In the film “Bye Bye Birdie,” the character Albert, played by Dick Van Dyke, tells his mother that he has “plans” to marry his secretary, Rosie. When his mother hears this, she puts her head in the oven and tells her son to bury her in the front yard so Rosie can walk all over her. This leads into the song, “What’s the Matter With Kids Today.” By the end of the song, Albert promises his mother that he will never abandon her. Rosie, is, understandably, upset. Watch.
This hysterically funny, and psychologically astute, scene illuminates why sometimes in-laws have such a hard time getting along. In order to explain in-law problems, you need to understand family systems, boundaries, and triangulation.
Every living organism is a system. Systems are complex, they are organized, and they are wholes. Systems have parts within it that have separate functions. Each of those parts are also systems. For example, the body has many different systems that make up the person. One part of the human body is the cardiovascular system. That system has parts, itself. The heart is a whole organ that is a part of the cardiovascular system. The heart does its job, and it has parts, too, that do their own jobs.
If we think of things this way, we can see that people are parts of larger systems. We are each whole, and autonomous, but we cannot be separated from our larger social systems. These include couples, families, communities, countries, etc.
The thing that makes one part of a system distinct from other parts is a boundary. The place where I end and where the rest of the world begins is my boundary.
Boundaries are necessary for systems to work well. If the organs in my body weren’t distinct, where each one performed its unique function, I’d die. My lungs need to be separate from my heart, with one handling air, and the other blood. However, for boundaries to do their job, they cannot be rigid. A healthy boundary is one that is semi-permeable. That means it can let in good stuff, and keep out bad stuff. A part, or system, that has a boundary that can’t let anything in will die. If oxygen can’t get into the blood, where the lungs and heart cooperate, I will die. On the other side, if the body lets in the bad stuff, if the blood is not washed of impurities, the body, also dies. Here we see another characteristic of systems. For the system to function optimally, the parts need to function optimally. A body with a bad heart is in trouble.
Social systems work the same way. If a family can’t grow, adapt, change and let in new information or people, it can’t survive. For example, the Shakers wouldn’t let new people into the sect, no one had kids, and they died out. If a family is boundaryless, for example, if there is a sexual relationship between a parent and a child, it also cannot function optimally. When human systems don’t work right, we often know because the people in the system experience emotional pain.
One definition of a healthy system, therefore, is that it has healthy boundaries. These both maintain the integrity of the system, that is, it keeps everything from falling apart, while being able to sustain, adapt, and grow.
Another characteristic of systems is that its main function is self-perpetuation, to keep going. This survival function also has its optimal range. When the drive to survive goes beyond healthy limits, it can be ultimately destructive. Cancer cells are programmed for survival, but in so doing, they kill their host and eventually die themselves.
It is strange to conceive, but as systems, families act just like living organisms. Their main function, too, is survival. A family system may operate by rules that it believes is best for its survival, but these rules may actually be destructive. For example, if a family believes that change and growth, let’s say by letting in a new family member, is dangerous to its survival, it will make sure that new persons do not enter the family. However, the very thing that the family believes it needs to do to survive can lead to a great deal of suffering. Witness the Bye Bye Birdie song. Albert and Rosie are not happy.
Sometimes, a survival strategy that worked at one time outlives its usefulness, and becomes dysfunctional at another time. When food was scarce, the human body adapted by easily storing fat. Now that we live in a world of food abundance, this evolutionary adaptation makes it easy to gain, and hard to lose, weight.
In a similar way, if you grew up in Italy in the 19th century, the value of maintaining a close connection to your extended family reigned supreme, because it was what peasants needed to do to survive. That approach may not be applicable in the urban United States of the 21st century. For example, parents of Italian descent that I worked with wished that their children would live nearby after marriage and come over every Sunday for dinner. When their children rejected this model and moved far from home, it left the parents bereft and unable to cope.
To review, systems are complex organizations with parts that have unique functions. These parts work together for the survival of the whole. Boundaries are what separate one part from another, and also allow the parts to work together in service of the whole.
Now we have a basic idea of what a system is, and a boundary, and some of the ways they work for good or ill. This leads us to the topic of triangulation.
Triangles are natural and common in relationship systems. The most common structure in relationships is the dyad, or two people. This is the relationship between husband and wife, mother and child, friend to friend. But triangles are very normal, too. For example, a mother, father, and child make up a relationship triangle.
Just like with systems and boundaries, triangles can be functional or not. There are healthy interactions in triangles, and unhealthy ones. The unhealthy ones usually involve some kind of boundary violation. When people use triangular relationships in dysfunctional ways, this is called triangulation.
Here is what this can look like.
Sometimes, when a parent does not have a good relationship with their spouse, they will turn to their child for emotional solace. They will form an alliance with the child against the other parent. In this triangle, there are two insiders, let’s say the mother and the child, and an outsider, the father. In this triangle, the mother’s intent isn’t to harm the child, but rather to lessen the distress she feels in her marriage.
