Venting and Triangulation

"Blue" by Mimi Stuart

The Insidious Triangle:

How to avoid venting & triangulation

Have you ever felt uneasy when a friend complains about his or her partner? Triangulation involves one person complaining to a third person about a primary relationship in order to vent anxiety, not to gain insight into how to deal with a problem.

Why do people triangulate?

Triangulating someone into your angst-ridden relationship temporarily relieves anxiety. People who feel helpless to change their relationships sometimes seek to relieve their frustration through complaints and criticism of their partner (mother, son, friend, etc.). Through the power of secrets, they may also temporarily feel connected—a connection that may be lacking in the primary relationship.

However, that temporary feeling of connection and release of anxiety is like the effect of a drug—it’s short lived, and you need more complaining to get the same relief next time.


Triangulation is as insidious as mold growing in the walls. While it’s hard to see the destruction, eventually the structure crumbles. In the end, complaining and listening to complaints is emotionally exhausting, and usually not constructive. Being asked to take sides rather than having a dialogue is draining, futile, and brings everyone down.

The worst is when a parent complains to a child about the other parent, which puts terrible pressure on children. Children generally want any kind of connection they can get with a parent, even if that entails becoming a confidant. But they pay for their parent’s emotional venting with growing disrespect for the complaining parent and feelings of guilt for betraying the other parent.

Complaining about family or close friends erodes all three relationships within the triangle. Trust fades for someone who complains about others behind their backs. Respect also diminishes for someone who listens compliantly to endless fault-finding.

Interlocking triangles

Often, when anxiety overloads the initial triangle, one person deals with the anxiety by triangulating others into the process, thus forming a series of interlocking triangles. For example, a mother complains about her husband to her son, who then complains to his sister, who then complains to her father. Each person’s alliance is dependent on others’ anxiety and inability to relate directly to the person with whom they are experiencing problems. This is not a good foundation for life-enhancing relationships.

Life-enhancing relationships

Instead, the key is learning to handle anxiety inherent in relationships, and learning to be able to speak calmly and rationally directly to people about one’s feelings, needs and expectations within the relationship. Instead of blaming either ourselves or others, it’s far more helpful to become aware of our own participation in the relationship dynamic. Awareness of how we perpetuate negative patterns through our tone of voice, behavior, talking too much, not speaking up, etc. is a prerequisite for change, growth, and wise decision-making.

Avoiding triangulation

We should avoid taking sides, but remain in contact with both sides. We can express neutrality and objectivity, or use humor while relating to the mature part of the person venting. Here are some examples:

“I think it would be more helpful if you talked to him about how you feel, rather than to me.”

“Since we can’t change her, let’s figure out how you might have participated in this situation.”

“I value my friendship with both of you. So, I would prefer not being in the middle.”

“I’m sorry you’re suffering so much, but I feel uncomfortable when you tell me such private details of your married life.”

“I don’t feel qualified to give you advice. I think this is something you might bring to a therapist.”

“I think I know how this story is going to go. Do you see a pattern in the situation? Maybe you could do something differently.”


Venting through triangulation diminishes us and those around us. Instead, if we focus on understanding human beings rather than alienating them, everyone can benefit.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “My ex can’t stop complaining about me to my child. I feel like doing the same right back.”

Read “Childhood impairment: The Family Projection Process.”

Recommended Reading:
On triangulation: Kerr, Michael, and Bowen, Murray (1988), Family Evaluation, W. W. Norton & Company, New York.

4 Responses to Venting and Triangulation

  1. Daniel Caron says:

    Okay, so I triangulate on facebook, I love putting my
    Life experience on facebook. It is my blog & I put
    Videos there too.

    I told one stranger that posted that he just got
    married to not have girlfriends on
    The side or else his wife would pull his future
    son by the ear. He thanked me.

    I don’t speak with my mom anymore & several
    people told me that they loved my stories
    about my life growing up or my life now.
    (Example:My single mom would call her boyfriend at night
    to come over. Then at 5am she told him to leave
    before I would wake up. So he would say “F***”
    and slam the door as he left)

    I had no friends that I could physically touch
    so I made friends on facebook, out of 500 facebook
    friends about 20 may have met me years ago.

    A lady told me that I should write a book.

    Is there a difference between Triangulating
    & my making an almost public journal of my life?

    You are invited to watch my youtube videos
    on my Daniel Caron channel.

    I want people to learn from my mistakes.

    I finally do have friends with the Jehovah’s Witnesses
    & I shake hands and socialize with them at church.

    I write my stories at night because my son is sleeping
    next to me & I can’t make a video now because
    I would wake everybody with my talking.

    Thanks for any advice.

    I do love to write:)

    • Alison says:

      Hi. I don’t see a specific question here. Telling your story is not triangulating. Instead, triangulating is when you complain about your relationship with a third person getting that person in the middle rather than simply trying to get helpful advice. Good luck.

  2. Allan Sidwell says:

    Your article was insightful and helpful. Here is my problem: I was asked to step down from a managerial position due to triangulation. I will be in the same department that I once was responsible for. This department and company has a history of issues and because I tend to want to help people, triangulation will be a challenge for me. Would it be better to move on to a new company or accept what the company wants and try to regain some respect from my co-workers?

    • Alison says:

      It’s hard for me to know the answer to that. The fact that you ask whether it would be better to regain some respect from your co-workers indicates that your “helping” others went too far (you lost their respect,) and that you might try to help people only when you can do so openly and without triangulating. But this you can do no matter what path you choose. The good thing is that you are being honest with yourself. Good luck!

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