Shelley had never considered the idea that her ‘tight’ mother and sister’s relationship could provide her with some ‘growing up’ opportunities as she practiced tolerating being an outsider.
I was chatting to a friend (who I’ll call Shelley) about how my relationship with my sisters has grown to be such a positive resource for me. Shelley bemoaned her relationship with her only sister saying that she always felt pushed to the outside while her older sister and mother shared a cosy togetherness. She felt excluded as she observed her mother and sister sharing much of their life with each other. Shelley sensed that they often talked critically about her, judging her motives and discussing her foibles.
I asked her how she manages feeling like the outsider with her sister and mother. Shelley’s response was: “I’ve given up on ever having a decent relationship with either of them, especially my sister. She is just a drain on my life and I can’t be bothered to work on it being any different.”
Shelley described occasionally making an effort to get her mother to herself but always felt like she gets pushed to the background seeing her mother privileging time with her sister.
This kind of relationship triangle is not uncommon. Usually when there is tension with a sibling this can best be understood by looking at the different relationship each sibling has with each parent. The way the parent invests in, leans on or worries about each of their children (at any age) will shape the way their children experience each other. Shelley viewed her sister as arrogant and exclusive but this can be seen differently when understanding the way her mother drew strength from her relationship with her eldest through the growing up years. When Shelley’s parents divorced she recalled that her mum looked increasingly to her eldest daughter for company and support. As the younger daughter by a few years Shelley remembers always being treated as the baby who was monitored by both her mother and sister. In contrast, in her relationship with her Dad, she sensed that he found her easiest to spend time with and would often spoil her.
As we chatted I shared some of my own sensitivities to being left out of some of my family relationships. These could typically be a sister gathering where I felt that I couldn’t get a word in; or hearing two members of my family discuss important things that I had not previously heard about. I have learned that being on the outside of a close twosome provides me with some excellent practice in regulating my emotions – toning down any negative reactions to those I feel excluded by. It’s been useful to practice being more comfortable as an outsider. As one who felt most secure when my mother leant on me, I have worked at not always be ‘needing to be needed’. I have consciously cultivated appreciating when others align to support each other with myself on the periphery. I’ve worked at stopping trying to get attention or to have more air time in these ‘outsider’ situations. I’ve learned to affirm the closeness of the other two people. This has enabled me to tone down my anxiety-driven competition to get the relationship inclusion that steadied me. What’s been fascinating in these changes is watching how the ‘tightness’ between others starts to appear less intense or offensive. As such, the sense of exclusion declines over time.
Shelley was surprised to hear of these experiences. She had never considered the idea that her mother and sister’s relationship could provide her with some ‘growing up’ opportunities as she practiced tolerating being an outsider. Considering the benefit of their relationship for her family’s coping with its many life challenges also provided a novel perspective. Shelley could be less critical of her sister as she saw how much the ‘mother – daughter’ closeness had helped her mother to keep up her life functioning at the difficult times. Rather than try to get some insider time with her Mum she wondered about conveying to her mother and sister how she admired the way they help each other out. She laughed at the prospect of such a radical reversal.
I don’t know if Shelley will begin to think differently about her sister through the lens of the triangle – that includes her and her Mum. It’s never easy to make such adjustments to our relationship sensitivities. Distancing and blaming usually feels like an easier path. I think it’s helpful to consider how we all need to be able to function well as outsiders in many parts of life. There will always be twosomes and groups that pull together as ways of managing life in families, workplaces, community groups and churches. We won’t always be in the cosy inside group and that is a good thing – with many advantages. When we are struggling with feelings of exclusion it’s useful to ponder how we are most likely a part of a relationship triangle and any reactions such as distancing or competitive manoeuvrers will contribute to the intensity of the triangle.
Questions for Reflection
- Are there times I feel particularly stressed when feeling excluded? In which relationships does this usually occur?
- Can I see a triangle at work in these situations – where two people have steadied each other by being aligned in contrast to a third?
- In which situations am I on the inside of a triangle? When am I on the inside?
- What patterns do I notice when I feel like an outsider? Can I see ways to halt those patterns of distance, criticism, competiveness, pursuing another for attention?
- What are the opportunities to practice being able to maturely manage in the outside position?
For more information about relationship triangles read – ‘Growing Yourself Up” pages 44-46. And 144-5
Bowen writes FTCP p 478 & 480
‘A two person system is unstable in that it forms itself into a three person system or triangle under stress.’
‘When there is finally one who can control his/her emotional responsiveness and not take sides with either of the two, and stay constantly in contact with the other two, the emotional intensity within the twosome will decrease and both will move to a higher level of differentiation [maturity].’
‘The Excluded Sister – feeling like an outsider in the family’ – Jenny Brown