An Emotional Affair Meets Financial Infidelity: Part 1. Who’s the Victim, Who the Offender?
Part 1: The Drama Triangle: Who’s the Victim and Who the Offender?
I met them in the waiting room where they were sitting on the yellow couch upholstered with lively red and blue flowers. They both smiled as we shook hands and walked through the hall into my two room office. The hall and both rooms are painted in soft peach. The outer room has a salmon colored couch where I asked them to sit to fill out intake forms. Having completed forms regarding their basic information and self-evaluation on stress, trauma, and alcohol use, I invited them to sit on the blue sofa in my office. They sat at opposite ends facing me in my black swivel chair with the round leather top coffee table between us.
“We’re completely stuck.” Carey threw up her hands. “We can’t even talk!”
“That’s right.” Steve sat taller. He was already taller than Carey. “She won’t talk with me about anything important!”
He is angular and sinewy. She is solid and curvy.
“We’ve lived together for thirteen years,” she said. “We didn’t marry until 2012. He wasn’t sure I was good enough.” She sneered.
Steve rolled his head in exaggerated exasperation. “We separated five years ago,” he said. “Too much conflict. We fell in love again and four months later we moved back together.”
“What attracted you to each other?”
“I fell in love with his Boston accent,” Carey responded, “and his hands. They’re large and strong. He played a mean game of basketball. I liked his intelligence too. He manages the bond portfolio for his boss. Without him their company would be in trouble.”
“I was drawn to her Southern drawl, her bright blue Doris Day eyes, and her easy laugh,” Steve said. “I love her calmness and I’m proud of her success as a lawyer. It helps our budget.”
“So why the impasse?”
“She never talks to me. When I try to tell her how to have an intelligent conversation, she cuts me short. She doesn’t share about her job or anything. To have a decent conversation, I have to talk with a woman at work.”
“Yeah, your bosses’ wife,” interjected Carey. “And you don’t just talk, you smoke pot together!”
“Well, I need someone to talk to me since you won’t!”
“I don’t cause you’re always correcting me”, Carey said. “I don’t meet your standards. So I’ve given up.”
I intervened: “God sends me people to keep me working on myself.” I turned to Steve. “You remind me of myself. You have a wall of anger and fear you need to dismantle. You’ve walled Carey out and walled yourself in. You sound like a parent talking to a child, not one adult to another.”
“It’s her fault,” he responded. “She doesn’t make the effort to understand me.” He glared at her like a judge from his bench.
“You can blame Carey all you want,” I said, “but it won’t change anything. Believe me, I did it for years. Eventually I woke up. Blaming someone makes you helpless. You’ve given all your power to your wife. She’s the only one who can make your marriage change.”
“I hadn’t thought of it that way,” he said.
“When you take responsibility for what you’ve done, you have power. You can change yourself. When you change, your marriage changes. It can’t stay the same. You have to choose: do you want to stay in the blame game or do you want to change yourself?”
I turned to Carey. “You’re acting like a victim, like you have no power. I did that for a long time until I realized that getting pity didn’t help me respect myself.”
She shrank back into the sofa trying to hide. “I don’t feel good about myself,” she affirmed.
“You’re buying into Steve’s reality instead of honoring your own. You’re letting him decide what’s important. How about what matters to you? You’re an adult just like he is.”
“I see what you mean,” she said and sat taller. “I don’t stand up like I should.”
Steve and Carey agreed to work on themselves and their marriage. We met in eight sessions during the following five months. They both made observable changes. Steve gradually backed off his quickness to judge. Carey began to speak up, and not just to Steve. She took action at work. She didn’t like insurance law, but she really disliked working for a disrespectful boss who treated her much the same way as her husband.
We started working on the “Drama Triangle” based on the Transactional Analysis work of psychiatrist Stephen Karpman. I handed each of them a sheet showing a triangle. At the top, the Victim/Martyr says with growing resentment: “Poor me. It’s not fair!” An arrow down one side points to the Offender/Perpetrator who acts out the resentment through revenge. From the Offender an arrow of guilt and remorse points to the Rescuer, who care-takes and enables the Victim. Feeling depleted and unappreciated the Rescuer, filled with growing resentment, becomes the Victim again. The arrow from the Rescuer back to the Victim closes the triangle.
