Family of Origin: Triangulation

As we continue exploring various dynamics connected to family of origin, weighing both the cost and the necessity of entering this difficult terrain, we come this week to the complex, heartbreaking realm of triangulation—including, as Dan calls it, “the dark cloud of being chosen.” To help us unpack this category, Dan and Becky turn to their own origin stories, their experiences in marriage, and the learning and growth they have pursued over the years.

Dan: “What happens in any family when there is a failure of love between a husband and wife, when there is not delight, when there’s not honor, when there’s not the capacity to repair rupture—in other words, where there is not attachment structures between a husband and wife—there will come to be a relationship between a parent and a child where that child replaces something of the intimacy needs of that parent-spouse, who’s now using that child for levels of intimacy that were intended only for one’s relationship with one’s spouse.”

Though it’s not often talked about with the language of triangulation, the Biblical story of Joseph offers a meaningful archetype for wrestling with these dynamics. Joseph was singled out as his father’s favorite, and was therefore envied and hated by his brothers. His calling emerged from this background of significant conflict and harm.

Dan: “When you’re bound in intimacy of any form—erotic intimacy, intense emotional intimacy, even aggravated intimacy—there is pleasure. There’s power. […] And yet, in that arousal, there is immense shame and judgement.”

Becky shares about some of the dynamics in her family of origin, and she and Dan reflect on how that played out in the early years of their marriage. As is often the case, it was sometimes much easier for each spouse to see what was playing out in their partner’s families than to see it in their own—meaning, Becky says, that she was often left feeling the need to defend her parents against Dan’s parents. And even now, after years of deepening awareness and meaningful work, Dan says he still felt a familiar tension in his chest as they prayed and prepared for this conversation.

Becky: “We didn’t have the language to call this triangulation.”

Dan: “[And now] we’ve done so much work, yet there’s so much childlike heartache.”

We’ve done so much work, yet there’s so much childlike heartache.

Each story of triangulation is as unique as each particular family. Sometimes it’s chaotic and dramatically disruptive, and other times it’s more subtle, boiling just below the surface. Sometimes a child is chosen because they are attentive and attuned enough to meet certain emotional needs, while other times it might be due to a level of energy and intensity that is lacking between the parents. However these dynamics play out, we all learn to survive and cope—and these mechanisms may still show up decades later in other relationships.

When honestly named and engaged in our journey of healing, however, those dynamics—no matter how harmful and deep-seated they are—do not have to be the end of the story. Dan and Becky reflect on how they have learned to see each other differently in the context of their stories, and Becky shares how she has been stepping out of the shadows, from someone who remains quiet and unassuming in the midst of chaos, to a woman who is daring to use her voice in beautiful new ways—a process she also explores in her book, Hidden in Plain Sight.

Dan: “What’s required for any couple to address this in a way that leads not just to survival, but to life itself? [… Because] the amazing nature of our own family of origin’s harm also creates something of the glory of who we are.”