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Stuck in the Swirl: How to Get Unstuck from Emotional & Relational Triangles in Your Marriage

My wife comes from a large family and her parents are kept busy by their seven kids (the youngest being 8 years old). This makes it difficult to leave the house for a walk, to run errands, or to do something relaxing.

My mother-in-law refers to this as “being stuck in the swirl”. Being stuck in the swirl includes the chaos of managing many things at the same time before making it out of the door such as:

  • Refereeing a fight between two siblings,

  • A request for lunch,

  • A spill that now needs to be cleaned,

  • A request for last minute homework help, etc.

Whenever we visit, we find ourselves racing to get out of the house before we get stuck in the swirl!

Couples Therapy & Marriage Counseling: Stuck in the Swirl in Relationships

In marriage counseling and couples therapy, we come across this in marriages or other relationships. We can often feel “stuck in the swirl” in our marriage or relationship when we feel stuck in:

  • The same conflicts,

  • High demands on our time,

  • The repetitive cutoffs,

  • Lack of communication, and

  • Reconciliations that never seem to be resolved.

These emotional processes on the surface may seem irrational, unpredictable, and unchangeable. However, understanding emotional triangles reveals predictable patterns that allow us to make sense of it all. And understanding the emotional triangle can help us get unstuck from the emotional and relational swirl.

Emotional triangles are natural processes that are neither good nor bad. They are simply deep-seated processes that humans and many other living things take part in.

Emotional triangles stem from deep-seated emotional needs and are closer to instinct. They are often not part of a conscious cognitive process.

Also, it is difficult to have a stress-free marriage or relationship. Stress can come from inside and outside of the relationship and stress unmanaged can create instability in a marriage or relationship.

Think of the closest relationship you have. It is likely that even with this close connection, you make many adaptations to what you say or do around the person.

We do this to preserve harmony in the relationship. You may avoid certain topics, do things in a particular way, or even speak differently to promote closeness in the relationship.

The Advantages of an Outside, Third Person Relationship

Compare this to the stability of a three-person group. A third person is able to help manage any stress the two-person relationship struggles to handle. For example:

If a couple has an argument that they cannot resolve, one of them can meet up with a friend and “let out steam” (third person). This takes some of the stress from the couple relationship and moves it to the relationship with the friend where it is easier to manage.

A third person is not always necessary to stabilize a relationship. Sometimes there are other things that serve the same purpose within the emotional triangle. These could involve work, hobbies, fantasies, or pets.

Emotional triangles are the process in which conflict, anxiety, or stress is moved from one relationship to another relationship or type of relationship. They are ways of keeping things the same and creating a sense of stability in the marriage or relationship.

Depending on the level of stress present in the marriage or relationship, emotional triangles operate differently. Yet, they are incredibly predictable when one knows what to look for.

The Role Stress Plays in Emotional Triangles

Depending on whether the level of stress is low, moderate, or high emotional triangles will work differently:

For example, a boyfriend and girlfriend go to the fair and a friend tag's along as the third wheel. At the beginning of the day (low stress) the third wheel feels left out because the couple is focusing mostly on each other.

Yet, after the couple has an argument (moderate stress) about paying for lunch, they no longer act so close, and the girlfriend starts to be close to the third wheel. She may gain sympathy for their side of the argument against her boyfriend.

As the day progresses, the boyfriend becomes more and more irritated (high stress) about feeling left out. He may begin fighting with the third wheel about how they are too clingy with his girlfriend and never should have come.

This process is present in all relationships in one form or another whether they be romantic, friendly, or familial. While these processes are also always present in marriages or relationships, in low stress environments they may be more difficult to see.

The intensity and the speed of the process is also determined by stress level, the emotional maturity of the people involved, and the tools to recognize and interrupt the emotional triangle.

Over time, people form repetitive ways of interacting with each other. As a result, the emotional triangle process becomes incredibly predictable.

The Dance of Emotional Triangles

It is in these interactions that people begin to feel “stuck in the swirl”. It becomes like a dance where everyone knows the next step they must take to manage the stress, anxiety, hurt or heartache and everyone automatically repeats the same behavior over and over again. These steps help manage anxiety through distancing or connecting with others.

