Divorcing in the Triangle

by Carey Gauzens, LCSW, CP. Clinical Coordinator/Psychotherapist

Divorce word cloud concept

Having worked in the mental health field for more than 30 years now, I have seen a great many people, who have come in seeking help for a variety of different issues. I have been privileged to listen to the stories of those who have lost a loved one, I have worked to create a safe space for those who have suffered abuse and I have rejoiced with many teens and young adults as they have found their voice, and their path as they launch into adulthood.  I feel very lucky to have walked with many people—they have taught me, and I have been honored by their trust.

Yet, in these many years of working as a therapist, one of the issues that I feel the most powerless in the face of is the intense contempt with which many married couples treat one another as their relationships are moving toward divorce.  It is a powerful pain when one realizes that the person they counted on sharing “forever” with is not only perhaps not the best possible person for them to be with… but sometimes begins to feel very much like the worst possible person to be with.  

So many people have been through divorce at this point in our society that it is almost ubiquitous.  No one goes into a marriage believing it will end, and yet nearly 50% of marriages still end in divorce.  The reasons are many, and I’ve almost never seen a couple who came in to therapy and ended up divorcing who did not have valid reasons for each member to feel:  angry, hurt, unloved, betrayed, ignored, invalidated, discounted, mistreated and unappreciated…. to name only a handful of the emotions that come with the end of a marriage that both people expected would last until death did them part.  Divorce brings wounds that for many people remain with them a lifetime.  

As a therapist working in a pastoral counseling agency, my deepest wish is to help couples find healing, renewed faith and resurrection in their most intimate relationships… and how I wish it ended that way for all of the individuals I see.  

Sadly, it does not.  No matter how one looks at it theologically, the sad fact is that some marriages do end.  How I wish that I could roll back time and catch the individuals I am working with at the beginning of their relationship and plant this seed:  “No matter what happens, no matter how difficult, treat each other like the honored and sacred beings that each of you are.”    

I wish there were a contract that couples were required to sign at the wedding, right before the marriage license, that said, “I _________ (insert name) will never treat you like my mortal enemy.  I understand that there are no guarantees, and my first commitment in this relationship is to do everything to honor my vows… AND IF for some terrible reason in the future, one or both of us fail to meet that blessed, but extremely difficult standard, I promise here and now, that I will always treat you like a human being with dignity and worth.  I will remember that in Isaiah, God said of each of us, “You are precious in my eyes.  You are honored and I love you.  I will remember that in nearly every religious and spiritual text, there is a similar message about loving one’s neighbor as one’s self.  And I will remember that, even if I do not believe in a Higher Power of any sort, that it is still a pretty good idea to refrain from outright cruelty.”    

This seems so basic, and yet I have seen the kindest of people, on both sides of a couple, become so ripped apart by their pain and their anger, their betrayal and their complete dismay at their life and love and family falling apart that they inadvertently lose sight of their own, and even more often, their partner’s, humanity.   

In my own life, a close friend said of the first year after his divorce, “I was clinically insane for about a year.  I sat at my office and went through the motions of my job, but they were paying me to be physically present, and emotionally completely gone.”   

Devastating betrayals and disappointments leave people wounded in ways they never emotionally imagined possible, and as a result of that overwhelming emotion, they become, temporarily, the most survival oriented “fight or flight” versions of themselves.  Mercy is a difficult concept to hold onto when you feel the person you love most in the world has hurt you more deeply than you have ever been hurt before.  

Through the fog of pain, it seems to me there is a good concept to remember from the early days of addictions counseling.  It is called the Karpman Drama Triangle.


People find their way in to this triangle because they have been hurt.  According to world renowned psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler Ross, is always wounding and trauma (trauma with a small t or Trauma with a big T) that bring us into the triangle.   In cases of violence, cruelty or abuse, the Trauma in a marriage creates a true victim in the person on the receiving end of the abuse.  Perhaps in a marriage where one partner has had an affair, or an ongoing active addiction, there is Trauma with a T.  But in every marriage, some trauma with a little t creeps in as well.  

The time your spouse completely forgot something truly important to you, the moment you looked at them and thought, “How could you possibly think what you just did (or said) was OK?”  Relationships are hard, and none of us come with manuals for exactly how our particular model of amazing handiwork of the Creator is wired up… we would do well to come with Care and Feeding instructions!  In a marriage that is breaking up, whether the Trauma comes from one or several “Big T traumas” or from a seemingly endless number of “small t traumas,” each member feels in some way wounded.  

At some point, each person has been genuinely wounded.  Somewhere along the way, however, the problem becomes that divorcing partners become convinced that they are only fixed in one position in the triangle… usually the victim.  “He left me, what right does he have to feel victimized?!”  “She fell in love with someone else, for heaven’s sake, I am the one who was victimized here!”  

Whether from the outside looking in, someone else might see or agree with each partner’s point of view, more often than not, both people feel they’ve been hurt, let down and or otherwise harmed by their partner.  When we can say genuinely and directly, “When you did (X), I was very angry, and I cannot be with you anymore,” and act with integrity, even in the face of being furious and hurt, we manage to stay out of the triangle.  When what you are saying on the outside is completely congruent with what you are feeling on the inside, then you are staying out of the triangle.  

However, each of us is human, and sometimes the easier, though far less healthy, way to manage that pain becomes to take on a black and white fixed role… “S/he is the one who is the Perpetrator; s/he did the worst thing., what I’ve done wrong is nothing!”  “I am the only one who has been carrying this  marriage for years, so I deserve (the house, the car, a custody arrangement with the kids that is punishingly unfair to the other partner.).  Boy is s/he going to be sorry without me!”  

It is easy to see ourselves in the “good roles” (victim—powerless and not at any fault at all, rescuer—heroic and self-sacrificing… the virtuous one.)  Here is the far more difficult truth:  At some point or another we each step into the role of perpetrator in the triangle.   

Most of us are not Perpetrators, with a “capital P,” but it’s the rare human being who has never unfairly yelled at someone, or taken a little bit of an extra advantage for ourselves.  This seems to become quite clear during a divorce.

Perhaps we’ve been victimized, and in our anger, we believe that this justifies the expensive attorney we’ve hired to prevent us having to share custody of the kids… “because s/he doesn’t deserve that much time with the kids anyway.”

Or, after having taken care of an underfunctioning partner for so long, we finally say, “Forget it, that’s it, I’m done. I’ve supported her/him all of this time, and s/he doesn’t want me?  Well then s/he’s not going to get another (dollar, hug, kindness) from me ever!”

We are not abusers or criminals or monsters, but the moment we move from angry but fair to angry and entitled, or angry and justifying doing or saying something to our ex that we would feel embarrassed or ashamed to say to a stranger, we are dancing in the triangle.

Carey Gauzens is a psychotherapist in our Alexandria Center.  If you would like to make an appointment with Carey, please contact her at careygauzens@verizon.net

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