The Empirical Study Of Triangulation
Historically, most investigations of familial interaction have taken a dyadic approach, studying the antecedent-consequent interactions of two family members at a time (e.g., parent criticism followed by child negative affect). Until the end of the twentieth century, there had been surprisingly little empirical research examining whole-family (or any family unit that extends beyond dyads) dynamics and their implications for child development. An implicit assumption seemed to be that triadic or family-level processes had little impact on children's behavior beyond the contributions of dyadic husband-wife and parent-child interactions. However, twenty-first-century researchers began to establish the importance of triangulation (among other triadic processes) for child functioning. For the most part, triangulating processes have been studied in the context of marital conflict and how it may negatively affect other family subsystems.
Marital functioning. Several studies found children to be more likely to be triangulated into marital disputes in families characterized by higher levels of marital conflict. Kristin Lindahl, Mari Clements, and Howard Markman (1997) found marital distress and conflict before the birth of a child to be predictive of the development of cross-generational coalitions and husbands' tendency to triangulate the child into marital disputes five years later. In other words, when couples were ineffective at regulating negativity between them before a child was born, they were more likely to later try to form alliances with the child against the other parent, and fathers were more likely to involve or incorporate the child into ongoing marital conflict years later. Exposure to intense marital conflict, including aggression, has been shown to be related to children's tendency, especially in boys, to make efforts to distract or deflect parents' attention away from ongoing interspousal conflict (Gordis, Margolin, and John 1997).
Using a pictorial assessment strategy, Patricia Kerig (1995) asked parents and their children to describe their family structure by pointing to the drawing that best illustrated the level of closeness that existed between the different members in their family. Parents from triangulated families, in which there were cross-generational coalitions between parents and children, rated their marriages as the highest in conflict and maladjustment. Cross-generational coalitions or alliances would seem likely to threaten the relationship the child has with each parent, both the one seeking an alliance with the child as well the one against whom the child is being asked to align. The child may feel anger or resentment at being asked to in essence betray the other parent (Cox, Paley, and Harter 2001). In addition, child triangulation is thought to prolong marital distress and family tension as the original conflict is not resolved.
Child functioning. Triangulating processes have been shown to be linked to higher levels of maladjustment in children in several studies ( Jenkins, Smith, and Graham 1989; O'Brien, Margolin, and John 1995). Children who report coping with interparental discord by becoming involved in the conflict, either through intervention or distraction and acting out, have been found to have higher levels of anxiety and hostility, and lower levels of self-esteem than children who cope by avoidance or self-reliance (O'Brien, Margolin, and John 1995). Children who triangulate themselves may perceive a conflicted parent-child relationship as one that is less threatening and easier to manage than a conflicted marital relationship (Cox, Paley, and Harter 2001). In one of the few empirical investigations to include a clinical sample in the study triangulating processes, Barton Mann and colleagues (1990) examined parent-child coalitions in families with a delinquent adolescent and in families with a well-adjusted adolescent. Cross-generational coalitions, defined by the degree of verbal activity, supportiveness, and conflict-hostility in one parent-child dyad relative to the other, occurred significantly more often in the families with antisocial teenagers. In particular, in the delinquent sample, the adolescents were more often aligned with their mothers (who often perceived their husbands as too harsh) and disengaged from their fathers (who were often punitive and emotionally distant from the child).
Although the majority of the studies examining family processes have focused on middle-class Anglo families, there is evidence to suggest that triangulating processes occur in other ethnic groups as well. Kristin Lindahl and Neena Malik (1999) compared Anglo, Hispanic, and biethnic (Anglo/Hispanic) families and found detouring marital coalitions (spouses' marital conflict was redirected to the child in an attacking and critical manner) to be associated with higher levels of marital conflict and externalizing behavior problems in children across all three ethnic groups. Within a clinical sample of Hispanic families, José Szapocznik and his colleagues (1989) found family therapy to be related to improvements in family functioning (including triangulation).