How to Address Triangulation in the Family System
Updated: Nov 16, 2022
What is Triangulation?
Triangulation occurs when a new person is introduced to an already existing 1:1 relational dyad. This occurs when a parental dyad has a baby. The triangulation occurs when the child absorbs the stress from the parents' relationship, lessoning the intensity of the tension between the parents.
Background of Triangulation
The concept of Triangulation was created by Murray Bowen (1913-1990) as one of his eight concepts of family systems theory. Family systems theory has been foundational in our understanding of family dynamics since its development in the 1950's. Salvador Minuchin proposed three ways that triangulation originate in families:
1) Babies respond to their parents' unresolved relational stress with physical symptoms like crying or throwing up. This unites the parents as they focus their attention on the baby and not on each other.
2) Parents criticize one another to their child, relieving their own stress, and trying to get the child to be on their side.
3) A parent forms a second triangle with someone or something else because they are checked out of the marriage. The child then, fills in the role of emotional, relational spouse for the other parent.
What each of these scenarios demonstrate, is true of most triangulation, it causes the child's attention outward instead of inward. Triangulation takes away a child's ability to explore, develop, and establish their individual self. If a child is exposed to violence, aggression, stress, and trauma, the child will absorb some of it and have to focus on how to navigate their environment safely. In contrast, our true selves are able to step out in a safe and secure environment: where the parental dyad is unified and providing protection and support to their child.
The effects of Triangulation
Can Triangulation be positive? Yes. Bringing a child into a marriage can give the couple a new perspective. Having a child is an opportunity for parents to self-actualize, to address our flaws and short-comings, to learn and grow, to correct immature habits, and to establish a new healthier lifestyle. In the marital relationship, introducing a child is an opportunity for the couple to partner and work together to raise their child, communicate more effectively, to mend their relationship, and to experience positive life memories together. We instinctively place the well-being of the child above our own self interest. Having a child provides the opportunity for the parents to have a fresh perspective, greater motivation to address the problems in the marriage, and establish a re-ordered set of priorities.
However, left unchecked, triangulation can perpetuate and have a negative effect on the child. Children who are in a triangulated relationship with their parents say they feel, "Invisible, stuck in the middle of their parents' issues, and pressured to choose sides." They feel stressed, anxious, angry, confused, rejected, cynical, resentment, hurt, tension, burdened, disconnected, dismissed, and unloved because of their triangulated relationship with their parents. If a couple is experiencing marital problems and focuses on their child instead of working on their marriage, this may place stress and pressure on the child.
How to address Triangulation
1. Identify Triangulation
Reflect on your relationship with your parents growing up.
a.) Did your parents have longstanding, unaddressed issues? (e.g., Financial difficulties, fights over household chores, conflicts with in-laws, disagreements over hobbies.)
b.) Were you brought into your parents' conflicts instead of them resolving the conflict on their own?
c.) Were you pulled into an inappropriate role as a child? The role of the child is to learn and to be dependent on their parents. The role of the parent is teach, protect, correct, and provide for their child. Inappropriate roles for a child include:
Mediating their parents' conflicts,
Being a confidant for one of the parents, where they are telling you more than you need to know,
Being the spouse to one of your parents,
Being a parent to one of your parents.
d.) Did you feel excessive stress, anxiety, and worry about your parents?
If you answered "yes" to a.), b.), c.), or d.), you may have grown up in a triangulated relationship with your parents. Even if it was not a full-blown triangulated relationship with your parents, and just traits of these descriptions, it may still be helpful to consider the following steps to heal and grow from your childhood experiences.
2. Differentiation of Self
If you identify with being a triangulated child, it is natural to feel angry. You may want to blame and attack your parents, but this will only reinforce the triangulation, than cause productive change. Instead, focus on differentiating your individual self. Since triangulated children are accustomed to taking on stress and emotions in relationship, they may become overly dependent on engaging with people before taking a look at their own selves.
Self-differentiation is setting self-defined goals instead of being caught up with the relational processes around you. Instead of spending your lifetime reacting to and being affected by those close to you, pause and consider your own wants and needs. Begin to explore and get a clearer picture of who you are, what you want to do with your life, and how you can act on it without blaming/attacking or avoiding those around.
3. Address your relationship with your parents
What gets in the way of being your true self when you are with your parents? Because of triangulation, what often gets in the way is not wanting to disappointment your parents, the strong desire to earn their approval, and not wanting to hurt a parents' feelings and upset them. It may be tempting to remove yourself from your parents, but this is only reinforcing the pattern of displaced responsibility. Although it may not always be possible, the best intervention is to address the way each person functions within the triangulated system. A natural thought in differentiating of self is, "I no longer want to be a part of this system.", but fight this urge to escape, and commit to addressing your relationship with your parents directly.
Action steps: Set a specific time and place to communicate with your parents. Acknowledge the triangulated relational dynamics. Acknowledge each person's role and how they are contributing to the triangulation. Practice communicating "I statements", (e.g., I want __, I am___, I feel___). Establish the role of the child: receive your parents' love and guidance. Establish the role of the parents: encourage and teach your child. Establish the parental dyad: Ask your parents to work on their problems on their own. Set boundaries (e.g., please don't talk to me about your marital problems).
4. Expect pushback
Whenever someone takes a step to individuate from a triangulated relationship, there is going to be pushback from the system. We may even pushback ourselves, making excuses not to engage with addressing these problems caused by triangulation. We are habitual creatures, and we react to change. You may be accused of being selfish, disrespectful, dishonoring, and other critical judgements, in an attempt to keep the triangulated status quo. Family triangles are naturally resistant to change, so anticipate pushback. Focus your efforts on differentiating yourself, addressing your relational dynamics with your parents, and commit to persevere in those goals. Resist the temptation to blame your parents and attack others. Practice rolling with the pushback as par for the course. Acknowledge it as part of the process of change and growth.
5. Address how you are replicating Triangulation in other relationships.
Left unchecked, patterns of triangulation may continue in other relationships of your life.
a.) Marriage and your parents. A spouse who was a triangulated child, may be overly reliant on advice from their parents, creating a triangulation between husband, wife, and parents, to the detriment of the marriage. Leave your loyalty to your parents and cleave to your spouse. You can still have a relationship with your parents, but you need to set a boundary of their influence over you and your marriage.
b.) Marriage and your children. Triangulation can become generational. You can be replicating the same relational dynamics you experienced as a child with your parents. You may be placing your marital stress and anxiety onto your child. Work hard on your marital relationship. Devote time and energy to communicate, enjoy positive activities together, and resolve conflicts, so that you can work well together to raise your child.
c.) Close friendships. Examine the role you play in your relationships. Traits of triangulation can often appear in friendships when we overstep boundaries and try to parent, correct, control our friends, or vice versa, become overly needy and look to our friends in order to be secure and confident.
It is helpful to assess your relational patterns. Write down relationships in your life and examine your patterns of communication, vulnerability, trust, and how you navigate conflicts.