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T o navigate family conflict well, it’s important to understand the perspectives of everyone involved. In our families, we often find ourselves playing a role. A common dynamic in family conflict is a triangle of roles known as victim-persecutor-rescuer (Karpman, 2007). A triangle is a relational dynamic where one person serves the purpose of breaking or diluting the tension between two others. Family members unconsciously take on these roles based on factors such as the history of the family, personality, or even birth order. 

The challenge is that many members of families do not recognize these roles they have fallen into because it feels like the way they have always done things. These roles become patterns of behavior such that family members often find themselves having the same kind of fight repeatedly, even if the content is different. Key signals that these engrained roles might be at play happen when people use phrases such as “this always happens” or, “every time you get upset, you act this way.”

The victim is often the person who vocalizes being wronged or mistreated in some way. The persecutor is the person they blame for their pain. The rescuer is the person who comes in to “save the day,” alleviating the tension between the victim and the persecutor. While these roles are engrained and familiar, they are not fixed. A key component to navigating family conflict is to help individual members of the family recognize the roles they often find themselves in and to explore their capacity for behaving in other ways.

In addition, acting in these roles often leaves all members of the family feeling misunderstood and hurt. For example, the rescuer is trying to make things better, but they may end up preventing the victim and persecutor from working through a very real conflict that needs to be addressed. The persecutor may be raising a valid concern that needs to be addressed but doing it in a way that is intolerable for the family. The victim has become so defined by their hurt and pain that neither they nor other family members are able to see the power they have to change.

Healthy navigation of conflict demands that we seek to understand the perspectives of everyone involved. It is easy to fall into the “right and wrong” labels, but often the issues at hand are not that easy to categorize. When we seek to truly understand the perspective of the others in the conflict, we open more possibilities for how the conflict will be resolved.

A Biblical Example: Triangulation Between Rebekah (Mother), Isaac (Father), and Jacob and Esau (Sons)

When Isaac was old, his eyes were so dim that he could not tell his sons apart by sight as he prepared to bless the elder son, Esau. Rebekah hatched a plot so that Jacob would receive the blessing. Isaac and Rebekah had been told by God before the birth of their twin sons that “the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23).

Isaac was 60 years old when Rebekah bore Esau and Jacob. Esau was a skillful hunter, and Jacob was a quiet farmer. Isaac favored Esau, and Rebekah favored Jacob. Isaac made the decision to bless his eldest son, Esau. Rebekah responded to Isaac’s plan with a contrary decision and countermove. That is, she tricked Isaac into blessing Jacob. 

Jacob (a grown man) offered feeble resistance and capitulated to Rebekah’s deception. The plan was for Jacob, who was smooth-skinned, to disguise himself with the fur or skins of young goats. Isaac then would mistake Jacob for his older brother, Esau, who had a hairy body. Rebekah’s plan worked. The clothing fooled Isaac, who was losing his sight, and confounded his sense of smell.

This tragic episode resulted in distress and emotional upheaval in the home. After the “blessing,” Jacob left the country and was cut off from his family for years. He never saw his mother again.

This family situation is complex and illustrates the dangers of family triangulations. In this family drama, Isaac was placed in the role of the persecutor, giving the blessing against prophecy. Esau and Jacob were in the roles of victims. Rebekah, in her deception, is in the role of savior, allowing blessing and the grace of God to conform to the prophecy. Where is God in all of this human confusion? In this triangulation, the family must journey through broken relationships and broken trust to find deeper appreciation of God and to bring God’s good works to completion.

Perhaps if Rebekah and Isaac had talked about the plan to bless one child over the other, they might have prevented the devastation of Jacob leaving the home and Esau hating his twin brother. Maybe if Esau and Jacob had been able to talk, they might have realized that their relationship as brothers was much more of a blessing than the paternal proclamation. Maybe if they had a family meeting to discuss the merit and impact of favoritism, the differences in temperament, and the fact that both parents loved both young men, the family would have grown together and continued to fulfill the divine promise together. 

How to Resolve Family Conflict

The underlying point is that all families have strengths, and all families have challenges. Family triangulations do not exist because of curses and evil; we believe the presence of curses and evil would only further complicate the triangulation. We are suggesting that triangulations, or transactional crisis, can be lessened in a two-fold manner: first, by exploring the meaning of assuming the triangulated role, and second, by helping the family realize that they are vulnerable, strong, and capable of altering the roles of triangulation. We offer five suggestions for a family to resolve painful triangles:

1. Follow the example of God and love all your children equally.

We love to say that God does not have parents or grandchildren. God only has children and loves them equally. God loves God’s children before, during, and after our falls. God forgives us before, during, and after our deeds. God allows the rain to fall and the sun to shine on every human being. Sin might separate us from God, but sin does not separate God from us. God sent God’s Son to the kosmos (universe and world [John 3:16]) not just to an individual family member. To realize the extensiveness of the love of God (agape love) and use it as the guiding principle for family relationships would minimize, if not eliminate, triangles. Loving all children equally does not mean loving all children the same. A love that mirrors God’s love means that we show love based on our understanding of the uniqueness of each of God’s creations. 

