On the Family As A System and the Problem of Triangulation

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More


Family Systems and Triangulation:


The posting above, sent by sent by a confused and hurt young woman, is a good example of a family system operating with a dysfunctional pattern referred to as "triangulation."

First, it is important to understand the family as a "system" and what that really means.

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Viewing the family as a system means that the members of the group interact with one another and those interactions are governed by certain rules and regulations. Whenever something happens to one member of the family it affects the interactions of all the family members. In addition, one set of rules that govern the interactions among members of the family system have to do with setting and maintaining boundaries. For example, there are rules governing sexual behavior in the family. Parents engage in sexual relationships to the exclusion of the children. Once adult children leave the family and find appropriate sexual partners of their own in the outside world. This is sanctioned by the entire society.

Within the family are patterns of interaction that shift and change with time. Many of these patterns (but not all) are dyadic in nature. In other words, alliances form such as a child in alliance with the mother against the father and other siblings. Another scenario is one in which the siblings ally against one or both parents. In fact, in the  history of a family, there can be many types and patterns of interaction as each challenge, change and crisis comes along.

It is always important to remember that the family system has, as one of its goals, the preservation of itself. To this end, a family will do what it can to meet with and defeat any perceived threats to its existence. At the very same time, a healthy family system is flexible enough to admit new members to its circle and to allow for and adjust to changing circumstances, such as meeting each stage of the children growing up towards adulthood. Some of these circumstances include moving from the nursery to the nursery and then public school. Later, there are movements towards the recognition of the changing status of the children such as rituals around reaching adolescence, High School graduation and leaving home either for job training or college education. Always, the healthy family recognizes and encourages, in gradual and appropriate ways, the movement of the children towards adulthood and emancipation.

However, if the family system is dysfunctional and one or more of its members is not able to tolerate change and emancipation trouble can loom either ahead or all along the way. Partly, this is due to the fact that change and growth are viewed as threats that must be stopped. Change, in many circumstances, is resisted because it provokes enormous anxiety. Sometimes, in the case of the dysfunctional family, threat is dealt with through "triangulation."

Triangulation means that a third person either within the family or someone from outside, is brought in and selected as a way to protect the integrity of the family by ending any perceived threat to the system. Part of the way triangulation works is that it occurs without any direct verbal communication between the threatened member or members and the individual viewed as posing the threat.

This is what happened in the case sited above in the E. Mail.

Explanation of the case example:

The young woman complains that her fiance’s mother spread lies about her and her family after he asserted himself with his mother, presumably in protecting his girlfriend and soon to be wife. Obviously, the young man’s mother objected to the wedding. Her objections were so strong that she called for an extended family meeting with the purpose of stopping the marriage from moving ahead. Tis family meeting, referred to as "an intervention" was successful in causing the young man to decide that he "could not stand up to his family," and the engagement was terminated. How could this happen?

Discussion of the case:

For some unknown reason, the mother viewed her son’s wedding engagement as a threat. There is a lot we do not know about the family or this mother, making it more difficult to reach solid conclusions but it is possible to make some educated guesses.

Educated guess One:

This mother clearly viewed her son’s engagement and impending marriage as a threat to her authority and to the integrity of the family. Recall from the E. Mail that this mother demanded that the wedding be postponed for two years. In addition, this mother decided when and where the wedding would take place which she communicated to this young woman. In addition, she viewed the threat as so powerful that she and her family behaved in ways that were quite rude to this young woman’s family at a funeral. I think you will agree that this type of behavior is harsh. It is also extremely meddling.

Educated guess Two:

For a son to cave in to the demands of his mother and extended family in this day and age indicates that there is something not right going on with this young man. Why? Now more than ever, it is possible for young people to make decisions whether their families like it or not. As a result, the son’s decision to "not stand up to his family" indicates that, emotionally, he seems to not have achieved real emancipation from a psychological point of view. Gaining a real sense of individuation and autonomy means, among many other things, that an individual feels self confident and strong in knowing who they are, what they want, what they want to do and knowing or considering the possible consequences of what they do.

It seems that this young woman was "triangulated" or selected as a threat, possibly, to the authority of this mother over her son. It is speculative but within believability to guess that mother and son has a strong dyadic alliance within the family for a long time. I think it interesting that the young female writer says nothing about her boyfriend’s father. We cannot know why and the E. Mail is very brief.

In effect, the mother succeeded in terminating the engagement between her son and the young woman. Thereby, she protected her relationship with her son, kept him within the family and prevented, at least for now, his continued growth and development. She did this by portraying the young woman and her family as damaged or dangerous in certain ways and by enlisting the support of the entire extended family against the marriage. Prior to this set of unfortunate circumstances, it is possible to speculate that she succeeded in keeping her son dependent and somewhat "undifferentiated or unindividuated from both herself and the family. Given his lack of psychological separateness, he could not rebel and marry the woman of his choice.

If I am correct about this explanation it is better, in the long run, for this young woman to have stopped the engagement. The reason is that this young man might never find it within his psychological means to separate from his mother. Add to that, if he is able to summon psychological energy to marry this young woman, he might never have the will to keep his mother from meddling in their marriage with the result that the hypothetical marriage could end up in divorce. At least, that is the way I see it based on the little we know.

Your comments, opinions and questions are greatly encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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