James sits tightly squeezed between his parents as the two of them argue over which of his behaviors has improved. At 12, he already knows to stand his ground, quiet yet defiant as he nods along with his father. Every time Mrs. T expresses frustration at James’ slovenly appearance, poor study habits, belching, or disrespect of family rules around eating only at the table, Mr. T rises to his son’s defense. All James has to do is silently support his father.
I’ve sat across families like James’ many times over the years and can identify their routine within a matter of minutes. James serves as a foil, a fulcrum actually, between his parents. The complaints his mother brings, the complaints he perpetuates, are a distraction to the core of the action in this family. Mr. and Mrs. T are locked in an embittered battle but are too fearful of their increasing disengagement and alienation from one another to address their marital grievances directly. So instead, Mrs. T complains about James’ disrespect and accuses Mr. T of coddling their son. Yet, they maintain their connection by coming together around their concern over James’ poor grades. In this way they can feel like their relationship, while increasingly distant, is not completely unraveling.
Psychologists have a term for this family pattern: It is called triangulation. And while it may be maladaptive, it is often quite effective at keeping family members locked in positions that serve an important role. James identifies with his dad and wants to be close to him. He’s learned that when he sasses his mom his dad quietly sits by, sometimes revealing a small smirk. and James feels a strong bond with his dad . Mrs. T is furious with her husband for the ways in which she feels unsupported by him but is terrified of confronting him. Yelling at James is an outlet for pent up hurt and frustration and acceptable within the of her Korean-American upbringing. Meanwhile, Mr. T is only dimly aware of how hurt and neglected he feels by Mrs. T ever since she took on a more demanding position at work. He feels unneeded, insignificant but cannot acknowledge these feelings. When Mrs. T comes to him in tears over James’ latest outrage, he can again feel like the source of comfort and protection he was for her early on in their marriage. In a sense, everyone is getting some of what he or she needs.
And yet all three members of the family are unhappy. James worries about his parents’ relationship. A few of his friends’ parents have gotten divorced recently. He rarely sees his parents laugh together or hug. Sometimes when he is roughhousing with his dad, he secretly wishes that his mom would join in and that it would all end in a three-way bear hug. He’s also spending less time hanging out with other kids on his block and more time playing video games with his dad.
Mrs. T misses her closeness with her son and longs for her husband to be more of a partner. She recognizes that boys at James’ age generally prefer the company of their father but wonders why she feels so left out. And Mr. T has become increasingly uncomfortable at the thought that the only time he feels close to his wife is when she breaks down in tears of frustration. He misses their after dinner walks during which she used to laugh at his jokes and grab for his hand.
So, when parents ask me what I can do to help James, I find myself having to gently pivot in a different direction. I certainly spend some sessions getting James more comfortable expressing his hopes, fears and feelings rather than acting them out. But very often, I schedule some parenting sessions without the child in which, by highlighting the shared vision both mom and dad have for their kids, I work on increasing connection and caring within the marriage.
How do I know when we’re ready to end the therapy? One telltale sign is watching a kid like James pull up a chair across from his parents who now sit side by side on my couch. It’s not quite musical chairs but something nearly magical has occurred.