Ask Dr. J

Dear Dr. J

Five years ago, our church called a new Pastor. Early on, my wife and I invited him and his wife over to help make them feel welcome to their strange, new environment. After a relatively short time, we started picking up some signals that there was some dependent behavior developing. It was coming from the pastor’s wife. My wife, Jill, was rapidly becoming her best friend and trusted confidant….to the exclusion of everybody else!

Over the years, we have come to learn that the pastor’s wife has a difficult family history, and we understand why she’s the way she is. But, she is always sick or getting sick, never happy, always some crisis to worry about, etc., etc. She is not a fun person to be around, to say the least. Her dependency on Jill is as bad or worse than ever. The gossipers in church are complaining about how “the pastor and his wife are always with Mike and Jill”…..she even sits next to Jill in church every Sunday!

The one time in the past that I “cut the cord” by telling her that our cell group was full (it really was and there were other groups available!), all hell broke loose. Basically, she was like a small child who didn’t get her way, and she cried, pouted, and had a spiritual crisis, according to her husband. Her husband (the pastor) is totally nonconfrontational and chooses to not deal with her, or any other conflict situation for that matter. She is definitely the controller in the marriage.

Frankly, we’re at a loss as to how to deal with this situation. Jill and I both believe, based on our past experiences, that if we confront her assertively, it will do real long-term damage to our relationship with both of them. Because of the positions we both hold in the church, we just can’t risk this. My plan, at this point, is to go to her husband and tell him of our concerns and let him deal with it as he wishes. I know this is triangulation, I just don’t know what else to do. Any thoughts?


Dear Mike

I don’t have all the details of this picture, but I think I get it. You mentioned in your last sentence about triangulation. So, I know you get the concept. But for the others reading: In personal dynamics, there is a thing called triangulating. It means that instead of making a straight line between the two parties involved, you make a triangle which brings a third party into the dynamic. Triangles are no-no’s. In communication, you should always strive for straight lines because this is the direct approach.

Mike, you potentially have triangles all over the place, but maybe not. Let’s take a look. First, is the issue between Jill and Pastor’s wife? If so, the straight line is between them, and Jill should be trying to figure this out so she can approach the pastor’s wife directly. But, I’m sensing that you and Jill are in this together. Which means that you and Jill are the starting point….to the pastor’s wife. So, that’s kosher. But you don’t want to approach her because she’s a loose cannon. That brings in the pastor (Yes, the third point to the triangle)….which you mentioned at the end of your letter.

It’s very important that there is no disagreement between you and Jill on this. If there is, you’re back to square one. Moving on as a team, you are both held hostage by this woman’s emotions. As far as breaking free of this five year captivity, I’m assuming that Jill was the first to try. After all, she has been the one monopolized by this woman’s needy attention. From there, it sounds like you two have been problem solving together and trying different approaches here and there to make some kind of change in this dynamic.

You tried to take a stand once by keeping her out of a group and, not surprisingly, her bad behavior escalated. You’re right….like a spoiled child. Unfortunately, the pastor is in the position to give her what she wants. And, as you said, he’s not about to rock the boat with anyone, let alone his wife.

So, you and Jill both agree you want out from under it, but can’t figure out how to get there. Well, of course, assertiveness is always the best strategy, but you’ve got some other things riding on this. Namely, your position in the church and the need for both of you to stay involved there. And let’s not forget the pastor’s wife has a lot of power over her husband….and he’s powerful in the church. Yes, that makes it a little sticky.

What I’m not so sure about is your plan to go to the pastor. Yes, it is a triangle, and if you’re going to break that triangle rule, you should have a pretty strong possibility of remedying the problem. You said he’s a pushover where she’s concerned, so I’m not sure why you would expect him to be effective in this case. The way I see it, you have a very slim chance of getting a positive outcome, and maybe even a chance for a repeat performance of the “spiritual crisis” reaction you got before.

If you don’t want to confront her, or him, or them, for obvious reasons, your only choice is to begin to set small boundaries and stick to them. See if you can gradually begin to back out slowly. I have a guess you’ve tried this, but you and Jill need to sit down and make a firm plan between the two of you and make sure you follow through…no loopholes. One thing you must stop doing is allowing this woman to aggrevate you and ruin your day with her clinging behavior. If you can’t change the outside circumstances, you must change your inside interpretation of it. Try to let go of your annoyance and frustration about it. Being in the church setting makes it particularly difficult to deal with this kind of manipulation. If the politics continue, maybe you really should give serious thought to making a change….your personal spiritual growth and wellbeing is pretty important.

Dr. J

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