Sunday, August 22, 2010


Triangling gets a bad wrap, and blame certainly does, too, in couples therapy. But sometimes externalizing the blame works nicely and can keep people together. If it's about either one of you it's going to go south pretty quick.

This is a lot like scapegoating, which also gets a bad rap, but shouldn't always. If you can scapegoat a nebulous, vague object, if you can blame it, or them, or they, then you can get your anger out and nobody gets hurt. Externalize the problem. Get it out of the marriage, the bedroom.

Let's take a made-up example, but there are so many real ones that are similar, you'll relate.

Say you're at the airport waiting for your partner to pick you up.  You call and call and the line is busy, or he's just not picking up.  You're getting angrier and angrier.  Your plane landed early.  You want to go home.

He finally arrives and you go off on him.  "Why did you tie up the phone?  Why didn't you check your text messages?  I couldn't reach you?!!" 

No, "Hello, honey.  So glad to see you.  I missed you."
No hugs and kisses.
Neither of you feels the love.

Much better to blame the phone company, or technology in general, or how dependent we are on technology. Much better to say, "Honey I'm so glad I'm home, but I HATE the phone company. Obviously you didn't get my texts or my voice messages. I'm switching to . . .I just HATE them!"

This feels really good, to hate them sometimes. The company we all love to hate. You have effectively triangled out the phone company. And it's about time someone did.



Southern Social Worker said...

This week involved a possible scapegoating of another type: the ugly type where a child is possibly (likely) being blamed for beating his autistic cousin so badly he required hospitalization. My supervisor thinks it's the father, who is getting dumped by mom. Grandma thinks it's the cousin because she's "never liked his looks." Mom says it's the cousin because, "His story changed."

I don't have enough information or hard evidence to say what I think just yet. The family is in a shelter -- safe from whomever likes to beat up defenseless (autistic and deaf) children.

I know you were talking about couples, and I needed to vent a bit. So, thanks for the forum.

therapydoc said...

Oh, I hear you. I never posted this for that reason. Most scapegoating, blame, is totally dysfunctional. But when I saw this type of solution pop up (in my head) three times last week and work, I had to post it.

Readers, understand that the "they" is never an ethnic group, or a minority of any kind. "They" probably has to be vague, unidentifiable, unimaginable, even, for this to be an ethical intervention. Note I say probably, because that would exclude, difficult employers, teachers, anyone, really, who has invited criticism with abusive behavior.

I was all ready to be hit with a thousand wet noodles, believe me. Thanks.

TechnoBabe said...

So many couples are used to reaching each other instantly throughout the day, either texting or calling or IM or whatever. It is so necessary to their peace of mind that the minute they cannot reach their spouse they panic. Total panic. Freak out. Personally I liked the old days when spouses said have a good day and each headed to their respective jobs and only contacted each other in emergencies or change of plans. The constant checking with each other is a bit much in my opinion. But in your example, the person waiting at the airport sounds very impatient. I like your suggestion of turning anger toward an entity that could be the scapegoat and getting rid of it and at the same time putting the spouses on the same team, angry at that entity.

moviedoc said...

The lady at the airport, like most of us, is allergic to helplessness. By resorting to blame, doesn't matter who, she pretends to have power none of us has. Time to say the serenity prayer, let go of the anger, and take responsibility for her own feelings.

Wonderingsoul said...

Ok TD... I hear you but I don't get it. I always thought that honesty was essential.
If you are angry with someone, shouldn't you tell them? Shouldn't you admit to it rather than blaming something else?
I'm not a confrontational person AT ALL, but I do think that being honest about how yo feel is quite important. Are you saying that you should blame something else in order to make someone else feel better?


Wonderingsoul said...

Ok TD... I hear you but I don't get it. I always thought that honesty was essential.
If you are angry with someone, shouldn't you tell them? Shouldn't you admit to it rather than blaming something else?
I'm not a confrontational person AT ALL, but I do think that being honest about how yo feel is quite important. Are you saying that you should blame something else in order to make someone else feel better?


porcini66 said...

Hmmmm...I'm thinking that TD isn't saying not to be honest (not putting words in TD's mouth/fingers...). I think it is more a case of stepping back and objectifying the source of the frustration. So, in the case of the airport lady - was she mad cuz she couldn't reach ride or was she mad cuz she was tired and wanted to be HOME...

Either way, it really doesn't make so much sense to lash out at the ride giver - who knows why he was unavailable at that moment - perhaps he was busy with work or had an emergency. Better to step back, take a breath and look at the bigger picture. Getting mad at the phone company gives him an "out" and lets her express her frustration without making it about HIM.

Now, if he does this ALL the time...THAT is a different story!! :)

I think that you can take this technique too far - my husband turns every conversation into a vent about this entity or that. It prevents honest communication about underlying issues and makes me not want to bother talking to him. It's a defense mechanism in his case, I think. I think...

moviedoc said...

Great comment porcini, but I wouldn't put "mad" and "cuz"(because) in the same sentence. Cuz happens in your head. Mad happens in your gut. Feelings serve a purpose, positive or negative, and taking responsibility for feelings empowers us.

She expected him to answer the phone. He didn't. She was disappointed. How does she handle disappointment?

Not only does she, like you said, not know what kept him from picking up the phone, but blaming that 3d party won't help her find out. And it might be important.

I would coach her to state her expectation, express (and take responsibility for!!) her disappointment directly to him, directly and honestly. This will make an opportunity for increased intimacy.

Anger in this situation, esp. with an arrow of blame pointed at someone else, will not likely serve any positive purpose. If she can't let it go, maybe she can just claim it as her own and accept it.

Ella said...

Maybe that's a method for a couple just starting to work on good communication?
If my plane lands early (ha, nice fantasy), and my husband isn't due to pick me up for another 45 minutes, then I can call him and say "I'll just take a cab". Or I can chill out w/my iPod and wait. But, inevitably my flight will be late, and he'll be stuck in the "cell phone waiting area" with two grumpy kids in the back seat. In that case we will definitely blame the airline!!
I still may blame the airline for how my day turned out even if the flight it early.

Retriever said...

And sometimes a couple in a miserable, furious marriage can go to yet another marriage counselor who yet again has no help to offer. They fight like crazy, hating each other more than ever in there. And she is so clueless she doesn't even try to stop them. She holds her hands up to halt the battle and says "Have you two considered divorce?" And as they leave after furiously handing over far too much money, they turn to each other and say "What a loser, worst one yet..."

Not trying to insult the profession, but better they should hate the social worker than each other...externalizing...

Hi, TD, miss your longer posts, but hope all is well.

YZF said...

That's a really great idea... never thought of it that way. Gracias.

therapytribe said...

Hi nice post! A experienced
Therapist Finder
ways to restore the broken relationship by resolving the conflicts and healing the wounds.

tuesday@11 said...

Hey TD, once again I am having trouble getting your latest blog entry. I see from Trench Warfare's blog that you have a new one but when I click on it and your blog opens it is not there. Is anyone else having this problem or is it on my end? I hate/love computers.

therapydoc said...

I'm so sorry. Took it down to make some changes. I'll shoot you all a new post when I rewrite it.

Syd said...

Yes, I have fumed inwardly about that. Luckily, I know enough to hold my tongue. Blaming on sunspots or the weather seems like a better idea.

Ricercar said...

i really like your blog! i like your part serious part jest style of saying things and i like what you say! randomly stumbled upon it, but will add it to my feed reader to read more often. :-)