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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

On the Family As A System and the Problem of Triangulation

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Feb 27th 2009

 I recommend the reader to Dr. Dombeck's excellent article, "Boundaries and Dysfunctional Family Systems" in order to gain more information about an interesting topic:


Following is an E. Mail Case Example that was posted February 24, 2009

"Fiance's mother from hell:"

"I'm dealing with the fallout of a mother like this.  My fiance's mother was successful in driving us apart.  When my fiance stood up to her, she spread lies about me and my family to all of his extended family in Los Angeles, convinced my fiance's family to stage an intervention on his not marrying me, and was horribly rude to my family in an irreparable way at my fiance's grandfather's memorial service. (this is in addition to calling me up the day after my fiance had said generally where and when we were to be married, and saying that she wished we would wait two years before doing so.)

Although I was technically the one that broke it off because he said he could not stand up for me against his family, I am very hurt and confused at how in the heck !!?!"

Family Systems and Triangulation:

The posting above, sent by sent by a confused and hurt young woman, is a good example of a family system operating with a dysfunctional pattern referred to as "triangulation."

First, it is important to understand the family as a "system" and what that really means.

Viewing the family as a system means that the members of the group interact with one another and those interactions are governed by certain rules and regulations. Whenever something happens to one member of the family it affects the interactions of all the family members. In addition, one set of rules that govern the interactions among members of the family system have to do with setting and maintaining boundaries. For example, there are rules governing sexual behavior in the family. Parents engage in sexual relationships to the exclusion of the children. Once adult children leave the family and find appropriate sexual partners of their own in the outside world. This is sanctioned by the entire society.

Within the family are patterns of interaction that shift and change with time. Many of these patterns (but not all) are dyadic in nature. In other words, alliances form such as a child in alliance with the mother against the father and other siblings. Another scenario is one in which the siblings ally against one or both parents. In fact, in the  history of a family, there can be many types and patterns of interaction as each challenge, change and crisis comes along.

It is always important to remember that the family system has, as one of its goals, the preservation of itself. To this end, a family will do what it can to meet with and defeat any perceived threats to its existence. At the very same time, a healthy family system is flexible enough to admit new members to its circle and to allow for and adjust to changing circumstances, such as meeting each stage of the children growing up towards adulthood. Some of these circumstances include moving from the nursery to the nursery and then public school. Later, there are movements towards the recognition of the changing status of the children such as rituals around reaching adolescence, High School graduation and leaving home either for job training or college education. Always, the healthy family recognizes and encourages, in gradual and appropriate ways, the movement of the children towards adulthood and emancipation.

However, if the family system is dysfunctional and one or more of its members is not able to tolerate change and emancipation trouble can loom either ahead or all along the way. Partly, this is due to the fact that change and growth are viewed as threats that must be stopped. Change, in many circumstances, is resisted because it provokes enormous anxiety. Sometimes, in the case of the dysfunctional family, threat is dealt with through "triangulation."

Triangulation means that a third person either within the family or someone from outside, is brought in and selected as a way to protect the integrity of the family by ending any perceived threat to the system. Part of the way triangulation works is that it occurs without any direct verbal communication between the threatened member or members and the individual viewed as posing the threat.

This is what happened in the case sited above in the E. Mail.

Explanation of the case example:

The young woman complains that her fiance's mother spread lies about her and her family after he asserted himself with his mother, presumably in protecting his girlfriend and soon to be wife. Obviously, the young man's mother objected to the wedding. Her objections were so strong that she called for an extended family meeting with the purpose of stopping the marriage from moving ahead. Tis family meeting, referred to as "an intervention" was successful in causing the young man to decide that he "could not stand up to his family," and the engagement was terminated. How could this happen?

Discussion of the case:

For some unknown reason, the mother viewed her son's wedding engagement as a threat. There is a lot we do not know about the family or this mother, making it more difficult to reach solid conclusions but it is possible to make some educated guesses.

