Understanding Triagulation in Relationships

Part 1: In a Bind.

I was cooking up some dinner for my two year old grandson as I happily awaited his arrival.  We were going to hangout together while mom and dad took in a movie.  I don’t think of it as babysitting because I love to spend time with him and he loves to spend time with me.

I buzzed them in.  My grandson, came running through the open door holding out something he wanted me to see –  a sticker of a car.  As usual, my son followed with their dog.  He put the dog out on the deck, put fresh water in the dog’s dish and then got ready to leave.

Then something unusual started to happen.  My son started to question his son about whether he wanted to stay with Nana or go with him.  I was confused because I was sure he was staying with me.  I could see that my grandson was confused.  I got the impression that there had been some kind of exchange between the two of them about his wanting or not wanting to stay with me.  My son kept grilling him.  “Do you want to stay with Nana ?” My grandson went from being happy and bubbly to quiet.  He nodded his head.  His dad’s tone of voice was unusual – there was an edge to it. That was not enough for my son, he kept asking, “Do you want to stay with Nana?”   I looked at my grandson.  He was clearly confused and not sure what to do.  He slowly walked toward the front door thinking he had to leave.  Again, his father asked him,  “Do you want to stay with Nana?” Again, my grandson nodded his head.

I couldn’t watch this anymore and stay silent.  I said to my son, “He nodded his head.  He has answered you.”  My son responded, “He’s got to say it.”  I said, “You’re putting him a bind.”  I looked at my grandson and smiled at him trying to reassure him.  He smiled back at me.  Finally, my son stopped, hugged his son and left.  Then my grandson turned back into his happy self, delighted to be with me.

There was tension between father and son.  I could see it , hear it and feel it.  I couldn’t believe that my son would put his son – a two year old – on the spot like this.  I was surprised because my son is a fantastic dad.  He loves his son and his son adores his dad.

At first I was just an observer.  Then I got hooked in the interaction. By advocating for my grandson, I became part of a triangle.

In hindsight, I wish I had avoided becoming part of the triangle.  I know my son is a super dad. Instead of criticizing him, I wish I had expressed more faith in him.  What I wish I’d said to my son was, “I don’t know what is going on between you two but I’m sure you will handle it OK. ” Then, I would have gone back to my cooking and let them work it out.

TRIANGULATION

Triangulation occurs in relationships when there is tension between two people, and a third person gets hooked into the interaction, creating  a triangle.

Triangulation happens in families all the time.  If you are not aware of triangulation and how it works, you usually do not even realize how or why you’ve been drawn into an interaction.

By understanding and being aware of the relationship dynamics in triangulation, you have a choice to become involved or not.  There are times when it is appropriate to get involved and times when it is appropriate and healthy not to engage.

If you choose NOT to become involved,  there are diplomatic ways NOT to engage. (Triangulation Pt. 2 and Pt.3)

If you do choose to become involved, then HOW you get involved is what matters.

Part 2: That’s between the Two of You.

Scenario:

Shawn, a 30 year old man and his mother are enjoying dinner in a restaurant. Mother’s cell phone rings and she answers it. It’s her husband. He angrily demands to know when she will be home. She gets flustered and looks frightened. She hands the cell phone to her son, saying she can’t hear her husband. Shawn gets exasperated with his father for once again putting pressure on his mother. Most of his life, Shawn has tried to protect his mother from his father’s domination. He grabs the phone, yells at his father to leave his mother alone and hangs up. His mother gets upset because she knows her husband will be furious at her when she gets home. She can no longer enjoy her time with her son. Her son can no longer enjoy his time with his mother because she is anxious and because he knows he cannot advocate her when she gets home. The rest of their conversation is spent talking about Mom’s relationship with Dad. They focus so much on Dad, it’s like he’s there with them. During this talk, Mother feels valued and cared for by her son.

TRIANGULATION :

In this scenario there is ongoing tension between the mother and father.  Both father and mother triangulate the son – father by phoning while they are enjoying time together  –  mother by giving her son the cell phone and telling him she can’t understand the father. The son allows himself to be triangulated by taking the phone and getting angry at the father.

How each could have handled the situation differently.

Possibility 1: Father does an activity by himself or with someone else.  He does not call.

Possibility 2: Mother turns off her cell phone, or lets it go to voicemail.

Possibility 3: Mother answers the call and deals with it herself, does not involve their son.

Possibility 4:  Son does not accept the cell phone when mother holds it out to him.  He refuses to be hooked in and reassures his mother that she can handle it. He says, “This is between you and Dad.  I’m going to stay out of it. You can handle it.” Mother deals with the call.  Mother and son continue their time together, not talking about father.

Mother and Father will reorganize their relationship differently if they stop triangulating – or are unable to triangulate – their son.  That would be healthy for all concerned.

Be aware of triangulation in your relationships.   Once aware, you can choose to be involved or you can respectfully decline.

Part 3: Why Kids Fight.

Children fight for many reasons.  One of the major reasons they fight is to engage parent(s).

Years ago I can remember being busy in the kitchen.  My two boys, around ages 3 and 5, were playing in the living room.  Then they started fighting. Without saying a word, I stopped what I was doing and went into the bathroom.  Within seconds, they had joined forces and were banging on the bathroom door trying to get me to come out.

Children like to have their parents involved with them. Before children start to misbehave or fight with each other, they usually ask parents to play with them, read to them or just go for a walk or bike ride. Often they offer to help.  Lots of time children will play well together waiting for the parents to  finish their work. If none of these positive ways work, they will find negative way.  Mostly, I don’t think children do it consciously.  I believe, for them, any kind of involvement is better than no involvement.  They need the adult contact.

Often parents are legitimately busy since there is so much to do.  Other times, parents just don’t want to engage for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they’ve already spent a good chunk of time with the children.  Maybe they are tired, sick or distracted with other things. If children keep getting put off, then they start to do things that will bug the parents until they get involved.

A parent will usually get involved in their children’s fighting by rescuing the more vulnerable child. Usually, it’s the youngest, but not always.  Some younger children are more vibrant and determined than their older siblings.  Some older siblings are passive.  Rescuing one sibling from the other can create a dynamic of VICTIM-BULLY-ARBITRATOR.  The weaker child learns he or she can get the parent’s attention  by being a victim. The stronger child learns that he or she is can get the parent’s attention by being a bully.  The parent feels needed as the rescuer/arbitrator. Children mistakenly think they have to have parents to settle disputes and parents, laking faith in their children,  believe they are not able to get along.

Most of the time weaker children do need to be protected from stronger siblings.  HOW parents do that is a key to maintaining good relationships between the siblings and between parent and each child.

When parents are aware of the dynamics of triangulation they have more options in handling it.

WITHOUT JUDGING

TREAT BOTH CHILDREN THE SAME

Choose to be part of the triangle:

  • Remove from both children what they are fighting over, e.g. a game, activity or toy.
  • Help the children negotiate and brainstorm with each other.
  • Ignore the fighting and suggest that you all do an activity together – work or play.

Decline to be part of the triangle:

  • Send both children to their rooms for a specified time. (or to different parts of the home).
  • Send both children outside. Children’s play usually improves when they are sent outside.
  • Express your faith in your children that they can work things out for themselves.
  • Remove yourself from the situation.

Of course, all of the above suggestions depend on the situation.  Some will work in some situations, but not in all.  Parents need to consider the circumstances and choose the best option.

With care and concern,

Dr. Bea

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