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Divorce and Family Geometry, A Case Study

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

abstract pattern of green and red trianglesGeometry deals with the arrangements of points of contact, angles, surfaces and their relationships. Families, including parents, children, grandparents and all other family members who are in direct contact and involvement with kin are part of those points of contact.

The most common type of geometric shape we see with regard to family relationships are triangular in nature.

Here is a sample E. Mail I recently received that is illustrative of how relationships can take on geometric shapes but with shifting lines and angles.  It is entitled "Grandchild's Heartache."

__________________________________________________________

"My grandchild is having medical symptoms due to the stress of being torn between mom and dad. When she is with her dad, he is constantly badmouthing her mom. My daughter has tried telling him that he needs to keep quiet because it upsets my grandchild. I will have to say that the mom doesn't say negative comments about her dad. This child is constantly not feeling well and has been to the doctors office more in this past month, than in her entire eleven years. The mom has a live in boyfriend whom my grandchild loves. He is so different then her dad, who always talks loud and most of the time unhappy, therefore makes everyone feel bad. She sees the difference and loves being with mom and him. She has said that she doesn't want to spend as much time with her dad, but he makes her feel guilty if she doesn't come to stay with him a couple of days. Any suggestions."
__________________________________________________________

There are a number of triangular relationships described by the grandmother.

1. Mother, Ex. Husband and Father, Child (11 y.o female).

2. Grandmother, Mother, Child.

3. Mother, Child, Live in Boyfriend

1. Mother and ex husband had a marriage and during the course of that marriage they had a child. We do not know why the divorce occurred. What we do know is that grandmother and mother vilify the ex husband and the ex husband vilifies his former wife. The child is more aware of the attitudes and inappropriate criticism he hurls at her mother than she is of those of her mother and grandmother.

2. The E. Mail reveals the biases of the grandmother who is most certainly unaware of doing so and who would probably defend her comments based on what she knows of the ex husband. However, in doing so, the is placing the child in a very difficult situation. Here is why:

Children yearn for the approval of their parents and loved ones. This child is caught in a dilemma between her father, mother and grandmother. She wants to defend her mother against the comments her father makes about her. She complains about this to her grandmother who defends her daughter and takes sides against her grandchild's father. In other words, it is difficult for the child to defend her father when her mother and grandmother oppose him.

Of course, the child is doing some manipulation, but in a way that she is unaware of, by appealing to the grandmother to take sides against her father. This could be her way of gaining the approval she needs, from both her mother and grandmother.

The real danger, here, is that the child would be allowed to remain home instead of visiting her dad. She needs her dad and her relationship with him needs to be strengthened.

3. We do not know how long the parents have been divorced but we do know that the mother has a "live-in-boyfriend." He is now presented as the "good man," while the natural father is presented as the "bad man" who makes everyone feel terrible. Meanwhile, it is a fairly safe to make the educated guess that the father is feeling very threatened by the boyfriend. It is not simply that he may be jealous with regard to his ex wife, but that his paternal relationship to his daughter feels threatened.

Presently, the entire family is presenting the ex husband as being the villain, with the result that his feelings of jealousy toward his wife and the boyfriend(if he is jealous) and his worry about losing his daughter are ever more urgent.

The eleven year old child has been experiencing some health problems, the nature of which we do not know except that her father complains to her about her mother. 

The conclusion arrived at by the grandmother and, perhaps by the mother, is that dad is at fault because of his criticisms. More than that, when the ex wife speaks to her former husband and tells him to stop complaining or criticizing, he refuses or denies. We do not know but it is possible that hese health problems are the result of the girl experiencing anxiety due to all the adults bickering with each other. Also, these health problems may have nothing whatever to do with the family and may just be the status of her healt at the moment.

This story is typical of family dynamics whether or not there is a divorce. During the course of the life of a family, alliances and roles shift. Mothers, fathers, children, grandparents and in-laws struggle with one another to gain influence, respect, power and justification. The justification they sometimes seek is that their behaviors and attitudes are correct and others are wrong. Very often, someone becomes appointed the role of villain.

However, what is at stake is more than just winning a point. Like nations competing with one another, people attempt to form alliances in order to enhance their influence and win whatever they believe is worth competing for.

In this case study, what people do not realize is that everyone is struggling to win the allegiance of the young eleven year old daughter. No one seems to question that her father is at fault for her illnesses. Consequently, no one is looking at their own behavior to understand how it is affecting the health and well being of the child.

In my years of work with couples and families, one of the things I learned is that those portrayed as being "evil, blameworthy, trouble maker, etc," appear very different when I have met them. In most circumstances, where a divorce has occurred, each former spouse was at fault for the failure of the marriage. The reason is that partners each contribute to the conflicts that to marital destruction, often with little or no awareness of this fact.

The tragedy in a situation like the one described is that the little girl suffers.

The plain fact is that her father will always remain in his role and she will always need yearn for his love and approval.

There is no doubt in my mind that the father needs to stop his steady flow of criticisms. At the very same time, the eleven year old needs to know that it is alright to love her father, even when he is being difficult.

It is probably worthwhile for Mother, father, grandmother and daughter to attend some family therapy sessions with the goal of finding ways of improving everyone's relationships and ending the conflicts and power plays.

Just as daughter and father will be forever linked to one another, so too, will mother and ex husband be tied to one another through their daughter.

The family needs to unite and find a healthy way to allow the daughter her father, no longer threaten that relationship and make the ex feel a legitimate part of the family despite the divorce.

Your comment, questions and experiences are welcome.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD.




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