Educated guess One:

This mother clearly viewed her son's engagement and impending marriage as a threat to her authority and to the integrity of the family. Recall from the E. Mail that this mother demanded that the wedding be postponed for two years. In addition, this mother decided when and where the wedding would take place which she communicated to this young woman. In addition, she viewed the threat as so powerful that she and her family behaved in ways that were quite rude to this young woman's family at a funeral. I think you will agree that this type of behavior is harsh. It is also extremely meddling.

Educated guess Two:

For a son to cave in to the demands of his mother and extended family in this day and age indicates that there is something not right going on with this young man. Why? Now more than ever, it is possible for young people to make decisions whether their families like it or not. As a result, the son's decision to "not stand up to his family" indicates that, emotionally, he seems to not have achieved real emancipation from a psychological point of view. Gaining a real sense of individuation and autonomy means, among many other things, that an individual feels self confident and strong in knowing who they are, what they want, what they want to do and knowing or considering the possible consequences of what they do.

It seems that this young woman was "triangulated" or selected as a threat, possibly, to the authority of this mother over her son. It is speculative but within believability to guess that mother and son has a strong dyadic alliance within the family for a long time. I think it interesting that the young female writer says nothing about her boyfriend's father. We cannot know why and the E. Mail is very brief.

In effect, the mother succeeded in terminating the engagement between her son and the young woman. Thereby, she protected her relationship with her son, kept him within the family and prevented, at least for now, his continued growth and development. She did this by portraying the young woman and her family as damaged or dangerous in certain ways and by enlisting the support of the entire extended family against the marriage. Prior to this set of unfortunate circumstances, it is possible to speculate that she succeeded in keeping her son dependent and somewhat "undifferentiated or unindividuated from both herself and the family. Given his lack of psychological separateness, he could not rebel and marry the woman of his choice.

If I am correct about this explanation it is better, in the long run, for this young woman to have stopped the engagement. The reason is that this young man might never find it within his psychological means to separate from his mother. Add to that, if he is able to summon psychological energy to marry this young woman, he might never have the will to keep his mother from meddling in their marriage with the result that the hypothetical marriage could end up in divorce. At least, that is the way I see it based on the little we know.

Your comments, opinions and questions are greatly encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD



Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

mother in law - - Aug 29th 2011

I feel like I'm trapped in a triangle between my husband and mother in law.  I've been feeling like this for the last ten years and I don't know how to deal with it.  Most of the arguements I have with my husband are about my mother in law.  She's very needy of attention...she wants it from my husband and my children too.  She recently told my children that they don't visit her enough and that they visit their other grandparents (my parents) too much.  There is so much more to the story but I just need some quick feedback to some how put me at ease.



Stepson divide and conquer - Jonese - Oct 13th 2010

About 2 months ago, my step son set up an emotional triangle with my wife and I.  The presenting issues was that his 2nd IPOD was broke he felt the world was not fair in that all his electronical devices are broke.  He also pointed out that none of it was his fault.   So my wife and I sat on the couch and my stepson sat at an angle to us with his head down.  By the way, he never spends time in the livingroom with mom and dad, but he did this time.  My wife engaged me in a conversation about what to do regarding the IPOD.  I mentioned that everything he owns gets broke or lost and he never takes responsibility so I don't feel sorry for him and I can't help him.  At this point, stepson exits to his bedroom to watch tv.  And the triangle is set.  My wife engaged me in a screaming match about how I am cold and punishing towards the child.  I asked her about his accountablility for anything in his life and she told me I was being verbally abusive to her.  Then I let her know that he set up a triangle and he knew what he was doing and that I recognized the triangle in its beginning stages.  My wife refused to accept any responsibility for spoiling the child and came up with an idea to give him another IPOD (#3).  I told her I thought it was not a good idea because it does not teach him responsibility, consequences or work ethic.  She fussed at me some more and I giggled and said the child has done a very good job with this triangle and that she was going to do whatever she's gonna do regardless of what I say so I excused myself from further conflict.  She gave him the IPOD on a borrowing basis within 1 of the argument.  Yesterday, she mentioned that she outright gave the IPOD to him (which has internet access by the way, which was suppose to be restricted b/c he'd been caught 3+ times looking at porn).  And, I found out later in the day that he has 2 D's and an F in school, just like he's done his whole academic career (which really gets me mad because he's intelligent, just unmodivated).  Why be modivated to do school or chores when everything is handed to him anyway.  I am familiar with the triangulation process and finally I recognized it's formulation before it was fully engaged.  At this point I have resigned myself to not engaging my wife in anything because she's constantly looking to get a negative rise out of me.  The frustrating part for me is my wife admits knowing what she does to the child is not helping him but continues to give in to him and not hold him accountable.  I feel like she and he have some sort of inappropriate bond, almost intimate.  Oh, and intimacy with my wife is going, going, gone.... I got tired of chasing her around, trying to be touchy and kissy with her, constantly getting rejected.          

