The Granddaddy of All Triangles
And now, after defining triangles (Part 1) and offering an example (Part 2), we come to the granddaddy of all triangles: the father-mother-child triangle, which impacts us for our entire lives. Unpacking this one for yourself will do you and your love life the best service of any triangle work you do, because if you can understand the triangle between your father, your mother and yourself, you’ll understand your side of the most fundamental dynamics in your love relationships. Plus, it’ll be great practice for all the other triangle detective work in your life.
As psychiatrist and family systems pioneer, Dr. Murray Bowen, said,
“It has long been recognized that the emotional attachment between the spouses is identical to the emotional attachment that each spouse had in his or her family of origin” (Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, p. 530).
I’ll use my own family of origin to illustrate this point.
By the time I came on the scene, the youngest of three and a surprise, my mom and dad had been living in tension for several years, ever since they had my brother just 10 months into their marriage. My brother was a source of contention–in that my mom had less time for my dad–and a leg of the triangle–in that mom was comforted by her new little one, a constant source of reassurance that she was worthwhile and needed. My dad, on the other hand, suddenly felt like the outsider in his relationship with his wife (and eventually came to resent his son). Dad, in turn, triangulated with his brothers, spending his spare time with them, leaving his wife feeling like she didn’t have a husband.
Then my sister came along, and her extremely premature birth and constant medical problems took more of my mom’s attention, leaving even less energy for her to give to my dad, who left all child care and domestic tasks to my mom.
I came along when the Titanic was already in peril, six years into my parents’ marriage. My job on the sinking ship was to not make the holes any bigger. I sat back quietly, observing the chaos, which by that time had become verbally and emotionally violent, and would eventually become physically violent, too.
My parents didn’t get help (our religious system didn’t believe in it), and over the years, my father became more and more physically and emotionally distant. I had virtually no relationship with him, so my brother became my idol, in my father’s place. This would be the father-brother-sister triangle. When I was nine years old, my brother masterminded a plot by which he gained the approval of his (delinquent) friends by offering me to them to use as a sexual toy. (Note how the original father-mother-son triangle impacted the dynamics of the father-brother-sister triangle. In a family of five, there are nine interlocking triangles.)
The sexual abuse continued for four years, until in a moment of panic (I was afraid of getting pregnant and being blamed for it), I refused to participate any longer. That cost me my relationship with my brother, who had no use for me afterwards.
The Triangle in Adulthood
You can probably imagine how these triangles might have played out in my choice of husband and in our subsequent marriage? I chose to marry a man who was nice, but not strong–in other words, he was no threat. Unfortunately, he offered no counterpart to my intellectual capacity, either. As a female from a male-dominated, religious cult, I wasn’t supposed to be intelligent, and I didn’t realize how important intellectual compatibility would be to me.
To my husband, my intelligence was appealing in that he felt it made him look good by proxy, but academia simply wasn’t his strong point. He also expected that I could make us a lot of money some day, which he didn’t trust himself to do, given his lack of academic interest. No matter how much money he made (he made as much as a part-time delivery driver as I did as a full-time high school teacher), he never felt confident in himself or in his wage-earning capacity. I won’t describe how right now, but his lack of confidence was an outcome of his own father-mother-child triangle.
I will acknowledge, however, that our sex life was abysmal (thanks to the impact of childhood sexual abuse), and our intellectual life was non-existent (thanks to the cognitive disparity between us). We were one of the most oddly matched pairs you could imagine, and the triangles we brought with us into our marriage eventually corroded a union that should never have been made to begin with. We amicably ended our marriage after 17 years of constant disconnect, and a great deal of counseling to help us make sense of it all.
Another Triangle Angle
In counseling, I came to recognize that my role in the triangle between my father, mother and me was to be the dumping ground for my mother’s frustrations with my father. I bore her invective quietly, although I did experience psychosomatic digestive problems–the result of watching and internalizing the hatred between my parents. It was physically painful for me to witness.
When I acknowledged, several years into my own marriage, that I could be kind to everyone but my husband, I decided I needed to take the advice I’d given my mom and dad: get counseling. This began the long healing process of my own recovery from the abuses I experienced in my family of origin. In the process, I had to acknowledge where I had learned the dynamic of interacting with my husband in a way that I despised, and I also had to own that the problem was mine to fix–I couldn’t blame my parents.
I could describe several more triangles in the family, but I think you get the idea, so I’ll present other examples in later posts as we apply more of the concepts of Bowen Theory to romantic relationships.
Tomorrow, we’ll talk about an ideal way of handling the inevitable father-mother-child triangle–how the parents can actually leverage that triangle in the child’s favor, to the great benefit of the adult child’s love life.