Family Alliances

Alliances are a somewhat invisible, and complex dynamic that often exists between family members, and it is a dynamic that can have many and significant ramifications for us. We first experience alliances in our families of origin. Family members group around common interests, common agenda, or common concerns. In many cases, they can be insignificant, as for example, when three members of a family prefer a vegetable dish as a main course and two other members prefer a meat dish. A simple majority may carry the day.

But many times these alliances are about more significant issues. If, for example, a family has three sisters and one brother among the siblings, the interests of the sisters will frequently supersede the interests of the brother. Or a parent may prefer one child or the children of one gender and treat them in a special way, leaving the other parent and the other children in a default (and possibly defensive) alliance as well. This can result in resentment from the latter children to the former, or in a power struggle between the alliances. Parents can end up consciously or unconsciously taking sides, or their own partnership power struggles can overflow into the dynamics with their children.

Alliances are often cross generational. A grandparent may align with a child against the child's parent.  Or a grandparent may treat one sibling of several in a special way to the detriment of the other siblings. Resentment and hurt can be the result. Alliances can often cause in family members feeling split off from each other, resulting in less than secure attachment, confusion, doubt, and pain.

There are “political” forces at work in even the healthiest of sibling relationships, forces that result in surprisingly unique experiences and self perceptions despite each of us siblings being raised by the same parent and in the same environment. Each of us needs to feel that we are special in the eyes of a parent, and our skills at being able to sense that specialness are extremely well honed at an early age.  For the four out of five of us that have siblings, a seemingly innate wisdom exists, wherein we will each find a unique way to get that coveted special attention—and it typically comes while climbing over the backs of our sibs. A grand competition and grand alliances are forged that leave lifelong imprints on our psyches. 

Specialness is only one of many variables that contribute to shaping childhood alliances between and among siblings.  Power is one of the most significant, whether based in parental preference, age, body build, social aptitude, maturity, or temperament, among others. Safety, physical, and belonging needs are each strong drivers toward whatever it takes, and whoever it takes, to achieve satisfaction.

As we establish a Partner relationship, the pre-existing politics of our relationships with our families of origin can have an influence on our relationship. My partner might feel a strong sense of obligation, perhaps, to a parent that can cause her or him sometimes choose that parents preferences over what might be good for our relationship. This can happen both ways, of course. Or, if my partner has experienced being excluded from her or his siblings based on an alliance that has been set up with a parent in his family of origin, then I may experience the same rebuff as my partner does when I interact with her or his family.

Because we are so unconsciously trained in our family of origin, our communications, agenda, priorities, values, biases, and previously established expectations can all come to wreak havoc as we try to establish a new culture between the two of us. Since alliances and their implications come in all forms, we may not be aware of how they are affecting us -- or indeed, that they even exist. If we want to have a healthy relationship with our partner, and we want to create a secure, stable connection with each other, it will be important to begin to notice how family members play politics with each other through their alliances, and to begin to understand the hidden agenda that may exist in these alliances.

A particular place where alliances can cause difficulties is in the dynamics of blended families. Here, alliances that were covert often become painfully and explicitly clear, as family members align with or against other individual family members. Stepparents can be ostracized by step kids; step kids can be ostracized by stepparents; stepparents and parents can ostracize each other; and step kids can be rejecting and exclusionary of other stepsiblings.

All this points out the subtlety, the power, and the unhealthy nature of many family constellations and alliances, both within and across generations. As we move toward trying to create a healthy relationship with each other, as well as healthy relationships with other family members, we need to be willing to acknowledge, understand, and minimize the power that these alliances can have in our lives. 

Healthy relationships call for one to one interactions. Any time a third person gets involved in a relationship between two people, taking sides, playing one agenda against another, judging and criticizing, and a variety of other unhealthy dynamics can easily occur.

In simple terms, healthy relationships occur between two people, not more. We each have a one-to-one relationship with each family member, and it is up to us to create as healthy an honorable a dynamic between the two of us as we can, all the while being conscious not to create an exclusionary alliance. 

It is important to be willing to set boundaries when a third-party wants to impose their opinions or agenda on one or both of us, and to be willing to communicate that this is unwelcome. On the other hand, ignoring the partnership garden by over valuing another relationship is equally damaging. 

As we have seen and lived in our childhood experiences of them, alliances will be influential, whether or not we are conscious of their existence. It is our work to create alliances in our families that are positive, enhancing, affirming, clear, functional and honoring of ourselves and our partners, and then, as best we can, with our other family members.