The “Wedding Gift” Triangle

The “Wedding Gift” Triangle

“A culturally acceptable way
for a man to avoid
the pressure of a relationship with his mother
without cutting her off.”

— Philip J. Guerin, MD

June, Croon, Moon, Swoon. HELLO, young lovers, wherever you are . . . getting ready to walk down the aisle, remember that after the fantasy wedding comes the marriageReal marriage for real people involves both partners committing “to a new family system and realignments of many, if not all, previous relationships,” while maintaining responsibility for relationships in the family they grew up in.

One of the most important in-law triangles in the creation of subsequent marital conflict is set in motion on the wedding day, when a man gifts his mother to his new partner. To paraphrase the late Henny Youngman, “Take my mother, please” is a non-productive solution to the problem of developmental fusion and/or cutoff.

For young men, the best preparation for a healthy marriage might be resolving family issues with your mother before proposing. Family relationships, especially with your mother, are not optional. So how do we help mothers and sons reduce the anxiety generated between them, while staying uniquely connected without third party interference?

For sons, the way to develop differentiation is neither to cut off nor maintain fusion. Rather one starts to research one’s family of origin, with the goal of seeing other family members for whom the wedding bells also toll, and staying connected with them despite their shortcomings. In her book You Can Go Home Again – Reconnecting With Your Family, Monica McGoldrick describes how a son might undertake this process with his mother:

“If you want to understand your mother as more than the dragon lady whose domineering intrusiveness overwhelms you even at the age of 40, you need to get a picture of her as a daughter, a niece, a sister, a friend, a co-worker, a granddaughter, a lover and a cousin.”

Ronald B. Cohen, MD of discusses how Bowen Family Systems can help mothers' and sons' relationship evolve in a healthy way in order to let in a spouse/daughter-in-law.For mothers and mothers-to-be, the task is developing, in Olga Silversteins’ words, The Courage to Raise Good Men. In her book, Silverstein calls “for mothers and fathers alike to refuse to sanction the emotional shutdown we traditionally demand of boys, thus enabling sons to grow up to be not only strong men but whole people.”

One step prior to becoming a couple is the becoming an adult stage, and prior to that the parenting of young children and adolescents, where the most productive work of marriage preparation can be done. A boy who is helped to learn how to take responsibility for his actions, to value compassion and live it daily, to be able to think for himself and define his own values and beliefs — this is the boy who will grow into a man who’ll make a loving companion. That’s good for the woman he marries. Even better for the man he becomes.

Attention sons of mothers (and ain’t we all), developing realistic expectations for closeness and distance in the family you grew up in will help you create and maintain strong, resilient friendships and secure intimate partner relationships.

Attention mothers of sons, avoiding the trap of gender ladened parenting usually necessitates doing your own work in your own family of origin. Women of the future are counting on you.

If you haven’t avoided “The Wedding Gift” triangle, consultation with a well-trained Bowen Family Systems Coach can help you detoxify the triangle before it leads to untying the knot.

Please share your thoughts, feelings and experiences with “The Wedding Gift” Triangle in the “Leave a Reply” box below. I look forward to hearing what’s on your mind. To request more information and/or schedule an initial consultation, click here. If you found this post helpful, please don’t keep it a secret. You are encouraged to click on the buttons in the second to the right hand column at the bottom of the page and share this article with your own networks. Looking forward to continuing the conversation.

Ronald B Cohen, MD, PC Ronald B. Cohen, MD
Bowen Family Systems Coach
1 Barstow Road, Suite P-10
Great Neck, NY 11021
(516) 466-7530

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  1. Aimilia Markouizou Gica on June 30, 2014 at 10:22 am said:

    The differentiation process should start from childbirth onwards. A small tip for mothers of sons would be to see them as separate human beings from very early on. Another tip would be to ensure that they have a very satisfying love affair throughout their life – the pull to the son’s love is extremely strong for all mothers and sons. Finally, as we all know, differentiation is an ongoing process throughout life. This is the key for all: mothers, sons and fathers!

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on July 10, 2014 at 12:36 am said:

      Hi Aimilia,

      Thank you for your positive comment. I would respectfully reframe your first sentence. The process of self-differentiation cannot occur until the individual has acquired adequate intellectual capabilities to manage and contain emotional reactivity. Ideally this process is addressed during the “launching stage”. For the parents, hopefully they have been working on developing a solid self, long before the child is born.

      The concept of self-differentiation, defined as the process of partially freeing oneself, as best one can, from the emotional entrapment of one’s family of origin, is a life-long and never-ending one. It is a journey to a destination we will never reach.

      The goal for the young adult is to become emotionally and financially accountable to one’s self while at the same time maintaining connections with their family of origin without taking on the family’s “stuff.”

      The parents’ tasks begin with facilitating the transition from the parent-child relationship to a more co-equal adult-to-adult relationship. In addition, parents must attend to other midlife developmental tasks including becoming a couple again and resolving issues with their parents, caring giving and adapting to their death.

      The process of self-differentiation is about setting appropriate limits and boundaries, staying connected to one’s extended family of origin while maintaining emotional independence and self-sufficiency. Tasks include redeveloping personal relationships with key family members, repairing cutoffs, detriangulating from conflicts, and changing the part one plays in emotionally charged vicious cycles.

