NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Saturday, November 6, 2010

Triangulation in Families and Love Triangles

When we think of "triangles" in relationships, we often associate them with "love triangles" where a person is romantically involved with two people at the same time. 

Typically, we think of the man or woman who is married or in a primary relationship who is having an affair with someone else. 

These relationships are often complex and usually don't end well for the people involved. But less talked about are triangles in family relationships and how this can lead to "love triangles" when children from these families become adults.

Triangulation in Families

What is Triangulation in Family Relationships?
In certain families, family members form unhealthy alliances against others in the family. This could be a mother and daughter against the father or a father and son against the mother or mother and son against the father or father and daughter against the mother, as well as other permutations of these triangular relationships.

Basically, in triangular relationships, there are usually two people against at least one other person. The two people who have aligned with each other usually have an unhealthy, enmeshed relationship with each other and the other person that they are aligned against is the odd one out.

Needless to say, these triangular relationships are emotionally unhealthy and detrimental to all members of the family, regardless of whether they are part of the enmeshed alliance or the odd one out. These triangular relationships form for a variety of reasons. Generally, there is a power struggle going on in the family and the two that are aligned are trying to have power over the other family member.

Often, when children, who are in families with triangular relationships, grow up, they tend to triangulate in their adult relationships, often leading to illicit affairs or to triangles in their own families with their spouses and children.

A fictionalized account will serve to illustrate these points:

Tom grew up as an only child. As far back as he could remember, his parents were always arguing.

When he was about seven years old, Tom's father, Scott, started confiding in Tom about how unhappy he was being married to Tom's mother, Nancy. Tom would listen to his father, just feeling happy that his father was spending time with him. Sometimes, he worried that his father would leave the household so, at those times, he made sure to pay extra special attention to his father's complaints, even though he didn't understand them.

Even though he didn't understand, Tom still felt it was important to be on his father's side. When he saw how unhappy his father was and he feared that his father would leave the household and abandon him, he felt very angry with his mother. Often when he was alone his mother, he would tell her, "Stop fighting with dad." Usually, his mother would respond by saying, "Your father is an idiot," which made Tom feel even more angry.

Tom's parents sometimes argued at night and this kept Tom up most of the night. When it was time to go to school, Tom was too groggy to get up. Often, this caused arguments between Nancy and Scott, with Nancy telling Tom that he needed to go to school, and Scott telling Nancy to leave Tom alone. Nancy usually left for work before Scott, and she would tell Tom to get up, get dressed, eat his breakfast and go to school. But after Nancy left, Scott would tell Tom that he didn't have to go to school and he could stay home with his paternal grandmother who lived downstairs.

Tom felt that his father was on his side since Scott allowed Tom to stay home. He especially felt this way when his mother got home and scolded him for not going to school and his father defended him.

Even after his grades began to slip, Scott allowed Tom to stay home from school when he didn't want to go. During that time, Tom's school engaged in "social promotion" so that even though he was not doing well, they kept allowing him to go to the next grade.

This pattern continued into Tom's adolescence. It seemed that Nancy and Scott had completely different ideas about child rearing. When Tom was 14 and Nancy found out that Tom was smoking, she hit the roof and forbade Tom to smoke. But when Nancy wasn't around, Scott would provide Tom with cigarettes, and Tom thought this was "cool" of his father. When Nancy got home, she detected the cigarette smell on Tom and she and Scott would get into a screaming match.

By this time, Tom saw his father as "the cool one" and his mother as "the witch." Around that time, one day when Nancy and Scott were fighting about Tom failing his classes in junior high school, Tom lost his temper with his mother and told her to "shut up." He was filled with such rage against her that he felt like hitting her, but he punched the wall instead and broke his knuckles.

Nancy and Scott argued all the way to the ER. Seeing the dysfunctional dynamic, after attending to Tom, the ER doctor recommended that the three of them attend family counseling. Nancy agreed, but Scott and Tom refused to go.

By the time Scott was 16, he was smoking marijuana with his friends. One of those friends' mother called Nancy and told her that her son was smoking marijuana with her son and she wanted to put a stop to it. When Nancy told Scott about it, he brushed it off and told her that she was making too big a deal about it. When Tom got home, he found his parents arguing about it and he aligned with his father against his mother.

After Tom moved out on his own, his parents decided to get a divorce. Tom still had a lot of anger towards his mother. He felt that she was always trying to stop him from doing things that he wanted to do, but he thought that his dad understood him. He also thought his father was better off without her.