2. Trust God to meet your needs.

Philippians 4:19 states, “And my God shall supply all of our needs according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (NKJV). This statement that precedes the doxology of verse 20, shows the apostle Paul acknowledging that God is supplying and will continue to supply for our needs. It also affirms God will meet our material needs as well as our spiritual needs. Families can prevent entering and being influenced by triangles if they trust God to supply their needs. Whether we are in the role of victim, persecutor, or savior, God will supply our needs. This shift in perspective is a reframing of life’s situations that will strengthen the family to live in open and honest communication, which is critical to living healthy, non-triangulated lives. When we trust that God supplies our needs, we remove the burden of filling a void in our lives from our family.

3. Advocate for others as you advocate for yourself. 

Here we are recommending that family members seek to understand the individual “I” in relationship to the Most High God, as well as with the family as a whole. Understanding our individual oneness with God transforms all into a healthy collective. This divine union overrides any need for hatred or rejection of self and others. The divine union eradicates the need for unhealthy triangulation, empowers the family to operate with a clear vision and mission, and creates space for intentional reflection and expression of the family’s full and authentic selves. This becomes a gift in faithful service to God and all God’s people. Families attempting to advocate for one another (and develop healthy triangles) might agree to use the pinch theory, which states that (1) the more important the relationships, the more time they must spend sharing and clarifying expectations, and (2) the family contracts with one another to address disrupted expectations no matter how small (Web, 2011).

4. Care-front members of your family about schemes, triangles, and unhealthy boundaries.

According to Dr. David Augsburger, a minister and professor of counseling, care-fronting is conceptualized as confrontation that checks the confronter’s motives, combines love and caring with the confrontation, confronts in a caring manner, and corrects the person being confronted with love, respect, and honor. This type of care-fronting can reform the triangulation into healthy alliances and harmonious assertiveness. Care-fronting provides the triangulated family members a unique lens into the conflict and develops the family’s abilities to see conflict as natural, normal, neutral, and acceptable. 

5. Develop familial affection in the home.

Agape love welds a family together and is unconditional. Agape love does not refer to a particular individual but points to a greater unconditional love of God toward all. To help with family drama, we suggest that in addition to agape love, the family needs to focus on storge love. Storge love is familial love. In the ancient Greek, storge refers to the love that family members have for one another. It includes the love of parents for their children, children for their parents, and children for their siblings. This is positive triangulation. This triangle is to use the love and connectedness in the family to heal and prosper the family. Families are very different and respond to positive, challenging, and stressful situations differently.  However, a focus on the love that is adoring, affectionate, boisterous, motherly, fatherly, brotherly, sisterly, close-knit, cohesive, competitive, devoted, doting, fierce, fond, loving, nurturing, passionate, reserved, sentimental, tender, and warm will arm and defend the family against the urges of unhealthy triangles (“55 powerful words to describe a family”). Development of this love is based upon spending quality time, keeping the lines of communication open and healthy, and respecting the differences of all in the family. 


The Rebekah, Isaac, Esau, and Jacob story must motivate us to ask if we are properly responding to the stress and anxiety in our families. That is, when situations don’t happen in the manner we expect or want them to occur, do we manipulate, become authoritarian, and force the situation to be resolved in the manner we prescribe at the expense of others in our family? It is so much more effective to stop and ask God for inspiration and direction. Good family communication and dependence on God can help alleviate our conflict and our pain. God is faithful to perform even when everything seems to be going wrong.  

Life is often full of disappointments and triangulations. But a family can remain faithful through these challenges, maintain a strong family unity, and glorify God in the process. No family is without conflict, but unhealthy families ignore their conflict and end in dysfunction. Healthy families trust God, openly communicate with one another regarding their challenges, and persevere and push through the conflict toward the family they love.



Augsburger, David. (2009). Caring Enough to Confront: How to Understand and Express Your Deepest Feelings Toward Others. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker.

Karpman, Stephen. (2007). “The New Drama Triangles.” USATAA/ITAA conference lecture, August 11, 2007,

Webb, Larry E. (2011). Crisis Counseling in the Congregation. Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press.

Rev. Dr. Micah McCreary

Rev. Micah L. McCreary, Ph.D., is president of New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and a minister of Word and sacrament in the Reformed Church in America (RCA). He also serves the RCA as a General Synod professor of theology. Prior to coming to New Brunswick, Dr. McCreary served in the pastorate, psychological practice, and professorate at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. He studied engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and theology at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia. He received his M.S. and Ph.D. in counseling psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia.

Dr. Jessica Young Brown

Dr. Jessica Young Brown is a licensed clinical psychologist in Richmond, Virginia. Dr. Brown’s research and clinical work focuses on making mental health accessible and equitable for people in marginalized communities, and on equipping mental health professionals to better serve these communities. Dr. Brown’s areas of interest and expertise include the impact of racism and race-related stress on mental health, generational and cultural trauma, and the intersection of faith and mental health. In addition to various peer reviewed and popular media articles, Dr. Brown is the author of Making Space at the Well: Mental Health and the Church.