Ways to Break Free From Unhealthy Family Dynamics
“If you keep on doing what you've always done, you'll keep on getting what you've always got."
The old saying “two’s company, three’s a crowd” expresses the common experience that two people are often a comfortable mix, while three can be awkward. In counseling, this dynamic is referred to as triangulation. Triangulation occurs when two people pull in a third to manage the stress or conflict between them.
As most of us painfully remember from middle school sleepovers, two people are close and one person is left out. Triangling behavior includes talking behind one family member’s back, trying to get another family member “on your side,” or using subtle or blatant blame, anger, and guilt to create unhealthy interactions.
In my counseling practice this dynamic frequently occurs between the mother, father and child; the most typical pattern is the child and dad are close, and the mom is left out. Triangulation happens in all families but it’s vitally important for adoptive and foster families to be aware of it’s traps.
James and Merideth
Recently, I met with a newly adoptive family who was unknowingly caught in a triangle. James and Merideth, parents of seven-year-old Hanna, attend a therapy session feeling frustrated with one another. James expresses his concern that Merideth is “too hard” and “not as loving as she should be” with Hanna. And Merideth thinks that James rewards Hanna with his attention when she has been “a behavior problem all day.” Merideth states, “It’s as though James sides with her and doesn’t support me.” James and Merideth agree that they share a desire for Hanna to be an emotionally healthy and loving member of the family.
In order for James and Merideth to break free from the triangle, they must first recognize when they’re in it. Our goal is for them to stay in a neutral place rather than rescuing, fixing, or quarreling amongst themselves. In the therapy session, I explain the triangle; they quickly understand the pattern, and communicate a desire for healthier interaction. Together, James and Merideth agree to the following interventions:
- When we notice we’re in a triangle, we will identify it. “I think we’re in a triangle, let’s talk about it.”
- James will support Merideth’s parenting decisions and check in with her prior to removing Hanna from any consequences.
- James will display his support of Merideth in front of Hanna. When James arrives home from work, he will hug Merideth and say, “We are so lucky to have mom. She’s the best!”
- Merideth wants James to be affectionate with Hanna, but also needs his support. She feels that when she is supported, his nurturance of Hanna will no longer be an issue.
- When Hanna voices critical comments about mom to dad, dad will not discuss it with her. Instead, dad will ask her to talk directly to mom about her concerns or feelings.
- Merideth and James know that this plan will take some time to become habit. They agree to apologize when they have slipped back into old patterns.
Do you notice the triangulation in your family? What are the agreements your family needs to make in order to break free from these unhealthy patterns?