The concept of triangulation in relationships was introduced by Dr. Murray Bowen. Bowen observed that sometimes when people in relationships come across an area of conflict, they avoid dealing directly with the conflict by addressing it with one another, and rather draw in a third party as a way to ease the tension. Bowen called this occurrence triangulation. This may seem like a simple concept with an obvious fix (just go to the person you are in conflict with and address them directly). However, I have seen that triangulation can cause much strife among friends and family members and can lead to years of avoidance, discord, and dysfunction that can be passed down from generation to generation.
It is important to recognize the potential for triangulation in your relationships, to avoid participating in triangulation if possible and to work to de-triangulate where you find triangulation already exists. To give you a better idea of what triangulation looks like, here is an example:
A wife is mad at her husband for what she feels is his over commitment to work activities that cause him to miss family time. Rather than address the issue with her husband by speaking up and telling him about her desires for him to be around more often to participate in more family-related activities, she calls her brother and tells him things aren’t so good at home. She tells her brother not to say a word to her husband (who up to this point has been pretty good friends with her husband) because she doesn’t want to “interfere” in their relationship. Still, she tells her brother all about how her husband comes home late from work, stays up late working while he is at home, isn’t involved in activities with the children and doesn’t help her around the house.
For his part, the brother feels angry and feels that his sister is not being treated fairly by his brother-in-law. Still, he has been glad to have his sister opening up to him and telling him about her life lately, and since she asked him not to say anything, he doesn’t want to break her trust by saying something to his brother-in-law. While all of this is going on, the woman’s husband begins to feel more distant from his wife and he mentions to his brother-in-law that she seems to be more distant from him lately. He tells his brother-in-law not to say anything to his wife as he doesn’t want to create problems in their relationship, yet he is friends with his brother-in-law, so he feels comfortable venting to him.
What ends up happening is that, rather than dealing directly with each other, both the wife and the husband in this situation complain to a third party (the brother) and they end up avoiding ever addressing the real issues that are creating distance between them. Meanwhile, the brother perpetuates the situation and, although he feels some sense of being caught in the middle, he can’t help but take sides and begin to resent his brother-in-law.
Situations similar to this can occur between friends, co-workers, and even between parents and children. This pattern of triangulation can be very destructive in relationships and can cause much unnecessary heartache.
How can you avoid triangulation in your relationships? First, work to address conflicts directly with the person you have the conflict with as soon as possible. Jesus reminds us to do this in Matthew 5:23-24:
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”
Avoid drawing in others and trying to get them on your side. Rather, take your concerns directly to the person you feel has wronged you or with whom you are feeling frustration. As Matthew 18:15 says, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.” If addressing the conflict directly is difficult for you and you find yourself feeling like you need to draw others in to the conflict, evaluate what is making you feel anxious enough that you feel you need an ally to commiserate with rather than addressing the person you are in conflict with. If you have tried addressing the conflict and feel you were not well-received, it may help you to discuss the situation with an uninvolved third party ONLY with the intention of processing how you can better address the situation with the person you originally had the conflict with. When seeking advice about how to sort through a conflict with someone, make sure not to say anything to the third party you are not planning to say to the original person you are in conflict with.
Additionally, if you find you are the third party in a triangulation situation, work to evaluate your role in maintaining the triangulation and encourage the original parties to speak directly with each other. Avoid being manipulated by the feelings and opinions you hear expressed by others and work to evaluate your thoughts and opinions separately. Remember that although it may feel good to be sought out for comfort and companionship right now, you may end up feeling trapped between two friends or family members. As mentioned above, if you are sought out for advice, make sure that you do not say things to the advice seeker that you would not say to directly to the person they are in conflict with.Casey West