For example, a couple gets married and has a child three years later. Before marriage they were madly “in love” and easily looked over each other's faults. However, as life progressed and stress increased, they began to have difficulty in their relationship.

The wife tries to “fix” her husband and get him to change while the husband feels that he needs to defend himself. To avoid the discomfort at home, the husband works longer hours while the wife dreams of being a mother.

Three years after getting married they have their first child who becomes the main focus of the mother. The married couple begins to have less conflict, but they find the distance between them growing more and more.

To manage this, the husband increases his workload. He may also start golfing with the guys regularly while the mother focuses on taking care of the child.

As the child reaches his teen years, his close relationship with his mom becomes more and more conflictual as he tries to become more independent. The father only occasionally becomes involved in these conflicts, but for the most part lets the mom handle it on her own. This pattern repeats itself in various contexts and situations.

In the previous example, there are various steps the couple took to deal with the stress in their relationship:

  • The husband created distance by engaging more with work, being defensive, and letting the mother take the primary parenting role.

  • The wife’s “dance” was to hyperfocus on the husband’s faults and then later hyperfocus on her child.

Through these dance moves the initial stress and conflict around the couple's relationship moved from their relationship to the husband’s intense focus on work and the wife’s relationship with her son. This "stabilized" the couple's relationship because they were not required to address their relationship difficulties but could instead look elsewhere.

How Can We Strengthen Our Marriage or Relationship if We're Stuck in an Emotional & Relational Swirl?

As mentioned, emotional triangles are neither good nor bad. They simply are a process that is present in every relationship. It is up to us to recognize them and determine whether they are helpful for our lives.

As this is very common in marriages and relationships, as a couples therapist and marriage counselor, we can be that objective third person who can help you identify the emotional triangles that may be causing stress in your marriage or relationship.

If you feel stuck in the swirl and it's impacting your marriage or relationship, there are some principles that you can follow. These principles will be discussed in my next blog post; however, you can already begin with the first step of the “detriangling” process.

The detriangling process involves taking an objective look at the situation you are stuck in. Then, identify the patterns of the triangle, and recognize your part in it. Only when you have a firm grasp of the emotional pattern you are in can you start to plan how you will get out.

Katy Teen & Family Counseling: Couples Therapy & Marriage Counseling Katy, TX & Houston

At Katy Teen & Family Counseling, we can help you identify, understand, and get "unstuck" from emotional and relational triangles that impact your marriage or relationships.

Couples therapy and marriage counseling helps by allowing an objective third person to help untangle what can be hard to see when we're in the midst of the triangle.

If you are ready to start marriage counseling or couples therapy at our Katy, Tx location of Katy Teen & Family Counseling, all you need to do is follow these three simple steps:

  1. Contact Katy Teen & Family Counseling

  2. Talk with one of our caring therapists

  3. Start the healing today

Other Therapy and Counseling Services Offered at Katy Teen & Family Counseling

At Katy Teen & Family Counseling, we provide a variety of therapy approaches that are supported by research and shown to be effective. Some of the teen therapy, young adult counseling, & family counseling services we offer are:

Board Certified Neurofeedback Therapy

Peak performance (optimal academic brain performance)

Peak performance (optimal athletic brain performance)

Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART)

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR Therapy)

Group Therapy for Teens

Body Image

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

About the Author

Through his education and experience, Justin Perry, LMFT-A specializes in couples therapy, marriage counseling, & family therapy.

Justin also specializes in teen counseling & young adult therapy. Justin understands the important role that the family plays in each teenager's long-term success.

Justin helps teens, young adults, and families who are struggling with behavioral challenges such as depression, anxiety, social anxiety, panic attacks, trauma, PTSD, gifted and talented teens, and more.

Justin views teen counseling and young adult therapy through the lens of the family system. Here he draws on his education and experience as a marriage and family therapist to help teens, families, and couples meet their goals in therapy.

If you are ready to start couples counseling, marriage therapy, family therapy or have a teen or young adult who would benefit from therapy, call, text, or email us today!

Phone Number: 281-519-6364

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