Triangulation & Family Dynamics

family-4-posing-500pxEvery family, divorced or intact, experiences the fascinating dynamic called “triangulation.” Triangulation involves three (3) individuals, namely: Mom, Dad, and Child. Let’s explore what happens.

The illustration above shows a Father, Mother and Son. They form a triangulated relationship in which alignments are formed and broken in fluid and sometimes difficult ways. Sometimes Mom and Dad align by agreeing on things that impact their son. Often, Mom and Dad may disagree. For example, one parent may have an authoritarian parenting style with high expectations for the child while the other parent may be permissive and indulge the child.

When the child gets what he wants from the permissive parent, this only intensifies the authoritarian approach of the other parent. An alliance gets formed between the child and the permissive parent which alienates the authoritarian parent. While this may feel validating to the permissive parent, the “cut-off” which results can have significant negative ramifications for the child and the family system.

One way of understanding the impact of conflicting parental approaches is to imagine your child in a swimming pool. Parents who have conflicting parenting styles (permissive vs. authoritarian) put their child in a difficult spot, like being in the middle of a pool needing to get to the pools edge. In order to do so, the child must paddle hard. On the other hand, parents who share healthy parenting styles, unite and align. For the child, this is like starting from one end of the pool. It only requires a push off the wall to glide to the other side.

All children make use of triangulation without even knowing it. Little Suzy asks Dad if she can go play with her friend, Betty. Dad says, “Only after you finish your homework.” Unhappy with Dad’s decision, Suzy seeks out Mom who allows Suzie to go play with Betty right away. When Dad finds out that Suzie didn’t do her homework first, he’s angry. This can create tension between Dad and Mom.

When parents are separated or divorced, the dynamics of triangulation get played out in myriad ways. Good to be aware of this inevitable phenomena and explore ways to create “healthy triangulation” in your family system.

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