Yesterday, we began looking at a process by which human beings seek to relieve tension in their relationships: triangulation. When we pull in a third party or engage in a behavior that puts distance between us so as to relieve our tension, we in essence, make an alliance with that third party or behavior, rather than solve the problem with the first party. This leaves the first party feeling like he or she is on the outside of this alliance, which generates even more problems over time.
Potential third parties include family, friends, children, work, hobbies, addictions and compulsions, affairs…you name it. The important thing is to begin to identify what your third party of choice is, and determine not to rely on that party to siphon off the tension within and between you. This will keep the tension high, which is provides the incentive to resolve the issue, rather than just kick it down the road.
Dating relationships are a hot-bed for triangulation because the process itself comes with significant anxiety and stress, and it’s when we feel a stress overload that we seek the comfort, advice or stabilizing influence of a third party or behavior.
A Personal Example
For example, Brad and I discovered a triangle between Brad, me and Brad’s daughter, whom we’ll call Mini-B, that began as soon as I met Mini-B.
I’m an easy-going person, and I was eager to make Mini-B feel welcome in our home (apparently, she’d not felt welcome by Brad’s previous girlfriend), so I tried to make sure all her needs were taken care of and that she’d have a good time when she visited every other weekend.
To my confusion and dismay, Mini-B complained about the places we went, the little extras I provided, and just about everything. I observed to her one day, “Do you realize that you’re impossible to please?” She acknowledged that she was.
A Pattern Discovered
This dynamic went on for a couple months, and when Mini-B complained to me about something, I complained to Brad about her complaining. This kicked up some significant tension between us, until I began to notice a pattern: Mini-B didn’t complain when her dad was present, or when she had a friend visiting with her. Hmmm. What was Mini-B trying to communicate with her constant complaining? Because I know about triangulation, I knew it was happening here, but it took months to figure out.
I began to do some research on blending families from a family systems perspective, and the picture started to come into focus, as did the potential triangles in the dynamic:
- Mini-B came every other weekend to see her father, not to see her father and her father’s new girlfriend, but she either wasn’t consciously aware of her displeasure with my sudden presence, or she didn’t know how to express it in words. Hence complaining. Mini-B didn’t want to upset her dad with her feelings about this new girlfriend being in the mix when she was used to seeing her dad by herself, so she lashed out at the new girlfriend instead.
- Mini-B’s complaints about her dad to me were simply displaced, because she didn’t want their relationship to feel tension. Better to feel tension with me than with her dad.
- Mini-B didn’t have a choice about the visitation schedule, but her dad wasn’t always available when she came. Sometimes he had to work, for example, and it didn’t seem fair to Mini-B that she was required to come and visit her dad, and then be left with his girlfriend. Not having a way to say that, complaining came instead.
- Mini-B expressed to me that she was used to getting what she wants from her mom if she complains long enough. (Notice the ghost in this triangle: Mini-B’s mom. She’s not literally present, but she’s psychologically present, as Mini-B expected me to interact with her in the same way her mom does.)
- Mini-B felt protective of her dad, because she had witnessed how his previous girlfriend had treated him, so she projected onto me her fears that I would treat him badly, too. Complaining provided an emotional-shove because a literal shove would have been unacceptable. (Notice the ghost in this triangle, as well: the former girlfriend.)
This took a few months for the dynamics to develop and for me to get some clarity on them. Helpful in this process were two resources:
- Chapter 10 of Harriet Lerner’s Marriage Rules. From a family systems perspective, this Chapter addresses the difficulties of blending families.
- A couple YouTube videos put out by the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family, such as:
Defining My Self in the Triangle
These resources helped me figure out what was going on, and eventually I was able to figure out what I needed to do about it–how I needed to define myself in this triangle. I realized that I needed to find a way to remove myself from the middle of the dyad between Mini-B and her dad. If she could complain to me, she didn’t need to discuss her concerns with her him, a scarier prospect. I realized that my availability in that triangle wouldn’t allow that relationship to develop as it needed to, so I had to become less available somehow.
I decided that when Mini-B came to visit, I would drop into the background so that she and her dad could spend their time together alone. If Mini-B brought a friend, I would join the crowd, so that her dad would have a buddy, too.
This diminished Mini-B’s complaining significantly, and I think it allowed Mini-B and her father to develop a closer bond over the next couple years. It hasn’t always been easy for Brad to understand his daughter, but he’s learned more about her, and had more one-on-one teaching moments with her (his highest goal with her) than he would have had if I were in the mix.
Doing my own thing during Mini-B’s visits was better for my relationship with Brad, too. I wasn’t complaining to him about Mini-B’s complaining, and he didn’t feel he needed to fix something he couldn’t see or make sense of. Our conflicts about Mini-B diminished significantly over the months following my effort to define what I needed to do for myself in these circumstances.
The Future of These Triangles
I hope that I can relax this boundary some day (it would be nice–for all of us, I’m sure–to be able to enjoy time with my boyfriend and his daughter together without tension), but every time Mini-B and I are alone, even for a very short time, the dynamic happens immediately, and I accept that as a message that the boundaries must remain in place for now. It’ll be interesting to see how the future unfolds and how it impacts these triangles.
Figuring out triangles is difficult work, requiring the perspective of a transcendent observer. The ability to take a step back and objectively look into an emotionally-charged situation is something that develops over time with a tremendous amount of commitment and intention. But figuring out what triangles are in operation precedes understanding what do to untangle them, which is another difficult step.
The effort is worth it, though, in that your relationships will stabilize and you will develop emotional muscles and wisdom for whatever challenge comes next.