On Triangling: An Open Letter to My Niece, Cassi, and Her Husband, Cam, On the Birth of their Third Child, Son, Chase

by | Jul 6, 2010

Dr. Wall uses the birth of his grandnephew, Chase, to his niece, Cassi, and her husband, Cam (their third child), to discuss the important concept of triangling.

Dear Cassi and Cam,

It was so fun to see your family two weekends ago.Thanks for letting me hold little Chase. He’s a sweetie.Holding him made up for the devastating loss of the U.S. to Ghana in the World Cup.

Cam and Cassi Piper’s third child, Chase, was born May 31, 2010. He spent some time in the NICU at Children’s Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota, but everything turned out fine. He joins his brother and sister, Caden (3) and Rori (2)

When I told you about my Open Letter to Brandon and Philly on the birth of their second child, LydiaSue, and you asked me to write one to you on the birth of Chase, I had no idea what I would say different.Both you and Cam are in the same age range as Brandon and Philly and both of you are in career transitions and both of you are young parents and both of you are making wise choices.I would encourage you to look at that Open Letter, because I could say the same to the two of you.

So, what can I say about a young family with 3 kids?Hmm.We’ll see where this leads.

Is there that much difference between having 3 kids and having 2?I’m saddened that so many people fear having larger families.You already commented that the other two kids are helping out.And, you know, kids don’t need nursing and extended care for long, and then they grow up and become your best friends and confidants.What’s really fun is when they start giving you insight that blesses your life.

But there can be some hidden pitfalls to adding a new family member if we’re not careful.Here’s the math on relationships: The number of people squared is the number of relationships in the family, so every time you add a member to your family, the total family dynamic changes.So if you have a husband and wife there are 2 times 2 possible relationships (4 total): you, Cam, Cam and You, and You and Cam = 4.Add Caden and you have 9: Cam, Cam and You, You and Cam, Caden, Caden and you, you and Caden, Caden and Cam, Cam and Caden, you and Cam and Caden.I was explaining this to a mathematician client once and she told me, no, it was the number of relationships cubed and then she tried to explain it to me and she lost me.Anyway, it’s a bunch.So add Rori and we’re up to 16 and add Chase and we’re up to 25.

What this means in practical terms is that there are 25 opportunities for relationship breakdown!YIKES!Look at our family with 6 of us with our four kids growing up:36 opportunities for us to mess this whole thing up.Given how our family turned out I think you will have to admit there must be a God in Heaven and a Holy Spirit that protects and leads us because given all our wildly varying personalities there is no way in the universe that it would be possible for all of us to survive intact.The Wall Clan is proof of the existence and benevolence of God, I am sure.

With three kids you could easily see how this could implode.When we have 3 the temptation is to get into 2 verses 1.These triangles (what they are called in Family Studies) can be a mess.They can go by gender: Caden and Chase verses Rori; Age: The two oldest Caden and Rori verses the youngest, Chase or the two youngest Rori and Chase verses the oldest Caden or personality: The two most dominant verses the one more passive.I’m sure there are other scenarios, but you get the drift (interests, beliefs, etc.).Add parents in the mix and it can become the men and boys verses the women in the clan or dad and the oldest two verse the mom and the youngest.The gender pattern is common around dad and the boys’ sports and mom and the daughter’s dance class.The bonding in these activities is fine as long as it doesn’t go too far.If mom gets closer to the daughter or dad becomes closer with the boys than mom and dad are to each other we will have a mess on our hands.I’ll spare you the technical terms.Trust me.It’s chaos.This is where we get things like the daughter becoming rebellious because mom is fairly well creeping her out or mom has an affair because dad is overly involved with the boys and she’s so lonely.And on and on.

This triangling deal can be pretty devastating.But the curious thing is that triangles are the foundation of the universe and a blessing for us all (You won’t learn this in grad school.):The Father, Son and Holy Spirit.Three in One has stood the test of time.So…there are good triangles and bad triangles.Let’s major on the good triangles.

How do we have a family of good triangles instead of bad triangles?When I came across this concept in grad school, I read through the Gospels in light of it, asking, how did Jesus handle triangles?It was pretty amazing.

You have to know how they work in a hurtful way first.A person will try to get you on their side against someone else by telling you something bad about someone else (Herod and Pilot verse Jesus), so that it becomes two against one.We call this gossip outside the family, but if it’s in your own clan under your own house and you wash these people’s underwear and sheets it’s not called gossip.It’s a disaster.Mommy, mommy Caden hit me.That’s all cute and everything when they are four.It’s family terror when they are 14 and warfare when they are 25.

I’d encourage you to read the Gospels in light of this concept, but in a nutshell Jesus ignored negative triangles or used it as a teaching moment, or changed the subject altogether.He never got into a negative triangle once.A curious thing to me is that this concept was not even delineated in Family Studies until the 1950’s.It’s enough to make a believer out of you if you are not careful:The Miracle Wall Clan and Jesus and Triangling:The New Apologetic (That’s a secret Joke for Brandon).

The key to avoiding negative triangles in the family is for mom and dad to have a solid relationship that no child problems or agitation can thwart.Here’s a negative example:Sally comes and tells Mommy that Daddy scolded her.Mommy and Sally go to see Daddy and, in front of Sally, Mommy chews out Daddy.

If this happens in your family, welcome to Hell.

