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.

10 Responses to Venting and Triangulation

  1. Kendall says:

    I am part of one of these dysfunctional relationships…involving me, my mother in law and my sister in law ( my husbands brothers wife). Although hard to sum up, I’ll try. For 15 years, which was the beginning of my relationship with this family, I have been the scapegoat or target of my sil insecurities. To sum up her personality when described to a counselor, she has typical behaviors of narcissistic personality and borderline personality disorder. Very typical family dealings, issues or even positive experiences have been turned into something bad on my part. For several years I didn’t realize this was happening. She would tell my MIL things in order to make me look bad, weak, or damaged. When I had premature twins shortly after her having her first child (female), it all hit the fan! Attention she felt she was due, she felt I ‘took’ because of their fragile health and the fact that they were boys. (My MIL has made it no secret that she is partial to boys and my SIL seems to want to be her favorite..or the best.) to sum it up, my sil feels she is perfect and superior and when she perceives that anyone is viewed as a possible equal or better, she becomes evil and hurtful all while successfully playing victim to her husband. She has isolated herself from every family member! My MIL compared notes finally and realized she was playing us against one another. BUT I feel they somehow blame me for the original separation or issues which have led up to where we are now. I have given it a lot of thought and have spoken to a counselor and our minister at church. I have been accountable and have admitted and apologized for the times my reactions or behavior could have been better. But, I know in my heart the things that I have been guilty of are ‘normal’ ups and downs of any relationship or human nature. I also know in my heart that I did not cause this. I decided awhile back that my relationship with my SIL cannot be reconciled as she will never admit any wrong doing, she will not agree to counseling because her problems are everyone else’s fault and because she is very hurtful on the most personal levels. Her attacks are deliberate, sneaky and orchestrated. We are all at the point where you try and figure out her plan and thwart it before it happens to prevent her from controlling every situation and having her way. I am exhausted.i am also expected to play nice and talk with her, eat with her, socialize with her for the family’s sake and for her husbands sake( my husbands brother and my MIL SON). He is stressed and they worry about him and his health so they try and ignore and deal to make it easier on him. This ultimately makes me solely responsible to handle her attacks on me and to ‘consider the source’ and to ‘not let it bother me’. I cannot be fake and I do not want to communicate with someone who is mean, disrespectful and constantly gathering personal info about me to turn and use against me at an opportune time. My SIL husband does have it hard and he is a very sweet man, but he’s a grown man that needs to address this situation vs enable it. He is stressed and miserable regardless of me… But his family knows he will just ignore and hide and drink to pretend it doesn’t exist or that it will pass one day. The fact that I have chosen to remove myself from this triangular relationship, I am now viewed as letting her win and creating more issues and being the person she accuses me of being. I feel like I cannot win…damned if I do and damned if I don’t. It has created tension between my MIL AND I. she doesn’t agree with my decision to stay away from my SIL. I won’t discuss her crazy shenanigans with her and I feel that aggravates her. So now, my BIL & SIL are coming into town and she knows I do not want to come over and have dinner with her…so she calls my husband. I want to believe she did that out of respect for my decision, but if that were the case, I feel she would have called me directly. I’m afraid that now I am trying to break this triangular relationship, my MIL will now try and create another one involving my husband. She generally is a nice lady that would do anything for you, but expects her wishes to be honored. When they are not, she’s very good at subtle hints or guilt trips. She also likes her boys keeping her in the loop and if they come to her before they go to their own wives, she seems to take great pride and pleasure. My husband is not good at handling relationship issues…or talking about it. None of them are. They just want you to stop making a big deal and get over it. However, they are not the ones being targeted. I have NO doubt if the situation were reversed, my husband would attend nothing with my family. I have tried to follow their wishes for over 13 years. Nothing changes except I’m exhausted and refuse to continue to put myself in a place to be played like a puppet. Any advice?

    • Alison says:

      Wow, that is quite a stressful set of circumstances. I like the way you are trying to remain emotionally separate, and I think you should continue to do so. As your husband doesn’t like to talk or hear about others’ relationship difficulties and finds it easier to be quiet and play along, I think I would not force him into conversing about it. However, I would continue to have boundaries without appearing to be hostile. It’s very important that you don’t become reactive, hurt, defensive, or overly angry.

      I would like to know more specifically what your question is. Are you wondering how to respond to your BIL and SIL coming to town and wanting to have dinner with you? If you don’t want to make dinner for them and have them over, don’t do it. If they want to meet you at a restaurant, you can decide whether or not to go, and perhaps leave early if you do go. Or if you still want to be polite or please your husband a bit, you could suggest coffee at a cafe, or to meet in the park where the kids could play. That’s fairly non-committal and you’re not stuck listening to anyone. If you could start an online course and some other kind of education, you could have a nice useful excuse: “Sorry, I have to study.”

      If your SIL has been directly rude to you in the past, then you could be direct (without sounding aggressive or hostile) and simply say to your husband, “I don’t enjoy being with her. She’s rude to me. So I will stay home, but please go have dinner with them. I don’t want to interfere with your relationship with your sister.” And if you mean it, he will eventually come to respect your decision and your ability to have clear boundaries while still supporting him, and not becoming mean-spirited and gossipy. Just stick to your guns politely and respectfully. The bottom line is that you can do what’s right for you with dignity and without controlling your husband. Good luck!

      Let me know if you have a more specific question.

