What happens when your partner turns your children against you?
The term “triangulation” refers to the situation in which one of the parents in a family aligns with the children against the other parent. One parent is deemed “the good parent” and the other one is demonized. The children naturally cleave to the good parent and either avoid or wage war against the other parent.
“I never had a chance. Right from the beginning my husband used to get the kids on his side. He’d do it by giving them anything they wanted — candy, privileges — whatever. He made no rules or boundaries with them and when I tried to, he refused to support me. In fact, he’d mock me! He’d say things in front of the kids like, ‘Oh, isn’t Mommy strict!’ and everyone would laugh. Eventually I stopped trying. Today, my children are totally out of control.”
Why Does This Happen?
Usually, triangulating spouses are attempting to correct a situation that they perceive to be damaging to their children. Most often, they feel that their spouse is too harsh, restrictive, or mean to the kids. Feeling their children’s pain, they rush to balance things out. “Mommy’s cruel, but don’t worry, I’m here to make up for it.” “Your father is a brute, but don’t worry, we’ll just ignore everything he says and do what we want so he won’t have any power over us.” The parent, him or herself, may feel as victimized as the children, increasing a sense of identification with the children.
Let’s take the example of Bayla and her triangulating husband Daniel. Daniel feels that Bayla is nasty to both him and the kids. Daniel and the children band together against Bayla — a process that has become increasingly intense as the children have grown older. The teenagers barely talk to Bayla anymore and the young children — taking their cue from the older ones and their father — are defiant and rebellious.
The more the children act out, the more convinced Bayla is that they need discipline and rules. The more she tries to impose order, the more everyone in the family rebels. The more they rebel, the more unhappy Bayla becomes, now tending to look sour and miserable almost all the time she’s home. The more miserable she looks, the more the band — including Daniel — finds fault with her “attitude.”
Bayla feels that her husband has turned the household against her. Daniel, an exceedingly gentle soul who finds it hard to say “no” to his kids, found Bayla’s cold, business-like mothering style extremely painful to watch. Although she isn’t a screamer, she might as well be, because her lack of maternal physical affection, humor, and gentleness pierces his heart as intensely as any form of abuse. She has been deaf to his entreaties, refusing to accept parenting advice from him. In the end, he feels that he and the kids are victims who must do what they can to save themselves.
The Parenting Team
Triangulation is bad for the health of children and terrible for the wellbeing of a marriage. The cure for triangulation is for parents to strengthen their dyad; they need to present a parenting team to the children. The best way to get your partner to join your team is to give your partner positive feedback.
Lecturing, teaching, and preaching are not helpful techniques and almost invariably lead directly to triangulation and other negative consequences. Instead, find things to praise and encourage in your partner’s parenting style and use a bit of creative embellishment to help shape desirable behavior. For instance, instead of reprimanding his wife, Daniel could say something like, “You are really good with rules and structure and that’s so important for our kids. They may not show it when they’re upset, but I know they appreciate your fair and balanced approach. What a great mother you are!”
Positive feedback increases the confidence of a parent. It doesn’t lead to stricter, harsher parenting, but rather to more compassionate, relaxed parenting. The more confident a parent is that everyone appreciates, understands and loves her, the more relaxed and pleasant she becomes. In addition, the praised parent bonds strongly to his or her spouse, empowering that spouse to make an occasional suggestion that will actually be accepted. “You know, you’re so right, I don’t need to make that rule in the house — the kids know what they need to do.”
When parents have difficulty strengthening their team, they should ask a mental health professional for help. They’ll be happier and the family will be healthier when everyone is on the right team.