“Sharing an example from my own life may help you understand how this triangle works,” I said. “Years ago my wife and I were at a family wedding. I didn’t look forward to dancing because I’m not good at it. We’d taken lessons and I’d improved. I never could figure out, however, why we men just don’t let our partners take the lead. Women love to dance and do it better. We could follow from in front while our wives lead from behind. It wouldn’t be so unusual.”
They laughed. Steve shook his head and said, “You’re way too unconventional.”
“But you’re right,” said Carey. “Ginger Rogers took every step Fred Astaire did. Furthermore, she took them backwards and in high heels.”
“That’s true,” I laughed. “That night at the wedding I was dancing pretty well. Feeling confident, I gave my wife an amorous look. I expected she’d reciprocate. She didn’t. Instead she stopped dancing, stepped back and said, ‘I’m uncomfortable.’
“I instantly felt hurt and rejected. We resumed dancing, but I felt unworthy and ashamed. I was just going through the motions. I was nearly immobilized. I shut down, as we all do, during a shame attack. A couple hours later, in our hotel room, we were preparing for bed.
“My wife sensed my anger. ‘Would you like to snuggle?’ she asked. Snuggling is a way we comfort each other.
“I replied in a steely tone, ‘Go to hell!’”
“Did you spend the night in the bathtub?” Steve asked, smiling.
“Fortunately not, but I was playing the victim. Feeling hurt and powerless, I tried to regain my self-respect by rejecting my wife. She went to sleep with her back turned to me. My revenge created more shame. To recover I began to tell myself: ‘I am enough and I matter. I love and approve of myself. God loves and approves of me unconditionally.’
“With many repetitions, I recovered from my shame attack. By afternoon the next day I finally felt good enough to ask my wife, ‘What made you feel uncomfortable last night?’
“‘I thought you wanted to make love right in the middle of the dance,’ she said. ‘My whole family was watching us!’
“I wished I’d been mature enough to have asked her that question immediately. I would’ve enjoyed snuggling instead of spending the night behind my wall of anger. When I retaliated by refusing to snuggle, I moved from victim to offender. I got even for the pain I felt my wife had inflicted on me. My attack relieved my shame and made me feel powerful temporarily. In the long run, it increased my guilt and shame. I had ‘offended from the victim position’ as my mentor, Pia Mellody, described it. As the offender, I transferred my fear and pain to wife, now the victim.
“We feel sorry for the victim,” Carey said, “and contempt for the offender.”
“O.J. Simpson won,” said Steve, “when his lawyer made him a bigger victim than Nicole.”
“And she was murdered,” added Carey.
Steve turned to me. “It sounds like you’re playing every role. It seems like too much.”
“That’s what I want you to understand. I do play every play every role and so do most of us without recognizing it.”
“Sounds like you know these roles from the inside out,” Carey said.
“Yeah, all too well. Swearing at my wife led to remorse. Out of guilt I became the rescuer. I acted super-nice to appease her. I brought her coffee and took her to lunch. I became a ‘super-husband,’ doing everything to soothe her. I took pride in feeling saintly. After placating her for several hours, however, I became depleted. When I felt my wife didn’t appreciate my efforts, my resentment grew. Instantly, I was the powerless victim. I was ready to offend again.”
“This is the story of our marriage,” Carey said, “but we’re in supersonic mode.”
“I amazed myself how quickly I cycled around the triangle,” I replied. “In a moment of reflection, I realized this drama was so engaging, with its ups and downs, it had become my way of life: getting sympathy as a victim, feeling saintly and admired as a rescuer, and denying my fears and lack of power by being an offender.
“You know,” I said looking at Carey and Steve, “it occurred to me, I could turn this drama into a novel.”
“You could make a movie,” Steve said.
“I was thinking of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara” Carey said. “Who was the victim and who the offender there?”
“Both were victims and offenders, just like us,” Steve said. “But Rhett got the last word when he left her saying, ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.’”
