Step-Families and Triangulation in General

In Family Systems Theory, triangulation is when any two people form a stronger bond with each other against a third person. There are so many family combinations of mom/mom or mom/dad or dad/dad or grandma/dad and so on that I couldn’t possibly address all of them. When two nouns are needed, I’m going to use mom and dad. When just one noun is required, I’ll say the person, but if it’s two, I’ll use mom, dad, and child/ren. You can apply your own labels suitable for your family system once you see the pattern.

Here is a list of some of the possibilities:

  1. Child and mom form a stronger alliance than mom’s alliance with dad, which drives dad away.
  1. One spouse, after the divorce, deliberately communicates messages to the child that indicate the other parent is inferior or the first parent is so much better, loves the child more, etc.
  1. A child cultivates a relationship with the biological parent and shuns the stepparent.
  1. A stepparent shuns the child and cultivates her relationship with her new partner.
  1. Grandma and child against grandma’s child, the parent.

This example covers much of what triangulation is all about. It is a family system where mom and dad divorced and each married again. The step-mom is jealous or threatened by the child, in some way and goes to the dad with an issue regarding the child, expecting dad to handle the problem and fix his kid.

That is absolutely the wrong thing to do. Dad is torn between new wife and his child. The child sees how much power she wields and uses it to the detriment of the entire family system. No child is going to willingly give up power, so the situation escalates and may require the assistance of some outside help, a church leader or a therapist to guide and support the family in realigning their dysfunctional system. Without some help, it isn’t unreasonable to expect that the marriage will not last.

Here is the “Cliff’s Notes” version of the fix to this situation:

Everyone in the family system has to speak directly to everyone else in the family system, one on one. If stepmom has an issue with stepkid she needs to handle it in her way and dad should stay out of it except to support mom. Dad should not go hide in the other room. Dad should be present but not involved in the conversation. If invited in, dad tells wife and child that they need to continue to work this out with each other and he isn’t going to interfere. He can resume whatever activity he was doing in the area but not being there at all leaves him clueless about what has transpired.

There may be small secrets between parties but not big ones like the kid cut school or got bullied or wasn’t where she said she was going to be. Those things especially have to be shared. As well as who is on birth control, who got his first condoms, who had cigarettes in their jacket. These are big issues and big decisions that no parent should find out about after the fact.

Mom and dad don’t have to agree. In fact, they can pretty passionately disagree. A solution to this is to agree to disagree and leave things as they are, next time roles could be reversed, talk it through until each parent understands the other, or make modifications to what the child was told and present it to the child, together. In any event, they should not reveal to the child that they are at odds with each other.

The child needs to know mom and dad as a loving partnership that the child can’t control. This can only be done by example. Kids are brilliant, and they are better observers than many parents believe. Each family member has an independent relationship with every other family member without another family member getting in the middle.

In this example, the stepmom will develop a stable relationship with the child, as they go along and sort things out. This is without dad butting in and making the mother feel like she doesn’t count and isn’t loved by anyone in the house and the child aware she can divide and conquer. She’ll soon give up trying and will become the child in the family. Stepmom will learn how to be assertive when she needs to be and nurturing when she needs to be without expecting dad to fix it. Her role is the mom in the family. Dad will be relieved of the stress of trying to emotionally please his wife and child and be free to be the dad and husband in the family.