October 11, 2018

The Danger (to our Children) of a Distant Marriage

Gary Thomas — 

The word “triangulation” should haunt every parent actively raising children, and it should warn all of us to not allow our marriages to grow distant during the child-rearing years (ever, really, but especially while we’re raising children).

In a harrowing but insightful chapter of Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals our Way to Healing, Seattle counselor Jay Stringer warns that “Triangulation, or emotional enmeshment, occurs when there is a breakdown in a marriage relationship and a child is brought in to fill the emotional emptiness.” Mothers can do this with sons; fathers can do this with daughters.

What essentially happens is that rather than address the emptiness of their marriage, a husband or wife will turn to a child to meet the emotional needs that should be met by a spouse. Stringer calls this “a form of emotional incest” that has “profound effects on the development of one’s individual and relational self. In marriage, our parents make vows to commit their loyalty, affection, and hearts to their spouses. Children do not make these vows. If you have been triangulated, it is likely your parents did not consider how the heartache and loneliness of their marriage would eventually affect you.”

Jay goes on to state, correctly, that children can become “idols” to their parents. This entraps a boy or a girl, who will feel guilty building their own life and eventually leaving to enjoy their own marriage. The diabolical payoff (early on) is a certain amount of “power and delight” over the other parent and children. “The cost of membership, though, is that your parent tends to determine what your life ought to look like.”

Sadly, it’s not uncommon to see a mom or a dad become “jealous” of their child when they know that child has a dearer place in their spouse’s heart than they do. Stringer’s research showed “there was an association between a father’s confiding in his daughter and the strictness or rigidity of her mother. The data seems to suggest that when a father finds more life and connection with his daughter than with his spouse, the wife will respond with anger and rigidity toward their daughter.”

Do you see how evil this is? By having an inappropriate relationship with his daughter, the father can also infect that daughter’s relationship with her mother. It may also impair her healthy sexual development and her ability to leave her family to bond with her husband. All because the dad feels distant from his wife.

This is monstrous, and Stringer lays out exactly what’s going on: “A parent who is triangulated with a child does not want independence; the parent wants the child to feed the parent’s emotional emptiness.”

This should at least give us pause about using the familiar tagline, “Daddy Daughter Dates.” I don’t believe it was ever meant to be creepy, and I’m sure our family may have used that line from time to time (it was very popular in the nineties). But it’s a phrase that dances on the line of being misunderstood, and since daughters don’t have fully developed abstract thinking, it’s best for them to know that mommy is the only person daddy ever “dates.” He spends time with his daughters. But he only “dates” his wife.

Triangulation and In-Laws

When Stringer is counseling a couple having much difficulty with the in-laws, he usually suspects triangulation. “A general rule of thumb is that if there is ongoing conflict with a mother-in-law or father-in-law, the presence of triangulation should be explored. Childhood triangulation that continues into a marriage is a form of emotional infidelity. If you are a spouse more committed to rescuing your parent, your faithfulness to your own marriage is compromised.”

We’ve all heard the “leave and cleave” line, but we need to take it more seriously. A good friend of mine did a marvelous job of pastoring when, at a wedding he was officiating, the mom said, “I don’t look at it as losing a son. I think of it as gaining a daughter.” My friend, knowing the family dynamics, said, “Oh, no. You’re losing a son. You’ve got to let him go.”

Multiple demands often means that someone is going to be disappointed. There’s only so much of you to give. Being true to your marriage vows means your spouse is a higher priority than your parents. If they try to make you feel guilty about how much they’ve given you and done for you, find a kind way to remind them that a “gift” is just that—something offered without expectation of anything in return. Now, if they were “trading”—that is, offering current services for future services—that’s something different. But call it what it is.

Another deep wound suffered by people who have endured triangulation is that even though they are finally able to break free from the triangulating parent, they may find it difficult to build intimacy with their spouse. They fear being “trapped and used” all over again and don’t want to let down their guard. So single men and women, this is something to look out for. If your potential spouse can’t leave their parents, they can’t bond with you. And if they had to force their way out of triangulation, they may be too terrified to let you get too close.


 What does this mean for those who are married and are actively raising kids?

  1. Your marriage is your first priority. When you allow your relationship to drift or dwindle, you set you and your kids up for an unhealthy parenting relationship. Work on your marriage first. Parenting comes second. That actually serves the cause of parenting rather than diminishing it.


  1. If your spouse isn’t fully engaged in your marriage, under no circumstances do you ask a son or daughter to become an emotional surrogate. Pour out your frustrations to a trusted friend or counselor, never to your kids.


  1. Kids are to be loved and launched, not used and abused. They are not given to us to make us feel proud, important or loved. That’s using


  1. Get a life. That may sound a bit harsh, but if you’re seeking first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33), and actively working on your marriage, you won’t have room in your heart for idols, especially not one fashioned out of your children. In this case, the best “defense” is a good “offense.”


  1. If you sense an unhealthy attachment with one of your kids, bring in a professional. Don’t make things worse by trying to blindly fix this with your child. Go to a competent counselor, alone, and let her or him lead the way to make amends and chart a new future. This is a serious issue. You couldn’t remove an infected appendix on your own, and you likely can’t demolish triangulation on your own, either.

