Fighting Respectfully 1.8: Parenting

Influence and Triangulation

No single issue is more sacred to couples with children than parenting, and handling the conflicts that involve children is especially delicate work. Like the issue of in-laws, the underlying problem is often one of influence, and is often managed with triangulation, which doesn’t work to resolve issues.

Children are the most accessible object of parental triangulation, and provide their parents with a most convenient way of confusing issues and diluting tension.

Although there are countless ways that parents form triangles with their children, three are most common: the child-refuge triangle, the target child triangle, and the tug-of-war triangle.

The Child-Refuge Triangle

In the child-refuge triangle, one parent is over-responsible and over-involved (usually the mother) while the other is under-responsible and under-involved (usually the father). In such cases, it is common that the emotionally pursing wife is frustrated by her husband’s distance and turns to pursuing her children, so as to alleviate her distress over her marriage.

The husband then resents the overly close bond between his wife and their child, and displaces his resentment toward his wife onto the child. The mother criticizes the father for his lack of involvement with the child, displacing her real complaint about his lack of involvement with her. The father then criticizes his wife’s parenting, blaming her for their child’s shortcomings, which are often  the symptoms of parental triangulation.

The Target-Child Triangle

In the target-child triangle, a child who is special to one parent becomes the target child of the other, resulting in the child feeling caught between his or her parents. This often leads to acting-out behavior, forcing the parents to artificially unite to deal with those behaviors, which temporarily covers over the conflict between the couple.

The Tug-of-War Triangle

In the tug-of-war triangle, both parents compete for closeness and influence over the child, which, like most child-parent triangles do, typically masks a host of emptiness and insecurity on the part of both parents.

As always, the goal of exploring triangles is to separate the issues from relationships where they don’t belong, placing them where they do; to uncover the emptiness that drives them; and to foster the development of a solid sense of self, which is characteristic of differentiation, so that anxiety diminishes allowing healthy relationship to flourish.

Allow yourself to be honest with yourself as you consider how you may be unwittingly enlisting your children in the unresolved conflicts between you and your partner. Keep your focus on your own potential contribution before you open up conversation about this with your partner.

Again, tread lightly; these issues are especially tricky to navigate. Remember to enlist the communication competencies we’ve discussed in the past couple weeks.


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