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The Deadly Effect of Triangles: The Hidden Influence of Other Family Members on Our Relationships

(2 minute read)

In a previous post, I talked about how relationships are circles, not lines; how people in a relationship affect each other and are in turn affected by each other in an ongoing cycle.

In keeping with that geometric theme, this post is about triangles: Why there are generally at least three people in any two person relationship. That may sound strange, so take a moment and think about any relationship you have which involves strong positive or negative feelings — most likely with a parent, romantic partner, child, good friend or sibling. Consider how much that relationship is affected by a third party. Perhaps your relationship with your child involves protecting them from your more discipline-oriented spouse. Or every time you call your mother she complains about your father. Maybe you dislike the sibling who seems closer to one of your parents than you are. An in-law drives you crazy by interfering in your relationship with your spouse. Or a relationship with a friend is marked by long, gossipy conversations about a mutual friend (or enemy).

Within limits, this is all to be expected and just a part of being social animals. In most triangles, no one get hurt. But sometimes the third person becomes the focal point of the relationship. And when that happens, there’s always a reason for it — and usually a problem lurking somewhere.

A classic situation, well known to therapists who treat families, is the parent-child triangle. It occurs when a marriage is in trouble — perhaps too distant, or too conflict ridden. Children are exquisitely sensitive to these kinds of things and often become anxious. That anxiety can be expressed in a number of ways: bed wetting, refusal to go to school, unwillingness to be separated from a parent, rebellious behavior, poor grades and drug or alcohol use are common. Faced with this problem, parents often pull together, reducing conflict and increasing engagement with each other. Unfortunately, that establishes an unconscious connection in the child’s mind: their “bad” behavior brings their parents together. The behavior is rewarded and reinforced by the parents’ response. The covert reward of saving the parents’ marriage outweighs whatever overt punishment is meted out. Sometimes, such children become martyrs to the family unity: their behavior saves their parents’ marriage but destroys their own lives. If you find yourself struggling with a child whose behavior is inexplicable, you might want to consider whether that child is simply reacting to an unresolved issue between you and your spouse.

Another common situation is also sparked by a troubled marriage. When one spouse (usually the primary caregiver, and for purposes of this article, let’s say the wife) feels isolated and distant from her partner, she can easily turn to a child for emotional closeness. The bond between that child and the mother becomes very strong, and the other parent is pushed away. The child senses how much the mother depends on them, and takes the mother’s side against the father, weakening that relationship. Mother and child ally against the father who may well react by withdrawing further, or with anger — either of which will reinforce the mother-child alliance. Things often come to a head when the child leaves home or forms romantic relationships, both of which can leave the mother feeling abandoned, and the child feeling guilty. Such children often feel responsible for their mother’s happiness even through their own adulthood, while their mothers make ongoing efforts to insert themselves more deeply into their grown child’s life. Everyone knows mothers-in-law who are a terror to their son or daughter-in-law, seeing them as competitors for their child’s affection. (Jokes about this situation span cultures and continents: There’s a particularly spiny cactus in the Atacama Desert in Chile nicknamed “Mother-in-law’s Cushion”.)

Triangles involving siblings go back to the Bible and the Koran, where Cain murders Abel not because of anything Abel did to him, but because God accepted Abel’s sacrifice and rejected Cain’s. It can feel a lot safer to get angry at a favored sibling than it is to be angry at the parent who is doing the favoring. Family therapists can be very helpful in restructuring problematic triangles and ensuring that no modern day Cains take out their frustration on their Abel counterparts. And couples therapists can be equally helpful in identifying parent-child triangles, restoring the connection between parents and ensuring that the child doesn’t become a martyr to family unity.

(If you enjoyed this article, you might also want to read Avoiding Toxic Relationships: Intimacy, Marriage and the Unconscious)


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