Today brings us to the fifth competency of healthy families. Each dyad can deal with all problems that occur between them. Triangulation is avoided.
A dyad is simply a relationship between two people, and triangulation occurs when the dyad brings in a third element (person, process, activity, etc.) to diminish the tension between them. This tends to be an unconscious, automatic process, although we can become increasingly aware of when and why we do this.
The Most Common Triangle
The most common triangle, for example, involves a husband and wife who find themselves in a conflict that seems unresolvable. When the tension increases to an unmanageable level for one or both, one or both will seek a third party on whom (or on which) to divert or diminish the tension. Men often choose work, and women often choose children, although neither strategy serves to solve the problem.
In fact, if this triangulation strategy becomes habitual or entrenched, additional tension will result: between the father and the child, and between the mother and the father’s work. They will then begin fighting over the triangle, instead of the problem that originally caused tension.
The Reverberations of Triangulation
As dyads fail to work out their problems, the tension reverberates through the family system which can end up with a multitude of interlocking triangles. Trying to sort them all out until the original problem is finally unearthed is difficult work, and sometimes requires the help of a professional.
Ideally, the couple would allow the tension between them to reach a pinnacle without siphoning the tension off somewhere else. Couples who understand the complications of triangulation know that they only make matters worse when they allow themselves to get diverted from the real issues.
The Therapist Triangle
Although enlisting a therapist is a form of triangulation, a good therapist can create a functional triangle by refusing to take sides and helping each individual in the dyad 1) understand the other and the issues between them; and 2) take ownership of his or her contribution to the problem.
Family systems therapists are trained to sort through the triangulation and to sniff out the issues beneath the layers of reactivity and automatic behaviors. They understand that their job is to work themselves out of the triangle as quickly as possible, returning the couple to the dyad with better tools.
Triangles Can’t be Avoided
We should note that it’s virtually impossible to avoid triangles, but it’s not impossible to become more and more aware of when and why we do. This awareness can help us seek more effective solutions to problems–solutions that work over the long haul–and develop emotionally mature ways of managing the emotional reactivity that can hijack relationships.
Triangulation is such a common phenomenon, we’ve been able to identify a host of triangles that occur regularly in families. Throughout this blog, we’ve noted some of the most typical ones. See posts titled, “…Triangulation,” “…Family Projection Process,” “…Multigenerational Transmission Process,” “…Internal Systems,” “Operating Styles 1.2,” “…Expectation to Alienation Progression,” “…Triangulation 1.1 – 1.4,” “…In-Laws,” and “…Parenting.”