The word “triangulation” should haunt every parent actively raising children, and it should warn all of us to not allow our marriages to grow distant during the child-rearing years (ever, really, but especially while we’re raising children).
In a harrowing but insightful chapter of Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals our Way to Healing, Seattle counselor Jay Stringer warns that “Triangulation, or emotional enmeshment, occurs when there is a breakdown in a marriage relationship and a child is brought in to fill the emotional emptiness.” Mothers can do this with sons; fathers can do this with daughters.
What essentially happens is that rather than address the emptiness of their marriage, a husband or wife will turn to a child to meet the emotional needs that should be met by a spouse. Stringer calls this “a form of emotional incest” that has “profound effects on the development of one’s individual and relational self. In marriage, our parents make vows to commit their loyalty, affection, and hearts to their spouses. Children do not make these vows. If you have been triangulated, it is likely your parents did not consider how the heartache and loneliness of their marriage would eventually affect you.”
Jay goes on to state, correctly, that children can become “idols” to their parents. This entraps a boy or a girl, who will feel guilty building their own life and eventually leaving to enjoy their own marriage. The diabolical payoff (early on) is a certain amount of “power and delight” over the other parent and children. “The cost of membership, though, is that your parent tends to determine what your life ought to look like.”
Sadly, it’s not uncommon to see a mom or a dad become “jealous” of their child when they know that child has a dearer place in their spouse’s heart than they do. Stringer’s research showed “there was an association between a father’s confiding in his daughter and the strictness or rigidity of her mother. The data seems to suggest that when a father finds more life and connection with his daughter than with his spouse, the wife will respond with anger and rigidity toward their daughter.”
Do you see how evil this is? By having an inappropriate relationship with his daughter, the father can also infect that daughter’s relationship with her mother. It may also impair her healthy sexual development and her ability to leave her family to bond with her husband. All because the dad feels distant from his wife.
This is monstrous, and Stringer lays out exactly what’s going on: “A parent who is triangulated with a child does not want independence; the parent wants the child to feed the parent’s emotional emptiness.”
This should at least give us pause about using the familiar tagline, “Daddy Daughter Dates.” I don’t believe it was ever meant to be creepy, and I’m sure our family may have used that line from time to time (it was very popular in the nineties). But it’s a phrase that dances on the line of being misunderstood, and since daughters don’t have fully developed abstract thinking, it’s best for them to know that mommy is the only person daddy ever “dates.” He spends time with his daughters. But he only “dates” his wife.
Triangulation and In-Laws
When Stringer is counseling a couple having much difficulty with the in-laws, he usually suspects triangulation. “A general rule of thumb is that if there is ongoing conflict with a mother-in-law or father-in-law, the presence of triangulation should be explored. Childhood triangulation that continues into a marriage is a form of emotional infidelity. If you are a spouse more committed to rescuing your parent, your faithfulness to your own marriage is compromised.”
We’ve all heard the “leave and cleave” line, but we need to take it more seriously. A good friend of mine did a marvelous job of pastoring when, at a wedding he was officiating, the mom said, “I don’t look at it as losing a son. I think of it as gaining a daughter.” My friend, knowing the family dynamics, said, “Oh, no. You’re losing a son. You’ve got to let him go.”
Multiple demands often means that someone is going to be disappointed. There’s only so much of you to give. Being true to your marriage vows means your spouse is a higher priority than your parents. If they try to make you feel guilty about how much they’ve given you and done for you, find a kind way to remind them that a “gift” is just that—something offered without expectation of anything in return. Now, if they were “trading”—that is, offering current services for future services—that’s something different. But call it what it is.
Another deep wound suffered by people who have endured triangulation is that even though they are finally able to break free from the triangulating parent, they may find it difficult to build intimacy with their spouse. They fear being “trapped and used” all over again and don’t want to let down their guard. So single men and women, this is something to look out for. If your potential spouse can’t leave their parents, they can’t bond with you. And if they had to force their way out of triangulation, they may be too terrified to let you get too close.
What does this mean for those who are married and are actively raising kids?
- Your marriage is your first priority. When you allow your relationship to drift or dwindle, you set you and your kids up for an unhealthy parenting relationship. Work on your marriage first. Parenting comes second. That actually serves the cause of parenting rather than diminishing it.
- If your spouse isn’t fully engaged in your marriage, under no circumstances do you ask a son or daughter to become an emotional surrogate. Pour out your frustrations to a trusted friend or counselor, never to your kids.
- Kids are to be loved and launched, not used and abused. They are not given to us to make us feel proud, important or loved. That’s using
- Get a life. That may sound a bit harsh, but if you’re seeking first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33), and actively working on your marriage, you won’t have room in your heart for idols, especially not one fashioned out of your children. In this case, the best “defense” is a good “offense.”
- If you sense an unhealthy attachment with one of your kids, bring in a professional. Don’t make things worse by trying to blindly fix this with your child. Go to a competent counselor, alone, and let her or him lead the way to make amends and chart a new future. This is a serious issue. You couldn’t remove an infected appendix on your own, and you likely can’t demolish triangulation on your own, either.
NavPress sent me a complimentary copy of Jay’s book Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing, and I believe this book could be a game changer for how the church addresses what Jay calls repeated “unwanted sexual behavior.” He goes far beyond the typical “bounce your eyes and use accountability software” advice to get to the root of what’s going on in our souls.