My mother had vehemently denied it through the years — from my father and me, in particular — her ill-chosen involvement, which lasted for more than a decade.
Fortunately for my siblings, they were spared from the pain of the denial – the direct denial, at least.
And I carried that wound for the longest time. The betrayal. The denial. The outright denial.
The lies. My mother’s lies. My mother’s deceptive and manipulative ways — for her involvement to continue and keep it from my father, creating so much confusion and distress in the family in the process.
It came up during my conversation with my cousin when we reconnected briefly during my mother’s passing early this year.
It came up again recently while talking to a couple of individuals who, thankfully, can relate to the problematic relationship that I had with my family, especially my mother.
It was the cause of one of my parents’ major fights, which, synchronistically, took place around this time 40 years ago.
It is a most disturbing and damaging episode, which will never leave my memory.
At 18, I played the role of mediator between my parents.
I was focused on one objective only — for my parents to resolve their differences. I didn’t want them to separate. I didn’t want the stigma of coming from a ‘broken home,’ which was quite a taboo at that time, the early 80s.
I became my parents’ messenger, relaying what they both wanted to — but wouldn’t — say directly to each other.
I didn’t relay everything, though — only those that I felt were necessary. I kept to myself those that I felt might worsen the situation.
My mother was adamant that she was innocent. But my father wouldn’t be convinced. And neither would I.
My father and I knew my mother was lying. I had a hunch already back when my mother’s involvement started a few years prior — when I was only 14. My father, on the other hand, had pieces of evidence to substantiate my mother’s guilt.
“Triangulation is a manipulation tactic where one person will not communicate directly with another person, instead using a third person to relay communication to the second, thus forming a triangle.
The term is closely associated with the work of Murray Bowen, an American psychiatrist and a pioneer of family therapy.
Bowen developed the systems theory of the family in the 1950s and theorized that when a two-person emotional system is unstable, under stress, it forms itself into a three-person system or triangle….In dysfunctional families, the child is included in the discussion of how the parents can solve their marital problem or how a parent can solve the problem with another child. Thus, the child is “triangulated” into the relationship.
There are instances when the child may be forced into a role of a “surrogate spouse.” This happens because both parties are dysfunctional. Rather than communicate directly with each other, they utilize a third party. Sometimes, this is because it is unsafe to go directly to the person and discuss the concerns, particularly if they are alcoholic and/or abusive.”¹
Mediating between my parents gave me a distorted sense of importance and value. My parents were giving me the attention — finally — that I had craved for.
I wanted to have the privilege of being the one to reconcile them. Perhaps, my parents would then value me…. Love me — finally.
By that time, my little Nadine’s craving for the love, nurturance, acceptance, and attention that she did not receive since birth was so deeply entrenched in my psyche.
I would address it and fill that unmet childhood emotional need in the most dysfunctional and unhealthy ways — which did nothing but deepen the wound.
Without proper [parental] guidance and support, how else would a severely wounded child cope or make sense of all the chaos?
“Parentified children do such things as — dressing the younger kids, house cleaning, preparing lunch and dinner for the entire family, caring for and supervising the younger children and, acting as parents to their own parents…. If there is one factor that is more fearful than any other for a child, it is that they will be abandoned. The adultified child takes on responsibilities in the hope that it will hold the family together by keeping mom and dad around.”²
Witnessing one’s parents fighting can be most confusing, frightening, and traumatizing — especially when it is violent. Mediating between one’s parents is the quintessence of dysfunctionality — and is most damaging to the child’s psyche, with the harmful effects lasting a lifetime.
I hadn’t seen my father that furious — and so broken!
Aside from mediating between my parents, I took it upon myself to become my father’s guardian.
I slept in my parents’ bedroom, on the carpeted floor, while my father took up space in the matrimonial bed. My mother was sleeping elsewhere.
My father would go to bed every night, intoxicated with alcohol. He had just picked up the habit — to numb his pain, in all likelihood, and aid him in his sleep. My father wasn’t drinking before this episode — he wasn’t even much of a social drinker.
What if he kills himself? What if he takes out his anger on me? I may remind him of my mother; he may think I AM my mother. Because he is intoxicated, he may mistake me for my mother. What if he hurts me?!?! But I can’t leave him by his lonesome. What if he hurts — or kills — himself?
Those thoughts were enough to keep me half-awake for all the nights that I kept my father company.
I sacrificed my safety, health, and well-being for the sake of my father’s — and the family’s — to keep my parents and the family together! And I would be at my slimmest!
Rescuing tendency was already seeping deep into my psyche. It would form part of my unhealthy behavioral patterns later in my adult life — an unconscious pattern to win my parents’ — especially my mother’s — approval, appreciation, love, and attention.
Meantime, my resentment towards my mother was building up — and the wound, deepening.
¹ ”How triangulation in family relationships can lead to love triangles.” http://psychotherapist-nyc.blogspot.com/2010/11/how-triangulation-in-family.html?m=1 NYC Therapist. 2010-11-06.
² “Family Boundaries and the Parentified Child.” Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. https://www.mentalhelp.net/blogs/family-boundaries-and-the-parentified-child/