If the mother (in this example) is emotionally wounded in a particular way, when her emotional needs are not met in the marriage, she can come to depend on her child for her emotional well-being. As the child gets older, this dependent mother may perceive her child’s development and natural separation from her as a threat.
That’s when you get the “Bye, Bye, Birdie” phenomenon. In that film, mother doesn’t believe she is hurting her son by keeping him from the woman he wants to be with; mother is driven by the need to keep the system, as it exists, alive. Mother believes that her son’s leaving is a threat to her, and her son’s, well being. As a result, the mother manipulates the child into remaining with her. This is an example of a boundary that is too rigid. The idea of letting someone new into the family circle is unacceptable. The mother doesn’t do this purposely, but unconsciously believes she must exclude outsiders for survival. Unfortunately, this can lead to negative consequences for everyone. The mother violates a boundary by extending herself inside her son’s personal sphere, and not allowing him to make his own decisions for his life.
One strategy that individuals can use to control other people’s behaviors is to triangulate within the system. For example, in more than one family I have worked with, when the son meets a woman he likes the mother will tell the son bad things that the woman did. Rather than establishing a direct relationship with this new woman in order to build a positive alliance with her, the mother will talk negatively about this person to her son. Then the son is put in the middle between mother and prospective spouse. The son is put in the terrible position of being forced to choose an alliance, either with his mother or this woman. This indirect communication is a hallmark of triangulation. Here we find another boundary violation. The mother doesn’t respect the woman’s boundaries by speaking about her, without permission, to the son.
This can work the other way, as well. A mother may tell the prospective girlfriend negative things about the son to keep her away. In another very funny film, “Where’s Poppa,” the mother, played by Ruth Gordon, tells her son’s date that her son has a “pecker this big.” (This can be called the TMI boundary violation!) Mom goes on to feign death, and calls the young woman names, making it a perfect trifecta of boundary violations. The date flees. Check it out.
Triangulation can certainly continue when a son gets married. Another form of triangulation is when the triangle extends outside of the family, for example, when a mother-in-law talks about her daughter-in-law in negative terms to an outsider. Now the triangle becomes mother, daughter-in-law, and outsider. This outsider gets caught in the web and communicates what she heard back to the daughter-in-law, so she receives the negative information indirectly. Here is another boundary violation. The mother reaches out beyond the boundary of the family, allies with an outsider, who then becomes an unwitting participant in a family drama.
The triangulations can then spin on. The daughter-in-law speaks negatively about her husband to others for not standing up to his mother or she speaks negatively about her mother-in-law to her husband, again putting the husband/son in an untenable position.
What is happening here is that, if the daughter-in-law is not extremely aware, she can easily get ensnared in the patterns of triangulation. Strangely, it is quite common for spouses to take on the characteristics of the in-law that they have strong negative feelings toward.
How does it come about that in a family system a wife turns into her husband’s mother (or vice versa)?
Just like all other organisms, the psychological “self” is also a system. It, too, is made up of parts, each with its own boundaries, that work together for good or ill for the survival of the “self.”
In the system of the self, what is within the boundary is “me, “ and what is outside the boundary is “not me.” The way that we define “me” is what constitutes our psychological boundary. This not only includes others, (I am me and you are you) but personality characteristics as well. These are the ways we define ourselves. People may say, “I’m a good person,” or “I would never do anything like that,” or “when I did that I wasn’t being myself.”
How do we come to define ourselves in these ways?
Part of the way that we create a psychological boundary is through learning very early in life that certain attributes, characteristics, emotions, or behaviors were considered acceptable by our caregivers while others were considered unacceptable. If our mother got upset and withdrew when we got angry as a child, we learned to suppress our anger, and convince ourselves that we do not get angry, that we don’t have anger, and that anger is not a part of who we are. Anger becomes a part of the “not me.” It is outside our conscious boundary. We adapt our personalities in such a way as to “own” the good characteristics, and “disown” the bad ones. We then define ourselves accordingly. We identify ourselves with our so-called good attributes and call ourselves “good” and disidentify from the bad ones and say we are not “bad.”
But in the case of this example, of course, unless we are the Buddha, we all have anger. We have just learned to sequester that part of our personality in such a way that we are not aware of it. All of these attributes that we deny, because we have learned that they are unacceptable, exist in the recesses of our being and outside of our awareness. We call these denied parts of the self the shadow.
We then project the contents of our shadow onto others. As Jesus said, we see the mote in someone else’s eye, but not the log in our own. Former New York governor Spitzer was a crusader against moral turpitude as a prosecutor, trying to wipe out the bad in society, while he was spending untold thousands on sadomasochistic call girls. When someone else provokes an intense emotional reaction from us, it is often because we see the unacceptable parts of ourselves in them.
Not only that, if we are extremely cut off from these hidden parts of our personality, we can actually get other people to act in those ways, and then reject the other for doing so.
For example, if we have learned that anger is not allowed, then we don’t act in angry ways directly. We think of ourselves as someone who does not get angry. But of course we do. We may simply act out our anger in passive-aggressive ways. Then, without knowing why, our partner gets angry at us. We can then get upset with them, in particular, because we find anger so unacceptable.
