Twenty-seven years ago, my parents divorced. They united in marriage shortly after their high school graduation. My father enlisted in the military and my mother became doting homemaker. Their marriage lasted ten years. After their divorce, my mother met my stepfather and found a new way of relating where she and my father had struggled: effective communication. My mother looked back on the way things had been and swore to make some changes. One change was to communicate more appropriately with her children about the break-up by using positive language and sharing only necessary details that were age-appropriate. My father disagreed with my mother’s assessment of their marriage (and and still does) and insists communication was not their downfall. From my viewpoint as a daugher, I would say my father still struggles with his communication skills.
According to a study of parent-child post-divorce disclosure, most parents struggle to communicate plans with their children after a break-up. Some common problems are discussing inappropriate information for the ages of the children, such as a parent disclosing an affair to a child at age 4. Another common communication challenge is discussing planned changes within the family. Explaining who the child will live with or if the family will be relocating are important pieces of information for children, but parents sometimes fail to pass that information on.
In my case, my father thought his communication style was good for our relationship and would make us closer. To me, if felt like he thrust me and my sisters into the middle between him and my mom. According to one study I reviewed, this situation is referred to as “triangulation.”
Triangulation is when parents try to communicate with each other through their children, or when parents use their child as a mediator. Triangulation can lead to a blurring of boundaries between parent and child. According to a study on triangulation, this blurring of boundaries is done sometimes in an attempt to be more open within the parent-child relationship. I think that was my father’s intent. Unfortunately, this blurring of boundaries has been shown to decrease the child’s psychological well-being and harm the relationship with the over-disclosing parent.
This ineffective communication between parents leaves children feeling “stuck”– and that does not mean “stuck in the middle with you,” as famously sung by Stealers Wheel. This “stuck in the middle” feels like an emotional push and pull between parents. My experience with triangulation mimics what studies have found, and it is often an issue for young adults. Although my parents divorced when I was 4, it was not until I was in my teens that my father attempted to enhance our relationship by disclosing inappropriate information or information that my mother deemed unnecessary for us to know at the time. When he would share that kind of information, I would defend my mother to my father, or I would pass the distressing communication on to my mother.
It was not until my late 20’s that I was able to see how my father used me and my siblings as messengers or as a way to get to my mother. Knowing my mother no longer wanted to communicate the intricacies of their divorce, he used us. This experience showed me that I will always be a child of divorce. The same studies on triangulation discuss the difficulty of moving out of the middle. Those studies suggested that the one “in the middle” should be the one to erect their boundaries and discourage communication being passed between the parents through the children. Of course, that is possible only for older children. When children are younger, the parents need to be aware and stop putting the children in the middle. It is not often that a parent recognizes they are putting their child in this difficult situation. But that can change.
Koerner, S.S., Wallace S., Lehman, S.J., & Raymond, M. (2002). Mother-to-daughter disclosure after divorce: Are there costs and benefits? Journal of Child and Family Studies, 11, 469-483.
Lindahl, K.M., Bregman, H.R., & Malik, N.M. (2012). Family boundary structures and child adjustment: Indirect role of emotional reactivity. Journal of Family Psychology, 26, 839-847.
Perrin, M.B., Ehrenberg, M.F., & Hunter, M.A. (2013). Boundary diffusion, individuation, and adjustment: Comparison of young adults raised in divorced versus intact families. Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Studies, 62, 786-782.
Shimkowski, J.R., & Ledbetter, M.A. (2018). Parental divorce disclosures, young adults’ emotion regulation strategies, and feeling caught. Journal of Family Communication, 18, 185-201. https://doi.org/10.1080/15267431.2018.1457033