“She gave as good as she got,” said Carey. “I liked that they were equals.”
“I get how I’m an offender, a rescuer, and a victim,” Steve said. “I can see I’m on the triangle several times a day. It’s a relief to hear you’ve been there too.” He uncrossed his legs and settled back on the sofa.
“I changed when I took ownership of each role I played.”
“Your admission makes it easier to see my parts,” Carey added. “I never realized that I’m an offender when I withdraw. I don’t want to go on living the drama triangle.”
I turned to Steve. “When do you see yourself being an offender?”
“When I criticize Carey for not talking to me, and when I act superior in telling her she’s not talking the right way.” He paused, then added: “But I attack her because it hurts.”
“Does attacking her improve your communication?”
He started to respond, then shook his head.
“It’s difficult for most of us to accept being offenders,” I said. “We fight against our guilt.” I looked at Carey. “Do you know when you’re an offender?”
“When I shut down and refuse to talk to Steve.”
“That’s right. The silent treatment can be just as painful as yelling. I’ve had people tell me they’d rather be yelled at than cut off.”
“I know it hurts him when I don’t talk,” she admitted. “He says I’m like his mother.”
“The only way we get off the Drama Triangle is to be aware when we’re on it. It’s especially difficult to own offending from the victim position.”
“When I feel Carey doesn’t care,” Steve responded, “I feel like I have the right to attack her.”
“In truth, you make yourself feel unworthy when she’s silent, just like I shamed myself at the dance.”
“Carey chimed in, “I justify not talking to Steve. I ask myself: why should I give him the satisfaction of hearing from me when he’s just told me I don’t know how to talk to him.”
“The fact is,” Steve glared at Carey, “I know better than you do how you should talk to me.”
“Steve, you’re doing it again!” I interjected.
“But how’s she going to talk so I can listen?”
“Steve,” I said, “you’re guilty of what we call ‘negative control.’ You’re telling your wife what she should do and who she should be. It’s like saying: sit down, shut up, and be who I want you to be so I can be comfortable. ‘Positive control’ is when you tell yourself how to be and what to do.”
He frowned. “Like how?”
“I was using ‘negative control’ with my wife at the wedding. I expected her to reciprocate my amorous look. She didn’t. In my negative control mode, she didn’t act as she was supposed to. Using positive control I would have said to myself: breathe deeply, inhale peace, exhale fear, then ask your wife what she’s feeling.”
“I like the idea of positive control, and I like to be right,” said Steve. “Most the time I am. It’s hard to see when I’m wrong. And when I am wrong, it’s hard to admit.”
“Thanks for your honesty,” I responded. “All of us want to be right. And we are right, but just for ourselves. Unfortunately, we like to think we’re right for our spouses too. However, my wife’s reality is as valid for her as mine is for me. We each have our own reality.”
“But why can’t she see things my way?” Steve lifted his chin.
I laughed. “I once famously said to my wife, ‘Our life would be so much easier if you just thought the way I think and felt the way I feel.’ She laughed and asked me: ‘So, you wanted to marry a clone?’
“That would be boring,” I admitted. “However, I believe it’s human nature when we fall in love to want our partner to share our reality–to see things just like we see them. In truth, there’s no way they could. We all like to believe we see things as they are. We don’t. We see things as we are. Each of us has our own perceptions, memories, intuitions, imaginations, and reality.”
“It’s a big letdown that Carey doesn’t see things my way,” Steve said. He paused to exhale. “But perhaps it’s better that we don’t see everything alike. We have more than one way to skin a cat.”
“More options might even save the cat’s life,” Carey retorted and smiled.
Steve chuckled. “More options might save my own.”
I laughed. “You guys are funny! Humor brings us together. So does empathy. When you put yourself in your partner’s shoes to feel what they’re feeling, you strengthen your connection. If you dismiss what they’re feeling, you diminish your connection. A successful relationship means you can each be your own person with different realities while empathizing with each other. You keep your own reality but can understand your partner’s. The Chinese have a wise saying: two strong people can work out anything.