Terrible Triangles

No triangulation, pleaseHave you ever had someone talk to you about a problem they were having with someone else?

How did it make you feel?

You might have been uncomfortable finding yourself in the middle of their conflict. Or you might have enjoyed being trusted and/or offering support.

Or perhaps a little bit of both?

What you were, for certain, was triangulated into the relationship between the other two. And that’s usually problematic.

When Two’s a Crowd

Twentieth-century psychiatrist Murray Bowen described any relationship between two people as “unstable” because of the continuous dance between distance and closeness.

Under stress, a two-person system such as a marriage or friendship seeks a third party to triangulate, or form a triangle with. The process may be completely or partially unconscious.

Two ways to triangulate others are

1. Talking to a third party about an upset with someone else
2. Using a third party as a substitute for someone else

Here’s an example of the first type of triangulation. A woman’s brother hurts her feelings with a thoughtless comment. Instead of talking directly to her brother about it, she tells her sister that their brother hurt her feelings.

An example of the second use of triangulation is when a father confides in his daughter about his wife’s drinking instead of confronting his wife directly. The daughter is essentially recruited to serve as a surrogate partner instead of being allowed to remain outside the relationship and not take sides.

Regardless of the reason or configuration, triangulation can create problems for everyone involved.

First, the primary relationship suffers from the absence of honest communication.

Second, the third party is placed in a position that, if it’s not awkward to begin with, is bound to become more awkward with time — especially if both parties are talking to the same third person behind each other’s backs.

How to Disengage from a Triangle

1. Recognize a triangle when you see one.

If you’re talking to Fred about a problem you’re having with Ginger, that’s triangulation.

If Ginger is talking to you about a problem she’s having with Fred, same deal.

If Fred rubs EVERYONE the wrong way, that’s a problem for Fred. But the only person you need to talk to about your problem with Fred is Fred.

Similarly, if your brother-in-law is talking to you instead of to his wife (your sister), you’re being triangulated.

2. Keep things clean; maintain good boundaries.

If you need to run something by a third party for the sole purpose of preparing to talk directly to the person you need to talk to, make sure to use only the words you’ll use when you speak directly to the person.

If someone talks to you about a problem with someone else, encourage them to talk directly to that person. Then gently remove yourself from the equation. Don’t send mixed signals by asking questions, or hanging around to hear more.

3. Talk openly with family members about triangulation.

Triangulation runs in families, and can span multiple generations. See if you can get buy-in for deleting any triangles that exist or arise.

Agree to respectfully refuse to participate in triangulation. Have a backup plan. Everyone in the family should know (or learn) how to communicate through conflict so that ongoing triangulation isn’t necessary.

For more on triangulation, see this excellent article by therapist Kyle S. King.

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