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The family triangle

"Freud developed the idea of the Oedipal triangle in a very specific context. In his view, we attach ourselves passionately to the parent of the opposite sex, and enter into a situation of rivalry with the parent of the same sex. Depending on how the Oedipal triangle is resolved in childhood – and this includes the parents’ responses as well as one’s own innate temperament – our later relationships will inevitably be affected. If we unequivocally “win” the exclusive love of the parent of the opposite sex – and the operative word is unequivocally – we suffer because we never learn to separate or share. We become puffed up with false infantile potency because we believe we have beaten the rival, and we don’t realise that the beloved parent’s motives may be rather murky.

A parental marriage fraught with difficulty may lie behind a mother’s or father’s “favouring” of a child as a kind of replacement spouse. But the child, of course, does not know this, and feels all-powerful. This narcissistic identification with the parent may open the door to a later inability to cope with any kind of relationship disappointment. And one’s relationships with one’s own sex are also disturbed accordingly.

Audience: Disturbed in what way?

Liz: If a boy sees his mother and father in conflict, and “wins” the Oedipal battle by becoming his mother’s surrogate husband, he may experience deep unconscious guilt toward his father. There is an instinctive sense of the illicit nature of the Oedipal bond, and if one succeeds, that is psychological if not physical incest. Also, he may lose respect for his father, whom he has pushed out of the way with great ease. At least, the boy imagines this, although it is more likely that the mother has done the pushing, or that the father has voluntarily extricated himself from the parental marriage, physically or emotionally, and found solace elsewhere. That is what I mean by “false potency”. The boy’s image of father may then be of someone weak, impotent, and easily beaten, and somewhere inside he will fear this in himself, because he, too, is male.

This boy may have to keep affirming his Oedipal victory later in life by turning every male friend into a rival, and relating exclusively to women.

I think we all know men like this – one meets them at dinner parties, and they do not connect with other men, but only to the women who are attached to other men. His bond with his mother will have cost him his relationship with his father, which may mean he has no positive internal masculine image on which to draw, and no sense of support from the community of men around him. His sense of male confidence and male sexual identity must rely entirely on whether his women love him. That is a very insecure and painful place in which to live. There are many ramifications, but that gives you some idea of what we are dealing with. We could apply the same interpretation in the case of a woman and her father. Is it clear?

Audience: All too clear. Thank you.

Liz: If we unequivocally lose the Oedipal battle – and the operative word, once again, is unequivocally – we also suffer. Absolute Oedipal defeat is a humiliation which can severely undermine one’s self-confidence. By “absolute”, I mean that the child feels no emotional contact of any kind has been achieved with the beloved parent, and a profound feeling of failure ensues. The other parent is usually blamed, but it is not so simple as that; more often, the desired parent is quite incapable of offering any positive emotional response to his or her child. Unfortunately, it is usually impossible for the child to face this fact about an idealised love-object. And so the failure is accepted as one’s own, and the rival is more powerful because one is clearly inadequate and unlovable.

Later in life, severe Oedipal defeat can generate a gnawing sense of sexual inferiority. It can contribute to many destructive relationship patterns, not least the kind of triangle where one is hopelessly in love with a person who is permanently attached elsewhere. One may play the unhappy Instrument of Betrayal, forever knocking at the closed door of a lover’s marriage. Or one may play the Betrayed, helplessly repeating the Oedipal defeat in the role of the established partner who is humiliated by the greater power of the mother- or father rival. With both unequivocal Oedipal victory and unequivocal Oedipal defeat, we are unable to establish a psychological separation from the beloved parent, and a part of us never really grows beyond childhood. We may become stuck in repetitive relationship dynamics where we keep trying to “fix” the original hurt through a triangle. Freud thought that the healthiest resolution of the Oedipal conflict is a kind of mild defeat, where we get enough love from the beloved parent but are still forced to acknowledge that the parents’ relationship is beyond our power to destroy.

We may then learn to respect relationships between other people, and build confidence through establishing new bonds beyond the magic parental circle. One’s extended family, peer group, and teachers may play an important role in helping the child to move beyond the parental triangle. We are here in the realm of what Winnicott called “good enough” – a good enough parental marriage, a good enough relationship with both parents, and sufficient love and kindness for the Oedipal defeat to be accompanied by a reasonable sense of security within the family. In this most basic of triangles, it is important that we do not fear punishment from the parent-rival.

Sadly, many parents, themselves emotionally starved and resentful in an unhappy marriage, do punish their children for “stealing” the partner’s love. Someone must be blamed for the failure of the marriage, and often it is the child. We need to recognise that we cannot supplant one parent in order to have the other, but we also need to know that we will be loved by the parent we have tried to overthrow. Naturally this is an ideal which few families can achieve. A great many people suffer from one degree or another of excessive Oedipal victory or excessive Oedipal defeat. What really matters is what we do with it, and how much consciousness we have of it. And nothing is quite so potent an activator of consciousness as an adult relationship triangle.

There is a lot of value in Freud’s psychological model, and there are many situations where absolute Oedipal defeat or absolute Oedipal victory is linked with a repetitive tendency to become involved in triangles later in life. But there are several areas where I part ways with Freud. I don’t believe the parent to whom we attach ourselves is necessarily the parent of the opposite sex. The parent may be one’s own sex. Oedipal feelings are not, after all, “sexual” in an adult sense, but have more to do with emotional fusion. So do many of our apparently purely sexual feelings in adulthood; sexuality carries many complex levels which are not always conscious. An Oedipal defeat or victory involving the parent of one’s own sex may have equally painful repercussions, and be equally conducive to later relationship triangles. We may need to broaden our understanding of the Oedipal dynamic, because it doesn’t always involve a “classic” heterosexual attachment.

A boy may adore his father, and yet be unable to get near him because mother is always in the way. She may be determined to have her son entirely to herself, and may resent a relationship between the boy and the husband who has rejected her. That boy may grow up feeling that his father doesn’t value him, because children are not usually able to recognise the machinations going on in the parents’ marriage – although they invariably sense them. If one is rejected, it must be because one is deficient.

That can do many different things to a child’s psyche. One may feel dislocated from one’s own sexuality, because the beloved parent is a model for that sexuality and the bond is too weak or negative to allow a positive model to be internalised. It can also mean that a man will forever try to win his father’s love by proving how manly he is. He may then unconsciously set up triangles which are not really about the women with whom he becomes involved, but are actually about impressing other men – or punishing them for his father’s rejection. A woman may try to win her mother’s love and admiration in the same way, or punish other women for her mother’s failure to love her. The rival in an adult triangle may be secretly far more important to the individual than the apparent object of desire. We need only listen to the obsessive preoccupation the Betrayed and the Instrument of Betrayal have with each other to recognise that the situation may be far more complex than it seems."

Source - Liz Greene, Eternal triangle, Relationships and how to survive them. pg 123-125. This seminar was given on 15 Mar, 1998 at Regents College, London, as part of the Spring Term of the seminar programme of the Centre for Psychological Astrology

Art: 'Talon'

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