Children will choose. Sometimes I sit with couples attempting to strengthen their marriages. Other times I sit with high conflict couples who are attempting to salvage them. And still other times I sit with couples who have decided to divorce and are seeking a path forward for their family, which involves a co-parenting plan. In any of these scenarios, our children are usually aware on some level that things in their home are not entirely harmonious. Children crave harmony and safety, emotional and physical. Somewhere along an invisible emotional continuum, it happens that a child will make a choice between aligning himself or herself with one parent or the other.
Cloe Madanes, a pioneering Strategic Family Therapist, has spoken about human relationships in the context of threes. 2 parents and a child, a couple and an affair, 3 siblings. She encouraged family and couples therapists to assess the “triads” within a family from a perspective of who is in and who is out. The in pair (i.e. a parent and a child) would be described as “in an alliance” and the out person, the other parent, on the periphery. It is fairly common for sons to align themselves with their fathers, and vice versa, or daughters with their mothers. Gender can be a powerful parent-child magnet. If not careful, struggling partners will consciously or unconsciously recruit their children to aid and abet in their fight against each other. Other times children will consciously or unconsciously choose a side.
Yet, how do children end up choosing? Perhaps an evolutionary instinct to survive is baked into all of us and as such a child will pick the parent who will best assure him/her of this. It would be most interesting to ask a professor of geography like Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel) or else a historian of world history like Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind) to weigh in on this idea. Intellectuals like Diamond and Harari describe how humans developed through time and how some lived on and thrived while others did not. When children are faced with parents and a home environment that does not feel emotionally safe, they will perhaps on some primitive level-honed by our species for over 2 million years- choose the parent they think will best “save them.”
Alternatively, we as a society are living in what some have described as an age of political tribalism. Regardless of one’s political views, our culture in this regard has pushed us to choose sides. And to choose from an “us or them” mentality. In family systems terms, the president, congress, along with the judiciary, a triad, metaphorically can be seen as our country’s parental/executive subsystem. They are often in disagreement over policy and as such set the tone for how they will interact with each other. Like children in a family the rest of us look to our government family system to model appropriate behavior, especially during their moments of conflict. We are living in an age where we are choosing sides politically while castigating the other, and I wonder if our children are being socialized to do the same. To choose a side, a parent, and by association to hold contempt for the other.
I am in the business of assisting couples. Some who are making a go at staying together and others who are making a go at divorcing while remaining a family. Along this continuum, if couples are not intentional about how they manage their often-strong negative feelings for the other, their children will become emotionally frightened and pick a side. They will do this either out of a primitive instinct or out of what they are learning from our broader culture. Either way, if not careful children will choose.