      The process of differentiation facilitates becoming more “responsible” for yourself so that you can act more “responsibly” toward others.


      — Ron

  2. Dr. Jim Sellner, PhD., DipC. on July 15, 2014 at 8:52 pm said:

    Thank you, Ron, for your reframing & more in depth explanation of the process of self-differentiation. Workin’ on it. LOL!

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on July 16, 2014 at 7:24 pm said:

      Hi Jim,

      You are very welcome. We are all still working on it, or not. For those of us who consider it important enough to invest the time and energy, and choose to engage with the goal of becoming an authentic adult, the process of changing one’s part in old, repetitive, dysfunctional emotional patterns to the point at which one is able to speak calmly and non-reactively one’s personal views on important emotional issues regardless of who is for or against them it is a never completed task. It requires constant vigilance to the pull of fusion, cut-offs and triangles.

      You are doing this to make life better for yourself, your children, your grandchildren and future generations. The goal is to change your relationships with other members of your family of origin to improve your life and your family’s life regardless of what anybody else does. The pathway is paved with difficulty and challenge, but someone has to do this work to break the negative cycles and it might as well be you.


      — Ron

  3. Marcia Naomi Berger, LCSW on July 16, 2014 at 12:36 am said:

    This is so true, what you write above:

    “The concept of self-differentiation, defined as the process of partially freeing oneself, as best one can, from the emotional entrapment of one’s family of origin, is a life-long and never-ending one. It is a journey to a destination we will never reach.”

    I’m interested in hearing from you and others about what makes this work so difficult to do. I suspect we want to avoid the pain we experience or reexperience as we recall the dysfunctions we grew up with, and either reenact or struggle against repeating.

    Is loyalty a factor also? A sense that we will be criticizing or blaming the people who gave so much to us?

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on August 18, 2014 at 7:05 pm said:

      Hi Marcia,

      From Betty Carter lecture notes by way of my mentor, John W Jacobs, MD:

      “The biggest block to growth is the wish not to hurt other people or have them be angry with you. This is especially true of ones parents. This fear can be so great that people do not even allow themselves the knowledge of what they want for themselves. To differentiate means to give up needing one’s parents to approve or give permission for what you do. This does not mean that you give up wanting their approval or permission. One may not be able to give up wanting approval, but one must give up needing it.”

      “Dealing one on one with parents is often the most emotional thing a person does in their life. Often you have to restrain clients. The point is not to tell parents off or to quickly forgive them for the trouble they have created without looking at it. The tendency for reactivity is so strong that the job of the therapist is to rehearse with the patient each task before him/her. Question if it is too big or too small a task.”

      If you can change your part in the family drama AND maintain your change in the face of your family’s predictable initial negative reaction AND respond to your family’s reaction with new, unexpected, more differentiated behavior WHILE maintaining an emotional connection without taking on anyone else’s “stuff”, THEN you set the stage for the possibility that others in your family will also begin to change. And if they don’t, you still end up in a better place for having engaged in the process.

      Differentiation of self is a continuous work in progress. No individual can actualize this infinite task. It is a journey to a destination we will never reach. We do the best we can and hope that our efforts will be rewarded. Best of luck on this unfolding adventure of a lifetime.


      — Ron

  4. Aimilia on July 30, 2014 at 5:39 pm said:

    Thank you so much for your response! I would like to add that it is a matter of how we define differentiation…. It is only through adequate mirroring at earlier stages that we can start the painful process of our oneness later on….

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on August 18, 2014 at 6:53 pm said:

      Hi Aimilia,

      I would rephrase your thoughts somewhat. It is almost inevitable that we are disappointed to some degree by our early life experiences Self-differentiation depends not on what happened, but on the degree of our commitment to working to be different in the future. By attending to our own “stuff” we always have the opportunity to make things better. A change in any one family member’s behavior creates change in the entire family’s relationships. The process consists of the following three steps:

      1. Change yourself and you change the relationship.
      2. Be prepared for your family’s reaction. They may not welcome the new you.
      3. Respond to your family’s reaction with new, unexpected, more differentiated behavior.

      One can start by distinguishing what you want in life for yourself as opposed to the roles, rules, stories, expectations, and taboos you learned growing up. Then working to develop a unique one-to-one relationship with each and every individual in your extended family system.” The more responsible you can be to your own values and beliefs, the greater the likelihood of strong, resilient friendships and secure intimate partner relationships.

      Best of luck on this unfolding journey of a lifetime.


      — Ron

  5. Avrum on November 2, 2014 at 7:49 pm said:

    Hi Ron,

    I’m in the middle of putting together a workshop entitled: Your In-Laws (the photo being used for the poster:

    As always, I found your writing and source material to be well though out and helpful. Muchos gracias.

    Finally, I’ll be using a Honeymooners clip, both for levity as well as to help flesh out FS concepts as it relates the In-Law conundrum:

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on November 10, 2014 at 10:29 pm said:

      Hi Avrum,

      Thank you for sharing your resources. In-law triangles are only one of many that surround the newly married couple. These include extended family triangles, social network triangles, three-generation triangles, each spouse’s sibling triangles, work place triangles, and each parent’s primary parental triangle in the family they grew up in, to name just a few. Two person relationships almost never exist in isolation. Their emotional instability inevitable produces triangles, which are three-person interconnected relationship systems.


      — Ron

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