      • Kendall says:

        Thank you for your response! I think my question at this point is more on how to keep my MIL from creating another situation or ‘triangle’ b/t me, her and my husband. My SIL is rude to my MIL as well, but she deals with it for her son’s sake. She wants me to do the same, but I also feel she likes to get at or back at my SIL. Since she knows my SIL dislikes me, she wants me around to make my SIL miserable. She feels that staying away makes it too easy for my SIL and is giving her exactly what she wants…”she wins” on one level I agree, but recently, I have decided that it has become too stressful for me and too exhausting to keep trying to beat her at her game…and I lose all the way around because my SIL will find fault or shame any decision I make. I expressed this to my MIL, told her that my relationship with her has nothing to do with my SIL, my decision regarding my SIL has nothing to do with her(MIL). My relationship with my MIL will have to be b/t the two of us regardless of the SIL. Therefore me staying away from her is in no way a reflection of my disrespect for her wishes, but more for my well being. She told me she disagreed. I would be the person they make me out to be and Im giving her exactly what she wants. I told my MIL I was sorry she felt that way. I have done everything they have asked of me out of respect for them and I hoped she could at least acknowledge and respect that. She disagrees so I feel she will try another angle to get what she wants which is more of the same…trying to beat my SIL at her game, have me around to make her uncomfortable … by playing on my husbands sense of loyalty to his mom and brother and having him try and persuade me to do what she would like for me to do. My husband and I have talked since I last wrote and he said he sometimes feels in the middle or pulled and doesnt know what to do. I reiterated to him that I have never and will never stand in between him and his family/brother. He can spend time with them when they are in but Im asking for him to not force me to attend or to make me feel guilty if I do not think I can handle. He agreed, where as originally, he had asked me to get over it or..if I wasnt going neither was he it would be awkward and make me look bad. I expressed to him that he may have to on occasion without me and either make up some prior engagement for me or just be honest and say Im no longer allowing myself to be a part of this unhealthy situation so I am separating myself. He has now agreed with that. If I could go into the vast number of horrible things my SIL has said and done over the years, you would appreciate why I have to just stay away from her. She is an extremely interesting psychological study. At any rate, Im hurt by my MIL’s lack of acknowledgement of how much I have tried to respect her and her wishes and that she does not support me in now doing what I feel I need to do for me. I was wondering what advice you have for me on dealing with her and her attempts to possibly create a situation of triangulation b/t herself , my husband and I. I feel I have now placed a wall around me where she is concerned and I know she feels it. I am cordial and nice. I talk with her, but have retreated a bit and do not get into in depth conversations with her about anyone…my marriage or her other children and the other sister in laws. Part of her way of ‘punishing’ me for making a decision she disagrees with is by telling me how great daughter in law number 3 is by giving examples of what she does opposite of me.. I am not sure she even realizes that she does this or the frequency. I choose to believe and react in a way that takes it at a superficial level…as if she is just giving a compliment and I just agree and say yes, she is a great person…for example…but it doesnt mean it doesnt hurt.
        thank you for your time and advice. I really can use it and appreciate it.

        • Alison says:

          That is a lot of information. It sounds as though you are on the right track. First you are avoiding the SIL who says malicious things about you. That’s good. You are trying to be cordial to your MIL despite having to back away from the family situation. it’s too bad that she does not understand how you feel, but unfortunately you cannot always show people what they don’t want to see. It seems as though she may partake quite a bit in triangulation and therefore isn’t willing to see how unhealthy it is. If you do do things with her, try and do something that won’t lead to malicious gossip–like seeing a movie or going to dinner at a sports bar (or where there’s some sort of entertainment–a movie at home.) I would give up trying to make everyone happy. Simply be friendly and do your own thing.
          One small point, I wouldn’t ask your husband not to “force” you to go to these events because that implies he has the power to force you. Phrase it more positively. “Please support me because I’m doing what’s healthiest and best for me.” Just a more self-empowered frame of mind. Try to find more positive people in your life. But when around those negative ones, act relaxed, but don’t partake in the negativity. Don’t act the victim. I’m coming out with a video on malicious vs. harmless gossip and one on how to respond to malicious gossip in the next few days. Let me know what you think. Good luck!

          • Kendall says:

            Thank you! I appreciate your advice and will try and implement. You are correct in my wording. I have historically forfeited my feelings or desires because they upset others. At 45, I’m just now learning that it’s ok to do what I need to do even if that means upsetting others. It is still very hard for me and to deal with others being upset with me. However, I have found it makes me an unhappy person, people still get upset with you (the more you give/concede, the more you are expected to) and you create an image of weakness therefore becoming an easy target. But knowing that, it is still a process. I have found that I need validation because of this fault. So I’m working on that. But, I like how you rephrased my comment to my husband. I have said that and he supports that. He also deflected another triangulation attempt from his mother. So, I think after 13+ years! we are finally on the right track.
            How will I know when your video is out and do I just look under your video tab! THANK you. I really appreciate your input on a very difficult situAtion.

          • Alison says:

            Many people get more and more rigid in their ways as they age. Others, who are trying to improve their lives as they get older, transform and find more happiness, serenity, and self-confidence over time.

            For people who don’t like conflict and who like to please others, it’s important to learn how to express yourself–your plans of action, your desires, and your disagreement–in a positive and sometimes even friendly way. When you realize that you can say almost anything in a firm but non-threatening way, it will become much easier to do what’s right for you. You can say, “I’m not comfortable with that,” or “Have a great time tonight, but I’m going to stay home,” with a smile and without apology.

            I might post the first video today or tomorrow and the second one the next day right on my blog.

            Keep me posted. Good luck.

  2. 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.

  3. 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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