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