Healthy Relationships 1.24: Triangulation, Part 2

The Power of Triangles

“Unless you can anticipate the power of triangles and understand their functioning in your own family, your attempts to change will be defeated” (Richardson, Family Ties, 4th ed., p. 52).

About three weeks ago, we introduced the concept of triangulation (see post “Triangulation 1.0”). Over the next several posts, we’ll expand on this concept.

The concept of triangles in family systems psychology begins with the observation that dyads (relationships between two people) are unstable, particularly the more emotionally close they are. This instability results from our conflicting needs for autonomy and connectedness. Efforts to meet these two needs results in alternating cycles of separation anxiety and fusion anxiety. When this tension mounts, due to the differing needs of the individuals in the dyad, the individuals may seek to diminish the tension within the self and stabilize the relationship process by moving toward a third party or thing or process.

The (usually unconscious) motivation of enlisting a third party is to regain the feeling of stability without the need to change, to dilute the tension between the couple, and to divert attention from the conflict by displacing the issue. If the enlisted third party refrains from taking sides (such as an unbiased, trained professional counselor), a triangle is formed, but triangulation does not occur. Triangulation refers to the reactive emotional process within the triangle. Anyone third party that does not refrain from taking sides or who/which cannot be part of the solution actually becomes part of the problem.

Common Intra-Family Triangulation

The most common triangle within a family is the father-mother-child triangle. Triangulation with a child eases the tension between the mother and father, but increases the tension between the child and the parent who ends up in the outside position. It also unnaturally increases the emotional bond between the child and the parent who enlisted the child for emotional support. In the long run, such triangulation has a devastating effect on the child (see post “Family Projection Process”).

Common Step-Family Triangles

Triangles form in blended families, too. Step-family triangles divert attention from the real issues between partners, and often mask unresolved issues from previous partnerships.

Common step-family triangles include: 1) the wicked-stepparent triangle, in which the stepparent and stepchildren wage war against each other while the natural parent is pulled back and forth between the children and the new spouse; 2) the perfect-stepparent triangle, in which the stepparent operates as the rescuer, moving toward the stepchild, while the biological parent is in a distanced position, which is comfortable enough until the stepparent fails somehow, setting off a host of other issues, including the criticism of the biological parent; 3) the ghost-of-the-former-spouse triangle, in which one partner is reactive to the other partner’s former spouse, usually the mother of the stepchildren; and 4) and the grandparent triangle, which becomes especially pertinent if the grandparents are enlisted to deal with a former son- or daughter-in-law, with whom there was already plenty of reactivity prior to the divorce.

Motivation for Intra-Family Triangulation: Loyalty

Primary loyalty is at the heart of all of these triangles, and the wars over money, children, blended family relationships, former and new in-laws, and grandparents’ rights, can be traced back to this main issue. If they are not, the core issues will remain, and triangulation will continue to mask them.

Triangles can either intensify the conflict in the partnership, as in the classic case of the mother-in-law triangle, or they can stabilize or cover over the conflict, as in the extramarital affair before it’s discovered. In either case, the actual issues in the partnership are obscured by diverting the tension to another source (such as the mother-in-law issue) or by satisfying the need for closeness or sexual satisfaction without having to deal with the problems of closeness or sex in the coupleship.

Extra-Family Triangulation

Typical triangles extending beyond the family include the extramarital affair. When this triangle is discovered, resolution can only occur when both parties are willing to own their contribution to the breakdown of their partnership. Of course, this can only occur after the betrayal has been directly addressed and resolved.

Other typical triangles beyond the family include the social network feminist triangle (women venting to and being influenced by their friends) and the corresponding old friends chauvinist triangle (men seeking out camaraderie and influence from their friends).

Motivation for Extra-Family Triangulation: Influence

These triangles can be understood as a competition of influences. In the end, partners need to find common ground regarding who or what will most influence them. (Hint: Solid partnerships seek each other to be one another’s greatest influence–above parents, in-laws, children, friends, social media, belief systems, etc.)

In working with triangles within and beyond the family system, professional counselors can help couples sort out the problems of competing loyalties and influences, so that they can find appropriate balances between individual and family time, and between closeness and distance.


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