Learned Behaviors - Guilty Sister - Oct 6th 2010

 I have become aware of my own triangulation as a learned behavior.  My mother pit us against our father and she still triangulates the children.  Sometimes we are not capable of seeing our mistakes.  I relate to the woman who is married to the porn addict and manipulator.  That was my husband.  I believe I chose him because he felt safe just like my Mom.  I am also the sober person at the drunk party.  My family is dysfunctional and I don't know how to deal with all the manipulation and triangulation.  So the question becomes how does one cope or face this situation?  I have been doing so by putting distance between myself and the emotional abuse.  But they are family and I love them.  I feel like an orphan often.  The outcast because I refuse to participate and I become the intruder and dangerous to the family.  I will read on.

Triangulation is unhealthy no matter what the culture - Anoymous - Sep 16th 2010

I have been reading the Dr. Allan Schwartz post regarding triangulation as well as the comments that were made in regard to it. I am very familiar with the problem of triangulation as it is used as a common tactic in my family of origin, as well as in the family I married into.  Sometimes I feel like the only sober one at a party where everyone else is drunk.  My husband consistently triangulates against me -- with anyone from strange women he chats up, to mutual friends, family members etc.  Most of the time it takes the form of him and the other person forming a "we" and me as the odd or other person out.  He also enjoys humiliating me in front of others.  I know that this behavior is not healthy, but he refuses to acknowledge any problem. This sort of behavior seems rampant in our society as well as in many others. As far as my husband is concerned I am also in a financially dependent position, no job etc. just like the woman in one of the comments, however I am committed to doing everything I can, no matter what it takes to remove myself from this unhealthy emotional abuse and crazyness. It would be different if my husband were the type of person you could reason with or talk to but unfortunately he isn't.  As far as the comment from the man from India, I agree that in different cultures the influence of the family is of more importance, however that doesn't make triangulation any less of a destructive way of communicating or behaving.     

Stepson is Husband's Confidante in Our Marriage - donatheday - Jun 9th 2010

My husband turns to his son, my stepson, for anything that is bothering him about me.  My husband is very distant and cold with me.  My husband is into pornography.  He feels he controls this problem.  He is also a dry alcoholic and very manipulative and controlling.  We have no trust or communication.  Our marriage is hanging by a thread.  My husband is the King of Denial.  Recently his daughter wanted to visit.  I ask her to postpone it since my father is dying.  This is the first time in 20 yrs. I set a boundary.  She, I know is psychotic.  She turned on me and raged at me that I am worthless and rotten, she will never speak to me ever again and I am not allowed to ever see her two children because I am trying to keep her from her father.  She stated that all that matters is that her relationship with her father is intact.  He allowed what she said to happen without protecting me.  She and my other stepchildren have never had to face consequences of their actions and disrespect towards me.  My stepson recently sat at our dining room table after dinner and asked me to go get my bible.  I did so not knowing what he had in mind.  He proceded to sit at the table and lecture me about my marriage and what my son was doing, as my son sat their also, wrong in his life.  This is a stepson who was involved in a murder five years ago due to drugs and violence.  We tried two sessions of marriage counseling and I ended it because all my husband did was lie.  I never know how my husband is feeling about our marriage and things in general because he share those feelings with his son and all of his female friends.  I am labeled "jealous and troubled" by my husband and these other people.  I have been in counseling for all the 20 yrs. of our marriage on and off because of our marital problems and my co-dependency; fear of abandonment; emotional problems; and depression.  I also am a compulsive shopper.  I attend Celebrate Recovery also to learn to be responsible for my issues listed.  The depth of my being is destroyed but somehow I am immobilized to leave with no job or place to go.