NavPress sent me a complimentary copy of Jay’s book Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing, and I believe this book could be a game changer for how the church addresses what Jay calls repeated “unwanted sexual behavior.” He goes far beyond the typical “bounce your eyes and use accountability software” advice to get to the root of what’s going on in our souls.

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12 responses to The Danger (to our Children) of a Distant Marriage

  1. I had no idea that there was a word that described this dynamic but when I read it it was as if it was written specifically to me. Then upon reflection, I decided that there were no answers in it that I didn’t already know. My wife has a relationship with my adult son that truly does make me jealous. That is a hard thing to say, but it is in saying it that I gives me some power over my response to it, and more importantly gives any hope at all of turning things around. Only a few weeks ago, my wife accused me of resenting my son moving back into our home. He had been struggling with depression and alcoholism, and I honestly didn’t see a good alternative. I knew that this would likely be a problem when I agreed to it, because it was a problem when he was an adolescent/teen. The truth is that I am not without blame in creating the dynamic, because I was away from home much of the time during those years, and it is probably natural that she would turn to him for emotional connection. When I was home, I felt like a visitor in my own home because “they” had their own routines and they seldom included me.

    When he moved in with us, it resumed almost immediately, and it troubled me greatly. I saw it coming, and had even remarked to others that I expected it. I wish I had been wrong, because it has led to more than one fight. The difference between now and then is that I am able to push back when it becomes too much. The most recent was just a few weeks ago when she accused me of resenting my son. I was able to maintain enough composure to tell her that she was wrong and that it was her own behavior that I resented and I spelled out exactly what that behavior looked like from my perspective. I even used the word jealousy and told her that I hated feeling that way but it was beyond my ability to change.

    We have made some difficult progress since he moved in. I have had to speak out when I felt like things were going to far, such as when I asked her out to a quiet dinner date, and then she turned around later and extended the invitation to him. It might have been easier to just let it slide, but I politely told him that he was not invited, and that I was going on a date with my wife. I am sure that it put him in an awkward position, but I am equally sure that it was the right thing to do. I have had to give boundaries to both of them as well as to set expectations.

    As you pointed out to Pam, life can be tricky. This is only one of many issues that my wife and I are working our way thru. Thankfully, with the grace you mentioned, as well as an uncomfortable amount of honesty, we have been making steady progress instead of regressing to where we were in the past.

  2. Gary, I’d love to know your thoughts for people who had this dynamic when their children were young. How can a couple restore their marriage if one of them spent years turning to a child rather than to a spouse for emotional needs? For those with an adult child living with them, what are some first steps that can be taken to change the unhealthy dynamic?

  3. Has anyone looked at pictures from Purity Balls? I would love to see these as innocent but it seems the obsession of some fathers with their daughter’s purity sometimes smacks of the triangulation you talk about.

    Amazing insight and very eye opening.

  4. I would appreciate hearing your thoughts on triangulation in the midst of a divorce. I am currently divorcing my husband after 14 years of marriage (which ended up being 14 years of deception, pornography addiction, alcoholism and eventually sexual assault). We have four young children together under the age of 13 and they are watching as he decides not to support me financially anymore (and the kids when they are with me) and uses that money to lavish them with gifts, take them shopping and take them on dates instead. How do I respond to that in a way that does not put the kids in a difficult place?

    (And, yes, his parents were very much involved in our marriage both financially and in our day to day business. I’d often find out about my husband’s career decisions from his mother, second hand before he spoke to me about it. They even planned several of our anniversaries without our consent and made it an extended family event. There were even times when his parents would have a problem with me and my husband would take their side. )

  5. As the daughter in the triangulation mess, coming out of it after years of abuse (some on my father’s side, most on my mother’s) I was the one to take the step back and it’s finally freed me to be an adult woman able to fully leave and cleave to my husband. I am healing and growing as God in his amazing grace is doing the work needed to get me focused on my allegiance to Him. I was the counselor and confidante for so many years with my parents and man did it hurt me to let that go, because you’re right. There is a diabolical sort of power I held and I felt like the amazing fixer who was going to swoop in and save the day. Not a healthy, happy place to be, especially as my parent’s marriage continued to deteriorate. Now, I can pray for them from a distance, but leave them in God’s hands where they both need to be. 🙂

  6. Gary, I’m an avid follower of your work and have been helped profoundly, so I thank you sincerely. The warnings against idolatry and against burdening a child with being the emotional support for a psychologically and spiritually unhealthy person are wise cautions; thank you.