When Tom was in his mid-20s, he entered into a relationship with Ann. At first, he enjoyed being with her and he had fun. But as the relationship got more serious, Tom became fearful of the intimacy. He knew that he loved Ann, but he often found the relationship to be "too intense."

One day, he met Susan at a local bookstore, and he started dating her without telling Ann and without telling Susan that he was supposed to be in a monogamous relationship. Once he began the affair with Susan, even though she was unaware of it, Tom entered into a classic "love triangle".

After he began dating Susan, he felt more comfortable in his relationship with Ann. Whenever he felt that things were getting "too intense" with Ann, he would go out with Susan. After a while, he got good at juggling these two relationships. But one day, Susan confronted him by telling him that her friend saw him with Ann and that it was obvious that he was in a relationship with her.

Tom tried to lie, but he knew that Susan knew the truth, so he admitted that he was in a primary relationship with Ann. He expected that Susan would leave him, but she told him that she didn't want to end their relationship and she begged Tom to leave Ann for her.

Tom wasn't sure what to do. He liked seeing both women and he wasn't sure if he would be happy with just one of them. He considered Ann to be his primary relationship and, after he thought about it for a while, he told Susan that he wasn't leaving Ann. To his amazement, Susan continued to see him, knowing that she was "the other woman."

Then, one day, Susan found Ann's telephone number on Tom's cell phone and called her. She told Ann all about her affair with Tom and that she would wait for Tom to leave Ann. When Ann angrily confronted Tom about this, he felt that Ann was overreacting. He left Ann to go be with Susan that night, and the two of them aligned with each other and agreed that Ann was blowing things out of proportion.

Susan told Tom that she would never leave him and she would wait for him as long as it took. Tom was very flattered by this. In the meantime, Ann threatened to leave Tom if he didn't end things with Susan. When Tom told Susan this, she told Tom that Ann couldn't really love him that much if she was threatening to leave and she was the one who really loved Tom, not Ann.

Two weeks later, Ann ended the relationship with Tom. He was surprised that he missed her as much as he did, even when he was with Susan. He tried to get Ann back, but she refused to see him or take his calls.

Susan was thrilled that Ann was out of the picture because she thought that now she would have Tom all to herself. But once Tom was no longer in a "love triangle" with Ann and Susan, he began to feel very uneasy. He didn't want to spend all of his time with Susan. It frightened him and he felt it was "too intense." So, when he met Linda, he began dating her without telling Susan--until Susan found out and she left him.

Tom's relationships continued in this way until he was in his 30s and he began to feel that his life was empty. He continued to create "love triangles" without fully understanding why. By the time his next relationship with a woman named Amy ended, he felt despondent and exhausted. He loved Amy more than any other woman that he had ever loved and his feelings frightened him more than ever, which lead him to engage in his usual pattern--to cheat on her as a way to distract himself from his scary feelings.

After Amy left him, Tom realized that he couldn't continue to live his life this way, and he began psychotherapy. His psychotherapist helped Tom to understand the connection between the triangular relationship he had with his father and mother and the "love triangles" that he formed in his romantic relationships. He realized that he had a lot of hard work to do in therapy to overcome his fear of intimacy so he could have a healthy relationship.

Over time, Tom was able to confront his fear of intimacy. He entered into a relationship with Betty and, whenever he felt tempted to act out by going outside their relationship, rather than act out impulsively, he talked about it with his therapist and avoided the impulse to act out. He also worked through the effects of his dysfunctional relationship with his parents.

As the above fictionalized account illustrates, people who create "love triangles" in their relationships often (although not always) grew up in families were there was triangulation. When they become adults, triangulating seems normal and natural to them and, not only will they do this in their romantic relationships, but they often create these triangles in their friendships, pitting one friend against another.

Triangles in families and in romantic relationships usually give the person at the head of the triangle (like Tom) the sense of power. Triangulation also serves as a defense against feeling alone and vulnerable. It usually creates havoc in families and romantic relationships and is detrimental to all involved.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you are aware that you tend to create triangles in your family or your romantic relationships, you owe it to yourself and your loved ones to get help. 

Rather than continuing in destructive patterns that are damaging to yourself and to those you care about, with professional help from a licensed psychotherapist who has expertise in this area, you can learn how to function in healthy and loving ways in your relationships.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many individuals and couples overcome the detrimental effects of triangulation so that they can have more satisfying relationships.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during regular business hours or email me