Stepfamily Challenges

“…triangles are the smallest stable building block of any emotional system….a two-person system is stable as long as anxiety is low, but when it rises it automatically draws in the most vulnerable third person and becomes a triangle.  Although the triangular process in families is always shifting, it also involves patterns that repeat over time, in which people often come to have fixed positions in relation to each other.  Predictable, triangles have two close individuals in the inside positions, and one that is in the outside position.”(p. 19-20) Titelman (2008)

“In periods of calm, the triangle is made up of a comfortably close two-some and a less comfortable outsider.  The twosome works to preserve the togetherness, lest one become uncomfortable and form a better togetherness elsewhere.  The outsider seeks to form a togetherness with one of the twosome, and there are numerous moves to accomplish this.” (p.373)  Bowen (1978)

Emotional triangles exist everywhere and are evident in every human relationship system once one learns to recognize them.  They are neither good nor bad; forming triangles is the way social animals stabilize their relationships.  However, sometimes triangles can become stuck or problematic.  When two kids gang up on a more vulnerable child, that’s an example of a problematic triangle.  When a couple repeatedly argues about, say, the woman’s best friend, that’s another example of a triangle that is stuck and causing problems.

One of the places we can see triangles at work most easily is in a stepfamily.  Often, the triangle between the biologic parent and child and the stepparent can become conflicted.  The stated reasons may vary:

Tom complains that his wife, Nancy, babies her 7 year-old son, Dylan.  She lets him sleep in their bed and doesn’t correct him when he sasses her.  Tom is fed up with seeing Dylan “manipulate his mother”.

Barry doesn’t have custody of his 12 year-old daughter, Alicia.  He only gets to see her every other weekend, and even then her mother often books activities for Alicia that cut into his time with her.  So when Alicia calls and needs a ride from Dad, he drops everything to go to her.  His new wife, Mandy, feels like she comes in second to Alicia’s demands.  She says she can’t make plans because she never knows when Alicia will ruin them with a phone call to Dad.

Toby, 9, can’t tolerate seeing his mother, Maria, and his stepfather, Zach, be affectionate with one another.  When they hold hands or kiss, he complains.  Toby tries to sit between them at restaurants and movies and he sulks when Maria won’t let him do it.  Maria says Toby is reverting to babyish behavior like whining and sucking his thumb.  She sees the problem but doesn’t know what to do.  If she gives in to Toby, Zach gets angry.  If she holds a firm line with Toby, she feels guilty.  After all, he’s been through a lot because of the divorce and remarriage.  She says she’s stuck in the middle and can’t see a way out.

The same thing is happening in all these cases; the stepparent and stepchild are vying for the inside position in the Parent-Stepparent-Child triangle.  This vying for position process occurs in all families (which explains why siblings fight-they want the inside position with mom or dad) and the closeness positions move easily around the triangle.  But the dynamic in the stepfamily is different; the positions tend not to be as fluid as in traditional families-there are many exceptions to this generalization-because everyone wants to be in the close position to the biologic parent.

How can stepfamilies mitigate the serious damage a perpetually stuck triangle can cause?  This will be the subject of the next stepfamilies blog…

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