Triangulation – What It Is and How It May Be Destroying Your Marriage

As a Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice, I see couples for a large variety of reasons. Couples may need counseling to deal with infidelity, lack of trust, financial incompatibility, stress caused by in-laws, poor communication, sexual problems, and the list goes on. Another common problem for which couples seek counseling is the marital dilemma of triangulation, though most come to therapy with little idea of what that is or how it contributes to their marital stress.

As ‘triangulation’ is a clinical term, a brief explanation of what triangulation is may be helpful. Triangulation is a psychological concept that was first introduced by family therapy theorist, Murray Bowen in 1955. Along with another family therapy pioneer named Salvador Minuchin, Bowen was able to link the development of maladjustment in children to triangulation which, in simple terms, is a dysfunctional relationship device that is used to divert tension and conflict when two people are experiencing stress in their relationship. For triangulation to occur, a third person is drawn into the dyad (a two-person relationship) in order to diffuse relationship stress. Triangulation typically results in a temporary reduction of relationship tension though the essential problem remains unresolved. For the purpose of this article we will look at the triangulation process that goes on between marital units and children.

Triangulation of a child can happen in more than one way. For example, in an effort to satisfy her need for intimacy, which is not being met by her husband, a mother may triangulate her child into the marriage by becoming excessively ‘close’ to that child. She may spend most of her free time with the child in order to eschew spending time with her husband. She may be hyper-involved at her child’s school and in his extracurricular activities. In a conscious or sub-conscious attempt to avoid one-on-one time with her husband, she may refuse to leave her child with a babysitter on the grounds that she doesn’t trust others to care for him properly. She may inappropriately confide in her child about the private details of her marriage. She may take sides against her husband in disciplinary matters in order to defend her child.

Likewise, a father in a troubled marriage may triangulate a child in similar ways. He may, for example, take it upon himself to plan only “family” activities, insisting that free time should always include the couple’s child. He may resist his wife’s desire for intimacy by chronically allowing his child’s schedule to trump the couple’s genuine need to nurture their marriage through time spent alone with one another.

Both parents in the above examples may justify their choices claiming “devotion” to their respective children. But, in both cases, the devotion is excessive and unwarranted. The disproportionate amount of time marital partners spend with their children will naturally disallow their ability to nurture their marriage.

Some spouses may actually be aware that their partners have triangulated their children into their marriages but they don’t discourage it. In fact, for various reasons, they may enable it. For instance, a husband may allow the triangulation of his son if his son is meeting his wife’s need for closeness and warmth. The husband may not be interested in trying to meet his wife’s needs himself. He may prefer to subsist in a lifeless marriage of convenience, getting his needs for intimacy, companionship, and sex met elsewhere.

It is important to note that while triangulation of a child is obviously unhealthy for marriages, it is quite detrimental to the family as a whole. Every member of the family may experience a powerfully negative reaction to the tension within the marital unit.

The triangulated child, in particular, may come to express the collective feelings of the family members by acting out in destructive ways in order to draw his parents’ focus away from the marital stress. He may be successful in pulling attention away from the troubled marriage by drawing negative attention to himself which, in turn, could cause the marital partners to spend most of their emotional energy ‘fixing’ the child.

In healthy marriages, working through the problems of a troubled child can bring the couple closer together. But in marriages with a triangulated child, the couple is more likely to be drawn further apart.

Some common examples of the ways triangulated children act out include drug addiction, eating disorders, chronic shoplifting, vandalism, cutting (ritual and habitual superficial slicing of the epidermis), excessive piercing, tattooing or other forms of self-mutilation, violence, academic problems, truancy, or any combination of the above. The bottom line is that if a child’s destructive behaviors draw attention away from a troubled marriage, it will enable partners to avoid facing marital problems in order to devote their full attention to correcting the child’s behavior.

There is good news for couples struggling to overcome triangulation. If both partners are thoroughly motivated, they can repair the damage via marriage therapy that takes its cue from pre-marital counseling methods. Essentially, couples need to get to know one another all over again starting with a deliberately romantic courting process. Couples need the opportunity to become interested in one another in order to find the incentive to work through their incompatibilities. The best way to do this is to spend a lot of quality time together alone, just as they did before children were ever in the picture. Once they “fall in love” again the couple may find the willingness to compromise, see their partners’ point of view, make changes, etc. Once this happens, the child can be reinstated in his or her rightful place in the family: as a kid!

If you suspect your marriage has become compromised by the triangulation of a child, it might be a good idea to consider marriage counseling. Skilled therapists can facilitate critical discussions in an objective fashion. They can validate the concerns of both marital partners. And perhaps best of all, they can testify to the fact that couples can indeed overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles, including triangulation, and eventually realize a satisfying and loving marriage.

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