A Tale of Triangling Mothers

Seeing triangles provides a key to unlocking ways to bring our best to our most important relationships.

‘Jenny, today when I heard you describe your triangle with your mother I thought: “Oh my goodness – You are fuelling the problem in your family!” I can see for the first time that I’m adding to my husband feeling set aside and to inflaming his irritating ways of trying to insert his presence in his daughter’s and our family’s life. No one behaves at their best when they feel critically sidelined. I also see that I’m contributing to my daughter becoming arrogant and quite disrespectful towards her Dad.’

At a recent community seminar on marriage I shared about my triangle position in my family of origin. As I entered my teenage years my mother increasingly confided in me about broader family matters. In some ways I was being elevated to an informal leadership position in the family as my mother managed her stress about the family through using me as a sounding board. She would discuss her worries about my siblings amongst other things. At times she asked me to connect in a particular way to a sister in an effort to reverse the pattern of distancing that concerned my mother.

My alliance with my mother developed gradually through developing common interests including matters of faith. I’m sure my mother never intended to triangle me in this way. It emerged out of a growing friendship and it clearly filled some gaps in what she shared of herself in her marriage with my Dad. As I look back I can see that my father didn’t seem uncomfortable the growing closeness between myself and Mum. I assume that it took some pressure away from him by relieving an undercurrent of unmet expectations of him in the marriage. Hence both my mother and father unconsciously co- constructed the triangle, with myself as a willing participant.

Such triangles commonly emerge between parents and one of their children. In my family it functioned to relieve some pressures. The cost was that it contributed to some distance in my relationship with by sisters and brother and it primed me to be an “over -helper” in my adult relationships. For my parents, while it assisted with harmony in their marriage, it also prevented any breech in their emotional connection from being worked on and resolved. While it was a rewarding connection for me and my mother, it detracted from the growth of connection between my mother and each of my siblings. While there was not obvious tension in my relationship with my father, my alliance with my mother influenced my view towards men as lacking in their relational capacities – not a helpful posture to take into my own marriage as a young woman.

After sharing about my key triangle growing up at the recent seminar, a woman came up to me in the lunch break and expressed that she could recognise a similar triangle emerging in her family. She was alerted to the potential detriment of this triangle for her marriage and her teenage daughter. Here’s what she described to me in the course of our quite brief conversation:

“My eldest daughter has increasingly become a friend to me. We just seem to click! But I can see that there are problems developing as we are regularly taking sides against my husband. I complain to her about her Dad’s annoying ways. When the family is all together, she gives me a knowing critical look every time her Dad tries to give input. I realise that I’ve been encouraging this – it makes me feel good to have her in my corner. Tension is increasing in my daughter and her Dad’s relationship and I have been getting more frustrated with how he reacts to her. Today when I heard you describe your triangle with your mother I thought: “Oh my goodness – You are fuelling the problem in your family!” I can see for the first time that I’m adding to my husband feeling set aside and to inflaming his irritating ways of trying to insert his presence in his daughter’s and our family’s life. No one behaves at their best when they feel critically sidelined. I also see that I’m contributing to my daughter becoming arrogant and quite disrespectful towards her Dad. Last year my husband and I got some counselling for our marriage that didn’t get us very far. I couldn’t really understand our tensions and growing distance until today when I saw the triangle I was in with our daughter and its effect on our marriage. I can see that I need to stop inviting my daughter into the snug alliance that judges her Dad and my husband. She’s not going to like giving up this position but I know it is best for our whole family.”

I was impressed by this woman’s insight and her resolve to change her part. (Relationship triangles are often difficult to identify). Her husband was at the marriage seminar with her and she had the opportunity to talk to him about her realisations. I sense that this was the start of a constructive growing up effort for them both as spouses and parents. My own awareness of my primary triangle growing up has been enormously useful in helping me to manage unhelpful tendencies to align with those who confide in me, judge those who I hear complaints about and be too quick to step into the cosy elevated status of giving ear to other’s problems. I am committed to not becoming a part of issues being detoured from the relationships they belong in. For me, and for the insightful woman I met briefly at the community seminar, seeing triangles provides a key to unlocking ways to bring our best to our most important relationships.