Dating Wisely 1.12: Avoid Triangulation, Part 1

Dyads Are Wobbly

Now that you understand differentiation–the cardinal competency of healthy living (and dating)–let’s begin our look at some of the realities that will put it (along with you and your relationship) to the test, starting with the concept of triangles. Dating Wisely Concept #7: Avoid Triangulating.

Two people in a relationship, a “dyad,” are about as stable as leaning back on two legs of a chair. Everything’s under control until someone comes along and bumps you, or you turn and look out the window and lose your balance. You’ll then either fall onto the floor, someone will reach out to grab you, or you’ll regain your balance after an awkward effort to get grounded by a third point of contact.

Relationships are like that: precariously wobbly. Any number of things, within and without, can disrupt the balance, and when that happens, we tend to grasp for something else to restore stability.

Dating relationships are especially wobbly, and how the individuals manage that natural instability will determine their relationship success. (Remember failure is sometimes success–see post titled “…Successful Failures.)


The process of seeking a third party or process to siphon off tension between two people is called triangulation. Triangles may involve people (friends, children, parents, ex-es, counselors), or behaviors (work, addictions, hobbies, sports, affairs, exercise). Whatever we use to diminish our tension when we seem unable to resolve the problem between (or within) us constitutes triangulation.

And everyone does it. Triangulation seems to be a natural process for the human species, and we mostly do it unconsciously, in our efforts to find solace from our anxiety and stress. The distance that a third party or process puts between us and the other can help us get some perspective, if that’s what we’re seeking.

However, if distance is used to resolve (avoid) problems and the distance becomes fixed in the process, the connection in the dyad becomes more and more tenuous. Furthermore, we set up the other to become resentful of whatever it is we’re seeking in place of true conflict resolution. Your partner will no longer feel like the two of you are a team, but that you’re a team with the other person or behavior. If s/he feels her- or himself to be on the outside of the triangle, you’ll end up with an additional problem to resolve.

Seek WISE Counsel

Becoming conscious of when and how we triangulate can help us manage it more skillfully. Of course, resolving the issues just between the two of you–without triangulation–is ideal, and a decent measure of differentiation, as well. Sometimes, however, an unbiased third party can help bring perspective, as long as the third party avoids taking sides. The job of third party helpers must be to encourage differentiation, not to give advice.

This is why friends and family are especially poor choices for gaining perspective when you’re trying to figure out some dynamic between you and your date. Friends and family will be inclined to take your side, and you’ll go away feeling justified in your perspective, whether or not you are. They’ll tend to illegitimize and invalidate the other, without trying to really understand his or her perspective. This kind of triangulation may make you feel better in the moment, but it’ll increase the tension between you and your date in the long run.

Early and Often

I’m constantly amazed at the people folks choose for advice. When I ask them if they would be willing have the kind of relationships that the family member or friend from whom they’ve sought counsel has, they almost inevitably say “no.” Why would you seek advice from someone who’s relationships aren’t the kind you want? Following the strategies they’re passing along to you is how they got that life!

Your best bet is probably a professional trained in family systems psychology, if a third party really is needed to mediate a conflict, and sometimes it is. Such a person can help you see the bigger picture and can help you sort through the complexities that accompany the seemingly simplest of problems.

I encourage people to seek help early and often…until they develop a healthy strategy (differentiation) for managing the emotional processes that naturally kick up in intimate relationships. Establishing a solid foundation is critical for future relationship success.

Tomorrow we’ll look at some examples of triangulation in dating, and how to navigate situations that involve third party influences. Hint: differentiate.


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