Harmful Family Alliances

April 7, 2010

My parents lived in 2 different worlds together. One, the outside world, was where they sparkled. Their business was so successful, and they were urbane, sophisticated, and very smooth. At home, the inside world was very different. They were competitive with each other, more critical than affectionate; there was none of the togetherness they presented to the outside world.

My parents lived in 2 different worlds together. One, the outside world, was where they sparkled. Their business was so successful, and they were urbane, sophisticated, and very smooth. At home, the inside world was very different. They were competitive with each other, more critical than affectionate; there was none of the togetherness they presented to the outside world.

When asked how what went on in her parents’ inside world had affected her, my client said, “Not all that much. Maybe it made me wary of marriage-it took me a long time to really make a commitment. Most of all, though, I didn’t take sides like my younger brother did. Mother really recruited him and he joined her against Dad. Even as a youngster, he became oppositional, just gave Dad fits. He was also a really talented teenage athlete, and this thrilled Dad, but my brother would always quit the team. Whether it was sports, social life, or academics, my brother made Dad miserable.”

“How did your mother react to your brother’s behavior?” I asked. “She pampered him, made excuses for him, and blamed Dad for not understanding or being sympathetic enough,” she answered. She then went on to describe her now middle-aged brother’s continuing and unsuccessful efforts to “find himself.” “He’s really very smart,” she said sadly, “but has never succeeded. Flunked out of college, a series of failed jobs, and 2 divorces-it’s like he’s still giving Dad the finger-though Dad has been dead for 5 years. And my mother continues to support him-without her he’d probably be on the streets.”

This sad family story was told to me during several required interviews that this bright, insightful woman underwent as part of the ordination process in her church. Her own marriage to a pediatrician was described in positive terms, her 2 young adult children were doing well, and she found both satisfaction and meaning in her work as a social worker in a pediatric hospital. During the interviews she seemed open, direct, and able to share a variety of feelings.

She reported that several years of individual psychotherapy after college had been most helpful in clarifying her cautious “controllingness” in relationships: “My therapist really helped me see and change some of that, and those changes led to my marriage, which has been such a blessing in my life,” she said with obvious gratitude.

Her family story is not uncommon. Whether thought of as a family triangle or a harmful coalition, the narrative inevitably begins with the parental relationship. When spouses are unable to negotiate a relationship that, if not perfect, is mutually satisfactory, a number of destructive processes may result. Before describing some of these processes, however, what is it about relationships that fuels the need to negotiate?

Basically it is the need to agree on how much separateness and connectedness are to prevail in the relationship. Separateness includes independent activities, one’s own values and beliefs, the capacity to be comfortable with aloneness, and to accept how one is different, even unique. Connectedness also encompasses a number of characteristics-to feel close to others, to be part of a group, to experience what others are feeling, and to work cooperatively. Individuals have varying propensities for both separateness and connectedness, and this can be described as a basic internal contradiction. Dealing with these opposing propensities is an important developmental challenge of the adult years. Both separateness and connectedness have multiple roots, including genetic influences (which we are only beginning to understand), early attachment experiences with primary caregivers, and important adult relationships.

There are often some degrees of difference in these propensities in adult partners, and in the construction of a hoped-for enduring relationship, these differences must be at least partially resolved. Each partner can be understood as striving to have his or her propensities prevail in the structure of the relationship. It is in this process of negotiation that power (defined as interpersonal influence) becomes important. If the partners have mostly equal influence, the negotiation may go smoothly. It may also go badly as the partners battle openly or more subtly. Thus, as in the example described above, the parents were experienced by their daughter as involved in a lifelong competitive struggle that they were able mostly to hide from the outside world. In this struggle, one or both partners may seek allies from either within the family or from important others.

A child may be caught up in this ongoing parental struggle and, in effect, take sides. He becomes allied with one parent and becomes involved in behaviors that bring the other parent pain. These behaviors are most often condoned or even encouraged by the allied parent. Years ago, when I saw adolescents in either individual psychotherapy or family therapy, one of the tasks was to help the adolescent extricate himself from the parental conflict. One hoped to accomplish this before the usually oppositional behaviors (active or passive) became solidified as an important part of the adolescent’s self.

I recall, for example, a mother, father, and their young adult son who came from a distant city for several days of consultation. The father was a dynamic, self-centered person who had put together a very successful business. The mother, successful in her own right, said that she was constantly fighting off her husband’s domineering tactics. She claimed to want more closeness in her marriage, an expression safe perhaps only in the face of her husband’s emotional unavailability.

The father’s dream was to pass his successful business on to his son (his only child); but the son, with his mother’s open encouragement, was preparing for a career as an artist. This infuriated the father whose only other option was to sell the business that was so much a part of who he felt himself to be. The therapeutic challenge was how to establish the major focus of treatment as the parental relationship. The son, clearly allied with his mother, needed to be out of that conflict in order to explore whether his motivation to pursue a career as a painter was sustainable on its own-that is, without the motivation to please his mother by bringing pain to his father.

In this example, as well as in the introductory vignette, the alli-ance was between mother and son and oppositional to father. This, of course, suggests oedipal dynamics: sons win their mothers’ heart by doing battle with their fathers. Just how much such dynamics operate varies from situation to situation, but in some situations, they are too pat.

I recall, for example, observing mother-father–firstborn child interactions when the child was 18 months old.1 Seated together on the playroom floor with a standardized set of toys, the parents were instructed to spend 10 minutes playing with their child. Many parents did so and usually with clear pleasure. Other parents showed different patterns; in one group only one parent was actively involved, the other a passive observer. Another group showed a pattern relevant to the theme of potentially harmful parent-child alliances. The parents actively competed for the child’s attention, often interfering with each other’s engagement with the child. There were no joint activities-no attempts on the part of the parents to be a threesome. The emphasis here is that the roots of potentially harmful parent-child alliances may go back to the earliest days of infancy.

There is much more that we need to discover about such alliances. Why, for example, is a particular child selected? How do some children, particularly adolescents, resist being caught up in parental conflict while others appear to semi-volunteer? What factors account for whether the child’s behaviors become a part of his adult relationship patterns, even personality traits?

Despite all that we have yet to learn, recognizing and attempting to intervene in such alliances is and has been an important feature of the work of many clinicians.



1. Lewis JM. The Birth of the Family: An Empirical Inquiry. New York: Brunner/Mazel, Inc; 1989.