In one example of a couple I worked with, when a husband told his wife that he needed her to hear his pain, she reacted dismissively, saying that she was not into that touchy-feely stuff. This roused his anger, because of his own childhood wounds, where his mother was never emotionally available to him. When he got angry, his wife would get indignant, saying she did nothing to deserve this and that he had an anger issue. She claimed that she was nice and never got angry or would do anything to engender such wrath. Through therapy the wife realized that she learned in childhood from her own mother that negative feelings were to be avoided. Her unfelt anger got projected into the husband and he had the angry reaction that his wife could not admit to.
Our shadows can then become participants in the triangulation game. Let’s return to our example of the daughter-in-law, mother-in-law, and son triangle. The daughter-in-law perceives herself to be the innocent victim of her mother-in-law’s destructive intentions. But then the daughter-in-law gets caught up in the mother-in-law’s triangulation game. The wife constructs her relationship to her husband in competitive terms. She sees the system as a battlefield, where, in order to secure her own position, she needs to “win” the husband and destroy the relationship between mother and son. The husband then lives through the nightmare of seeing his wife act just like his mother. The mother-in-law projects her shadow into the daughter-in-law, and can claim that she is the victim. The daughter-in-law can rightly say she’s not “like this” and is only acting this way because of the mother-in-law. She can say this and mean it, because it is her shadow who is coming out and fighting dirty.
In another move of boundary protection, if the husband is particularly wounded, he will not be able to allow the possibility that his mother bears significant responsibility for this problem. Knowing his mother’s deep sensitivity and inability to own her negative side, out of a profound loyalty, he also refuses to see what is true about his mother. He will then project most of the blame onto the wife. He will see the problem coming primarily from her. Unfortunately, once the wife gets caught in the game, it proves this theory right. Ironically, when the wife triagulates to gain power, the mother-in-law actually wins, because this sows discord between her son and his wife and it proves that the daughter-in-law is the bad one, because she is so awful to the mother.
The daughter-in-law’s attacks on her husband’s mother are not only destructive and boundary crossing, but they can serve to damage the husband, too. In these kinds of families there is probably very little differentiation between the husband and his mother, and perhaps his whole family of origin. Here the boundary is very blurry. The family is what we call enmeshed. What this means is that there is not a clear distinction between “me” and “you.” When the son perceives that his family is being attacked, he feels the hurt himself. An attack on an ally is an attack on the self. That is why if the mother induces the wife to attack her by triangulating to the husband, it serves the mother’s end, because the husband will experience this attack as personal, and this will break the connection between husband and wife.
Usually, a wife gets induced into the game because of her own woundedness. She unconsciously picks a family where she can work out her own shadow issues through her husband’s family drama. Therefore, she may be just waiting for an opportunity to get into the fray. If this is the case, it is not at all unusual for the wife to then start creating new triangulations with the next generation. If she has a baby, she will perceive the mother and husband as being intrusive, as entering her boundary, and will create rigid walls in an attempt to keep them out. They might, in fact, be intrusive, but her reaction, again, confirms the husband’s family’s worst fears. She will use the child as a triangulated weapon in the battle with the mother for the husband. She might attempt to control her husband by using the child as a trump card. An epic power battle may then ensue for the alliance to the child. She may set too rigid of a boundary by keeping the child from the child’s grandmother. Undertandably, this can create a tremendous amount of psychic stress for the child, and lead to negative consequences, again, continuing the problems through the generations.
The idea of the shadow is most perplexing psychologically, because it is hard to grasp that an individual is also a system made up of semi-autonomous parts. Because of this, a person may be completely unaware of how they are in control of playing their role in the system. They may simply feel to be an innocent victim in a play written by others. They may sincerely believe that they mean no harm. When the nature and structure of the system is described, the reaction is one of shock and denial. To them, all they and their ally wants is the good of all, and if the third person would just stop causing trouble, all would be ok. Each person in the triangle may feel this way. In fact, this is true. It is a part of the person that is playing the triangulation game, and that part is not the one we identify with as “me.” The part that is perpetuating this destructive pattern is the shadow. It is obvious to all onlookers how each person is playing their part in the triangle, but it is not at all apparent to the players themselves, because the shadow is that very part of us of which we remain unaware.
How to Get Out of the Game
Getting out of the game is not easy. It begins with owning your shadow. That means seeing the parts of yourself that you would rather deny. It means taking responsibility for your part in keeping the game going. It means acknowledging the ways that you violate boundaries, and either keep boundaries too rigid, or too loose. It means recognizing that as far as systems go, the only part you can change is yourself. When you do, this will have the greatest impact on the system as a whole.
As far as triangulation is concerned, getting out of the game means to stop gossiping. Gossip is a fun thing for all of us to do, and we probably won’t eliminate it entirely, but we can become aware of our motivation and the impact of talking about others negatively when they are not present.
The first step is easy. Whatever role you are in in the triangulation game, it means no shit-talking about your husband, your wife, your children’s spouses, your parents, your kids, or your mother-in-law.
And certainly not on Facebook.