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. They are not trying 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 relationship patterns sometimes seek to relieve their frustration through criticizing and complaining about their partner (mother, son, friend, etc.) Through the power of secrets, they may also temporarily feel connected to the person they are triangulating — a connection that may be lacking in the primary relationship.
However, the temporary feeling of connection and release of anxiety are like the effect of a drug — short lived and you always need more 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 corrosive. 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 the child. Children generally want any kind of connection they can get with a parent, even if that entails becoming the parent’s 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 other people’s 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.
The key to sustaining healthy relationships is to learn both to handle anxiety and 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 is 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 you and those around you. Instead, if you focus on improving yourself and understanding others, everyone will benefit. Asking others for help in how to deal with a situation or to improve a relationship is very different from triangulation, and can be a good way to gain insight into your relationship dynamics. The key is to be open to feedback about your own behavior rather than just venting about someone else.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD