Sometimes when we want to talk with someone, we assume they wouldn’t understand, or worse still, wouldn’t listen. Maybe they’d even fire back some criticism at the messenger so they didn’t have to deal with the message. So we send our message through a third party.

This is called a ricochet message, or a bank shot, but these terms imply it just happens once. Usually messages keep coming this way, and so it’s more accurate to call this form of communication a triangle. It creates talks about third persons who aren’t there.

This form of communication isn’t very effective-- problems hardly ever get solved this way. Actually they get enlarged, because triangles are always an insult to the person being talked about.

Not all triangles are unhealthy. When you find you can’t talk with someone directly, arrange to have a third person mediate a new 3-way meeting. Ask him or her to uphold not one or the other of you, but your relationship, and the open and kind communication it needs.

One of the best descriptions of this mentally healthy triangle is Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18: 15-17. Businesses would do will to put this procedure into their policy manuals. It would cut way back on gossip, backstabbing, the fear of same, and so it’s great for team spirit and morale.

Most triangles are harmful, behind-the-back. One especially tricky triangle involves a victim, a villain (victimizer), and a rescuer. Psychiatrist Stephen Karpman has taught that when this situation doesn’t get resolved, and a person keeps being drawn into these roles, it feels a lot like the Bermuda Triangle. This is variously called trauma repetition, repetition compulsion, or trauma bonding, but policemen and counselors call it a Karpman triangle.

When someone gets traumatized and tries not to think about it, research shows that the trauma victim will keep feeling victimized by other things, and keep calling in others for rescue and to punish those perceived as abusers. Sadly, the drama doesn’t end—it keeps repeating itself.

And the roles keep changing: once you enter it as a rescuer, you often become a villain to one or both of the others, and the original villain often feels like a victim. You then feel like a victim, and may look to one of the others to bail you out, thus launching another round of Karpman Hades.

All the characters are drawn into the triangle by identifying with the victim in another, and before it’s over, you will all feel victimized. The only way for you to get out of a Karpman triangle is to detach from the game without emotion, realizing you’re neither victim, victimizer, nor rescuer.

Blame no one including yourself, and accept that both of the other two may continue to see you as a victimizer/villain. Realize they need to bond with that victim role more than they need to bond with you, mental health, or reality. You can only pray they will someday work through it.

Research shows that there is a much higher incidence of Karpman triangles in the lives of not only trauma victims with repressed memories, but also alcoholics, drug addicts, and behavior addicts like sex and gambling addicts, bulimics, etc. Why? Subconsciously, if something once upon a time came into them to hurt them, they keep looking for something else to come in and take the hurt away—a pill, a bottle, a Twinkie, a lottery ticket, or yes, a villain and a rescuer.

None of course will give more than temporary relief. The game must repeat itself, until the trauma is uncovered and healed in therapy, and the grip of the addictions are broken.

This column and the previous one are for people who are deeply frustrated with someone at home or at work. If most other people have the same problems getting along with this difficult person, your first step to making your peace is to understand your enemy.

Last week I explained how during hard times growing up, we all develop a character style. That’s the characteristic ways we’ve developed to handle feelings and relationships, to keep us safe from rejection and abuse. Extreme and inflexible character styles are known to us shrinks as "Axis Two", "personality disorders", or simply "PD’s".

Last week we looked at four pairings I often see when opposite disorders attract. With FEAR, POWER, ANGER, and RIGIDITY, those with too little are often attracted to those with too much, and the attraction works both ways.

This pattern of opposite extremes attracting is seen at all levels of life—human, animal, plant, cellular chemistry, and even way out there with astrological physics. Human relationships pair weak and strong, rich and poor, high IQ and emotional IQ, drunks and teetotalers, shy and outgoing, even healthy and sick.

The second step in making peace with difficult people is to realize you can’t change them. Accept your powerlessness over them. Stop beating your head against their walls by trying to rescue, appease, punish, or reform the difficult people.

The next mantra to repeat is accepting them: "I can accept them without approving of their behavior." "They have a right to act that way if they want to." If this is hard, it’s likely because you’re trying to skip to step four, which won’t work without the first three.

Now step four: choose a moderate emotional distance for your relationship. You can’t afford to get too close to PD’s, and if you want to get along with them, you can’t scoot too far back either. Stay close enough to where you both still need each other, but far enough back where you don’t need each other too much.

Step 5 is the most important, with the most potential for your coming to actually enjoy difficult people. It requires a good grasp on the first four. Hold them responsible for their selfish behavior by making your responses to their actions realistic, an accurate portrayal of how any normal person would react.

Imagine how a future roommate, coworker, boss, spouse, or neighbor would treat them. Look at how the healthy people you know deal with them, and you follow suit. The idea is to teach difficult people that in dealing with you, they will get exactly what they pay for.

I said this step of changing your reaction to hold them accountable is important, but anyone who’s tried it can tell you it’s by far the most difficult challenge in making peace with these people. (If you want to know more about particular strategies for "Coping with Difficult People", I wrote a book by that title a generation ago, and though it’s out of print, you can get a used copy on for next to nothing.)

When PD’s show us too much or too little of a certain behavior, our natural tendency is often to counterbalance: If they are irresponsible or unkind, we tend to be overly responsible or kind. But this only makes it easier for them to justify being difficult, so I’m saying counter your tendency to counterbalance (to go to the opposite extreme. Don’t go to any extreme.

Look for your tendencies to do too much of a good thing and cut back. This will round off your own rough edges of too much helping, analyzing, excusing, coddling, lecturing or punishing. If taking care of them keeps backfiring, take better care of the caretaker (that’s you!).

Do you see how this rounds off both your rough edges and theirs? It reduces friction between the two of you, and puts the rub where it belongs. The friction is felt inside each one of you, challenging you to be a more well-balanced person with smoother relationships.

When you become a more well-rounded person, you will soon discover a wonderful exception to opposites attracting. Well-rounded people attract other well-rounded people. The fellowship of the embittered losers will back away from you, and you will get more support from upbeat people. Take it and enjoy!

In conclusion, research has shown that opposites attract: unbalanced people with bad habits draw and are drawn to other losers at the opposite extreme. And winners attract: well adjusted folks are attracted to other healthy people. As many times as I’ve seen this work out in the lives of folks I work with, you can’t tell me there’s not a higher power somewhere trying to inspire us to grow up and get along with each other better!

Perhaps you’ve got someone in your life that year after year you just can’t get along with. Let’s call this person "Pat". You might want to ask yourself these questions:

1. Do other people have the same problems with Pat? If some people do not, find out how they get along with Pat, and imitate their approach. If you’re related to Pat as a spouse, a former spouse, a parent, a child, or a business partner, you have special needs of Pat. Your problems are probably more complicated than this column can address, but the insights here may well apply.

2. Do most people who try to get close to Pat (boss, coworkers, customers, parents, spouse, children, friends) have the same type of relationship troubles with Pat? If so, Pat has some kind of psychiatric disorder.

If Pat doesn’t have the symptoms of another type of psychiatric problem such as a psychosis, brain damage, mood or anxiety disorder, or behavioral addiction, he likely is the one person in five who has a "personality disorder." Like the term implies, folks with personality disorders have "an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual’s culture."

We keep expecting them to feel, think or act the way most other people do, but they are different somehow. What makes them different is their "character style", their habitual way of relating to people and emotions. They began to use these coping styles earlier in life to protect them from the full and to them very painful experience of human emotions and close relationships.

They don’t want to get close or feel vulnerable, and they are better at this game than we are.

The first key to getting along with them is God’s answer to our first request in the Serenity Prayer: we learn to accept these character styles that we cannot change.

One type of character style is the Addictive Personality. Folks with this way of relating to life will tend to overdo something, some chemical or activity that gives them a rush. If they shut down or enter recovery for one addiction, they are likely to soon pick up another.

A close relative is the Narcissistic Personality. Like addicts, these folks have an image of themselves as a special person, with some deep expectation or feeling of entitlement to special favors and privileges, like being the center of attention, or getting what they want at others’ expense. They use or manipulate people to get what they feel entitled to.

These addictive and narcissistic types tend to attract and produce another type of personality disorder, the Dependent (or "Codependent") Personality. These folks tend to play the roles of chumps and suckers who are so preoccupied with the feelings and needs of their significant others that they neglect their own. They draw way too much of their identity, purpose and direction from those they take care of. We keep expecting them to "get a life," but they don’t feel they can or should until first their significant other feels totally fine.

Three other pairs of personality disorders tend to attract and produce each other. (I won’t define them all here, but you can Google them.) Paranoid, Asocial and Avoidant Personalities (too much fear of closeness) tend to attract and be attracted to Histrionic (hyperdramatic, hypercheerful) Personalities, who have too little.

Aggressive, Defensive, Explosive and Anti-social Personalities (too much anger and too little guilt) tend to attract and be attracted to those with character styles that are Self-defeating (too much guilt, too easily scape-goated) and Passive-aggressive (too little anger and assertiveness).

Overly rigid Obsessive-Compulsive Personalities (too much structure and deliberation) attract and are attracted to folks with too little: Impulsive Personalities who are not motivated to outgrow lifestyles which mimic the symptoms of ADD or ADHD.

Next week I’ll write about ways to get along with these people that don’t aim at changing them but rather at just holding them more responsible for being the way they are. I’ll show you how to keep their personality or character style from getting you down, and avoid the all too natural habit of beating your head against their walls.


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Dr. Paul F. Schmidt