times when you can successfully avoid the road blocks and then there will be other times where no matter what you do, you keep running into them. That should tell you that it is time to learn some coping skills.

  • Nate

    December 21st, 2015 at 10:48 AM

    There are too many times that we all do this, but I have a tendency to get involved in my other family drama. Bad news right?

  • Kyle

    December 26th, 2015 at 11:01 AM

    To show that you are a true adult I think that there will come a time when you must recognize that most of us have to ask for help at some point or another. Life is not always about navigating it on your own, but knowing whom you can trust and expect help from. That is not being weak, it is being strong- admitting that you need help from another person.

  • simon

    December 27th, 2015 at 8:46 AM

    many times we put up these roadblocks out of fear< yes?

  • Michael

    January 13th, 2016 at 12:20 PM

    Working out such challenges in relationships is possible if both or all parties are at similar actual maturity levels. What happens in situations in which there are more complex psychological and/or cognitive issues? Passive-aggressive behaviors, narcissistic personality disorders (both overt and covert subtypes), borderline personality disorders, etc?

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