Here’s a better way to handle it:Sally tells Mommy that Daddy scolded her.Mommy says, “Really?” and asks about it.Then Mommy tells Sally that the two of them need to go talk to Daddy.Mommy has Sally tell Daddy what Sally told Mommy.This teaches Sally we’re not tolerating negative triangles in our family.What you say to me you need to be able to tell Daddy.Then Daddy gives his side of the story.Then, Mommy and Daddy dismiss Sally and Mommy and Daddy talk about the situation outside of Sally’s hearing, conveying to Sally that she CANNOT come between Mommy and Daddy.If Mommy and Daddy determine that Sally was out of line for trying to create a wedge between Mommy and Daddy, the two of them figure out how to handle it.If Mommy and Daddy agree that Daddy had inappropriately treated Sally, the apology will be arranged so that it does NOT convey to Sally that Sally and Mommy are against Daddy, but that Daddy had over reacted and he’s sorry and that Mommy and Daddy are one and Sally is looking in from the outside.

This example illustrates The First Rule To Avoid Negative Triangling in the family:

Don’t let your kids come between you and your spouse.Period.

When your kids attempt to come between you, ignore it, use it as a teachable moment, or change the subject altogether.

Parenting is a good example of positive triangling.The two parents are working together for the good of the family.Counseling is another example.I’m in the positive triangling business.If a therapist allows a client to get him on the client’s side verses the spouse, we’re done.We’ll lose the husband if he feels his wife and counselor are against him.We’ll lose the wife if she feels her husband and counselor are against her.

As parents, then, we want to create a positive triangle of blessing for our family.The easiest way for this to happen is for mommy and daddy to make sure that the two of them have enough alone time without the kids to bond, to care, to talk, to tease, to consult, to be friends and lovers.

The Second Rule to Avoid Negative Triangles in the families is this:

We (as husband and wife) will spend enough time alone to nurture our love and friendship to make sure we are closer to each other than either of us is with the children.

For some young families, this seems virtually impossible.If either parent starts to love the kids more than they do their spouse, we’re entering negative triangling territory and better watch out.Given that Cassi is home with the kids and Cam is working hard to make ends meet, you might be tempted to enter into the following very common and sad destructive triangling scenario:

He feels that his wife is overly involved with the kids and that she has no time for him.She starts to resent him because it feels to her he’s never home and when he is he’s preoccupied (exhausted and burdened most likely).She has all this bonding time with the kids.She uses the kids to meet her social needs.Over time, she triangles in with the kids verses daddy.Daddy becomes the scapegoat.He’s on the outside.He resents this and either gets angry or quietly seethes within. She can easily become harsh and bitter because she feels it’s unfair that she has to do nearly all of the housework, childcare and family management.She’s on his case to spend time with the family and to help around the house.Am I just a maid?If he’s not careful he can start resent his kids who took his wife away.She wants to spend time as a family.He wants to spend time alone with her.They fight about this (Duh?They have to do both!).Neither will give in so they quit fighting and end up in two camps. This husband is vulnerable to an affair or to just dump his wife outright.She doesn’t want me around.Why come home?She’s vulnerable to an affair because she desperately needs adult companionship and her husband seems unavailable.She can also be tempted to divorce her husband.It’s no fun being around him.I can survive with out him.He’s never home anyway.

In this example you can see that triangling doesn’t have to be between only 2 verses 1.It can be one group and an idea verses one (The Media and the President against BP.The Media and BP against the President.Curiously, it’s never any two camps verses the Media.Hmmm.).In the example above it’s mommy and the kids verses daddy.How people often solve these problems is to create a counter negative triangle:daddy and beer verses the mommy-kids clan or daddy and his work against the mommy-kids clan or daddy and his affairee verses the mommy-kids clan.The ultimate negative triangle in the family is when each gets their own lawyer verses the other spouse and the other spouse’s lawyer.If you really want to see negative triangles in motion, look at divorced families and then add a new stepfather or mother and/or stepbrothers and sisters.We’ll have negative triangles all over the place with enough friction to heat several city blocks.Divorced families and stepfamilies are rife with negative triangles because divorce reinforces negative triangling and it becomes a lifestyle for years (generations?) to come.

Blessed is the family that figures out how to NOT get into negative triangling.

With adult family members the principle to avoid negative triangling is this (The Third Rule To Avoid Negative Triangling):

Do not say anything to anyone in the family about anyone else in the family that you would not say to that person’s face.  If you make the mistake of saying something you shouldn’t have about another family member behind that family member’s back, tell that family member what you said (in humility) and apologize and make sure the person you initially told knows that you apologized.  This is will nip a potential negative triangle in the bud.

If someone in the family says something negative to you about another family member, refuse to be triangled (the 2 of you verses the other family member), and gently avoid getting sucked in by making a positive comment about the family member that was criticized and then gently change the subject.

The exception to this rule is that the husband and wife need to be able to have private conversations about the rest of the family (including extended family) that is no one else’s business.But don’t use this privilege to criticize your spouse’s family.For example, if a wife tries to triangle her husband with her against his blood family, she will be in for a fight.It would be wise for her to lay off putting down his family because blood is thicker than water and he will be tempted to side with them against her.

The basic principle here (And the Fourth Rule To Avoid Negative Triangling) is:

I can critique my own family in the privacy of our relationship, but I won’t criticize your family.

This is why the Christian faith is so powerful.God sends his Son to a lost world to positively triangle us in against death, sin, the flesh and the Devil and his Cohorts.Woohoo!As the Father has sent the Son, so the Son sends us.We are called (positively triangeled with God) to be a blessing to others.If we can’t be a blessing in our immediate family, it’s all a gong and a noisy cymbal.

Love, (trying to be) Your Positively Triangled Uncle,


Dr. Bing Wall

Dr. Bing Wall

Dr. Bing Wall is a marriage therapist with a practice in Ames and Urbandale, Iowa. To set up a time to see Dr. Wall click here or call 888-233-8473.

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