MIL SOS - mich - May 31st 2010

I am so living the nightmare you describe with triangulation. My MIL tried to dominate my husband since before we were married telling him how we should plan our wedding etc. She went as far as buying my nieces dress and lying to sil that I bought it without her permission/imput. Of course she denied her walking down the aisle. Over the years my sister in laws have stopped talking to us due to the lies my mil has made up. We are not invited to holidays together or graduations for our nieces. However we have never had neg words with them only they believed the lies my mil used to get back in with them. They used to deny her access to their family. I guess they made up and my mil used us as the scapegoat. His other brother is coming from out of town for the graduation we don't get invited to. My husband refuses to stand up to his mom or discuss the issues with his brother. He however is close to them and spends time with his parents without us at the Y. She loves trying to come between us. We have 4 kids. She tries to buy their affection and won't respect when I say stop buying so many gifts for no occasion. She is mean and always tries to cause trouble between my husband and my family who have never gave him anything but niceness. I could go on and on with stories about mil. My fil goes along with her every demand. He is fine without her along but add her and he is mean and follows her lead. We attend all her functions but still I get a negative attitude from her. Help! She is 66 and could make us miserable for alot more years. She was abandoned as a child by her own parents. My fil told me this story and how she was abused by her step mother early on in our dating. I guess this is his excuse for putting up with her abusive ways.

Daughter Moves In - Sandy - Dec 28th 2009

My daughter, son in law, and 4 grandchildren have moved into our house because of financial problems.  I feel like it's my husband and them against me.  He's become buddy-buddy with Dan (even though he doesn't respect him much) and I find that he talks about me with them and the grandchidlren.  When they ask for money, he calls me to see if it's okay.  It's impossible to say no because he will then say that "Sandy" says no.  It doesn't seem to be a "we" can't afford it right now.  I know he's paid their bills and told them not to tell mom.  I don't know how to handle this problem.  I stay later and later at work--but that gets tiring also.

- Allan N Schwartz - Mar 2nd 2009

Hello Rajesh,

You make an excellent point about cultural differences and that is something we must always keep in mind. When this article was written it was from a completely Western poin of view. I have no way of knowing the ethnic or cultural background of the person who sent the E. Mail but I presumed she was an American. From the point of view of life in the United States the power of the extended family to exert influence has been greatly limited and even destroyed over the past 60 years. I do not say that with any sort of satisfaction because I believe that the weakened family system here has caused us endless grief. Nevertheless, from the U.S. cultural point of view at this time in history the inability of this young man to exert his individuality has to be viewed with suspicion.

At the very same time, if he were a person raised and living in India and part of an extended and traditional family then his behavior must be viewed as quite normal. I have treated couples from India in the past and it is true that the value system is very different.

I want to thank you for your clear and correct comment.

Dr. Schwartz

Normal - Rajesh Yedida - Mar 2nd 2009

If we take marriage as a relation between two individuals alone, your educated guess #2 is right. But if we take marriage as a relation between two families, then there is nothing wrong in what the guy did. He didn't want to marry a girl whom his mother didn't like. Its perfectly normal to me. I am from India so it is not strange to me.


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