    I came away from reading this feeling beaten up, and feel that this was not one of your usual “bulls-eye” articles. Of course I’m not always right and I acknowledge, as Proverbs teaches repeatedly, that it’s foolish to refuse reproof. Indeed, “A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels:” (Proverbs‬ ‭1:5‬), so I will receive your correction here if you deem my comments here to be erroneous. I’m a divorced single dad of a preteen daughter who has been manipulated by her mother throughout her entire life to essentially loathe and revile me. My daughter’s mom is, frankly and sadly, a blatantly unrepentant narcissist, an unabashedly abusive person, both physically and emotionally, who has weaponized my daughter’s innate affections and has shamed her into fearfulness of expressing any positive responses toward me or to anyone who has not affirmed her vitriol toward me. 😢 You obviously married a godly woman so you and your children never experienced this, and I rejoice in that. Because of that, however, you can’t fathom the heartache of the willful alienation, and again, I rejoice that you haven’t had to walk this road, because it’s a treacherous one. As a brother in Christ, I humbly pray that the Holy Spirit will rebuke some of your language in this article which slanders wounded daddies who are limping along trying to love, lead and shepherd the hearts and souls of their daughters, little girls who have lived in an emotional hell throughout their lives with no recourse for the profound grief with which their lives have been needlessly infected..Are some dads creeps? Yes, sadly. Do I hate child abuse? Of course! But, dear brother, are you seriously going to continue to label as “incestuous” a daddy’s wholly appropriate acts of lovingly taking his discouraged, beaten-down-by-life daughter on special outings in sincere attempts to affirm her worth in Christ, to seek to minister the healing power of Jesus’ love for her, to seek to pour God’s gracious kindness and the comfort of the Holy Spirit into her little wounded spirit, and to just plain allow her to have some fun and to give to her some moments or hours of respite from the pain to which she has been so heartlessly subjected? Good grief, brother! What a vile, despicable accusation this is which you have inexplicably chosen to parrot from one of your fellow authors! Ugh. This vulgar phrasing has turned my stomach. 🤮😢 Daddies need encouragement to engage with their daughters, not to have needless and inaccurate aspersions of shame heaped upon their already-weary hearts and backs. Or are you presuming to know more than all of the other godly authors who have encouraged dads to engage the hearts of their daughters so that these precious girls have some point of reference as to how they can and should expect to be treated by a man?

    I believe you to be a good and sincere man whose genuine desire is to help and not to harm. I’m concerned (as is true of all of us at times) that this is an example of the warning that “…great men are not always wise…” (Job 32:9). It is my respectfully-submitted opinion that a clarifying addendum might be a welcome addition here. May the Lord bless and keep (and rebuke as necessary) all of us. “Grace be with you, mercy, and peace, from God the Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love.”‭‭ (2 John‬ 3)

    • Response from Gary Thomas:


      The last thing I want to do is increase your pain when you’ve already lived through a special slice of hell on earth. If you’ve been married to a narcissistic abuser who has turned your child against you, you’ve suffered more than anyone should. But we’re printing your reply because it’s a good example of what we often receive when people have been deeply hurt and they take offense at interpretations that really do stretch the meaning of the post.

      In this case, if you’re divorced you can’t, by definition, be guilty of triangulation. The post doesn’t apply to you. Your marriage is over, so your daughter can’t come between the two of you in that way. Your job now is to try to maintain a healthy relationship with your daughter. And if you look past the hurt just a little bit, I think you know in your heart the last thing I would challenge is a dad wanting a close relationship with his daughter. Any disinterested reading of this post would suggest that. But it’s understandably impossible for you to read it objectively if you think I’m shaming you for trying to maintain a healthy relationship in the midst of the spiritual chaos of being married to an abuser.

      Of course I want fathers and daughters to have healthy relationships. If you knew how often I pray for my daughters, and how I could often tell you, to the hour, how long it has been since we’ve talked, how I think about what to get them, you’d know the last thing I’m suggesting is being disinterested in your children. The post is entirely about using a child as a surrogate spouse, and nothing you write about suggests to me you’re doing that. I’m not saying dads shouldn’t spend time with their daughters–I’m saying don’t call it a date if that in any way sends mixed signals.

      Look, you’re running a very difficult race and I don’t want to add to your pain. Just put this post aside–it doesn’t apply to you. But please let me challenge those who are in distant marriages and perhaps are hurting themselves and their children without realizing it. I stand by the central premise of the post. But I don’t think the post is relevant to a divorced man (especially one in your situation) who wants to maintain a healthy relationship with his daughter. I’m so, so sorry for the pain you’ve incurred, and I’m sorry if the lack of precision in my writing triggered offense. May God bring healing to your soul and restoration with your daughter.

  7. This has been a slap in the face for me explaining my husband’s defense not only of his mom but his single forever sister. Seeing “I gained a daughter” in print from someone else just makes me more sad.

  8. I thought I was the only person experiencing this. Growing up my mom used me as her confidant against my dad. When I married I made extra efforts to make sure both of my daughters had “quality time” with their dad (my husband) because I never had a positive relationship with my dad.

    I can’t put my finger on exactly when it began, however, I can remember thinking & saying that if my child wasn’t my daughter she would be “the other woman”. I felt that excluded. I was not a priority, my daughter was his confidant, his date, his purpose…

    • Pam, life is tricky as layers and layers of dysfunction are passed down generationally. Thank God for the grace and forgiveness that helps us understand what’s going on and with courage move forward