The Insidious Triangle: Should you avoid triangulation?

“Mo’ Air” — Jonny Moseley by Mimi Stuart ©

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.

Insidious

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.

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 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.

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.

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.”

Conclusion

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

Related Posts

Emotional Fusion: “Whenever I’m in a long-term relationship, I lose all of my passions, desires, and goals in life, simply to make the other person happy.”

“Sorcery” by Mimi Stuart ©

“I have always been very, very close with my mom. However, her constant complaining and negative attitude has always taken a huge toll on me. When I was younger I would have violent outbursts and hit objects because I became so frustrated. The concept of emotional fusion might explain my inability to be in real intimate relationships. Whenever I’m in a long-term relationship, I lose all of my passions, desires, and goals in life, simply to make the other person happy. I was wondering if you had any advice going forward regarding intimate relationships as it is something I crave yet am utterly and completely terrified to enter one again.”

Emotional Fusion

Yes, it sounds like emotional fusion may be the issue. When you are a child and dependent on a parent, especially when there is only one primary parent taking care of you or you feel very close to that parent, it is natural to focus excessively on tuning into and accommodating your parent’s needs.

As you grow up from childhood to adolescence and into young adulthood, it is natural and healthy to gain more independence, both in action and thought. A self-centered or unhappy parent is likely to feel threatened by a child’s natural drive for independence, and thus, become volatile and controlling. The child, as a result, will feel constrained or manipulated by the parent, while simultaneously needing the parent. These contrasting emotions create a great deal of inner conflict, which can lead to outbursts, tantrums, or depression.

Both drives are natural: 1) the desire to accommodate and avoid disappointing the parent, and 2) the drive toward independence and attaining your own happiness. But if these two drives are not allowed to coexist, the result will be great tumult and frustration. These drives will conflict when a parent unconsciously or consciously tries to suppress their child’s independence and need for emotional separation. The child senses that independence in emotions, thoughts or actions is risky and dangerous, which leads to feelings of resentment, anger, guilt, or depression.

Ideally, a parent balances rules with freedom, that is, having boundaries and guidelines with compassionately allowing their children to develop emotional and mental separation and autonomy. Of course, there is no such thing as an ideal parent. Some may tend to smother their children in some respects while others tend to neglect them, at least to some degree. The greater the parent’s emotional reactivity is to the child’s emotions and actions, the greater the emotional fusion.

Future relationships

A person who is emotionally fused with their parent while growing up will tend to become emotionally fused with others in future relationships. They tend to assume they are responsible for the other person’s happiness. As a result, they lose sight of their own desires and goals.

It is fine to want your partner to be happy, but when it becomes your primary motivation, you fall into a no-win trap. Your happiness and vitality become dependent on the other person’s happiness, which puts an undue burden on both you and the other person, because you cannot make another person happy. You are aiming for something which you do not control, and actually shouldn’t control. Also, there is often an unspoken expectation that the other person owes you, and should make you happy in return, which leads to further disappointment and resentment.

Advice

My advice is to start imagining specific past situations where you have either submitted to doing something you didn’t want to do, responded with anger, or felt a distinct loss of enthusiasm and vitality. Then think of a new way you could have responded using a calm and considered approach, while honoring your own needs. It is generally not good to dwell on the past. But by considering real examples, which tend to repeat themselves, you can practice and prepare yourself for the next time you find yourself in a similar situation.

The goal is to learn to speak up for yourself while still respecting the other person, but leaving it up to them how they will feel and respond. Let go of your desire to insure that the other person will be happy and pleased with everything you say and do. Be considerate without becoming responsible for their reactions and emotions.

Examples

Do you put up with ongoing complaints? Then practice your response. For example, “I’m so sorry you are unhappy. Let me know if there’s something specific I can do. But when you keep telling me how unhappy you are, it also brings me down, and it’s not helpful for either of us.” If that person gets angry, repeat yourself once, and then say, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” and drop it or leave.

Do you spend too much time together, or do you give up doing things you love to do? Then find a way to do what is important to you, and express yourself without feeling guilty. For example, “Thanks for inviting me, but I need to get some exercise,” or “I have a project I’m working on at home,” or “I have been out too much lately.”

Do you focus too much on what the other person wants? Then become hyper aware of your tendency to neglect your own needs while focusing excessively on the other person’s needs. Express and pursue your desires with a matter of fact quality, “Sorry I can’t be there tonight. I need to catch up on sleep,” or “I was looking forward to practicing the guitar,” or “I need to rest and chill.” Anyone who easily disregards your needs is not someone you should lavish your attention on.

Do you feel that you have to fix things when the other person is sad, frustrated, or in pain? Be kind and compassionate, but resist your impulse to be responsible for fixing another person’s problems and moods. Use a firm, kind, calm voice, make no excuses, assign no guilt or blame. Wish them will while respecting your own space and needs. Use words like, “I wish/hope/want you to be happy/feel better/have a good evening,… but I need/would like/want to get some rest/see my old friend/catch up on reading….”

If the other person gets angry or feels hurt when you state your needs, then you may need to disengage from that relationship. A relationship that requires you to suppress your own needs to satisfy another person’s is not reciprocal or ultimately, sustainable. Alternatively, a relationship in which each person is primarily responsible for expressing and pursuing their own desires while being considerate of the other person fosters freedom, vitality, accountability, and long-term sustainability.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD


Related Posts

Feeling rejected by your teenager?
“I was upset at my teenage daughter for not travelling with me to visit family, preferring to catch the bus two days later so she could catch up with her friends.”

Detail from “Sultry Adele” by Mimi Stuart ©

It is normal for a teenager to want to spend more time with friends and less time with family. It may be painful and aggravating as a parent, but you should not take it personally.

It is important to balance your desire for control and closeness with your teen’s desire for autonomy and growth. Too much control and manipulation will cause the child to rebel and resent you and become secretive. Allow your teen to make decisions and grow, while you maintain reasonable boundaries and expectations. As long as teenagers are accountable for their actions and responsible for contributing to the family by doing some chores and spending some time with the family, it is best to allow them to develop increased independence as they grow.

When situations arise in the future where your daughter wants to spend her time with friends instead of with you and the family, try to be understanding, remain self-composed and by all means, avoid acting hurt. Be relaxed and self-assured and say something like the following:

“I understand and am happy that you want to spend time with your friends. But we love seeing you too. Why don’t you pick a night this weekend to have a family dinner with us / a day to join me to visit your grandparents.” Or

“I know you’d really like to see your friends this weekend. But it’s important for me and our family that we have some family time together. Let’s figure out what day would work best for everyone.”

When children grow to be teenagers, then young adults, and finally independent adults, the parent will suffer an unavoidable loss. However, to avoid raising a dependent, incapable grown child, you must embrace this loss. Look at the positive side: you are likely to gain a capable and responsible family member whom you like and respect.

In the meantime, you may want to focus on your interests, friendships, and making your own life more fulfilling. After putting so many years into parenting, it takes time and effort to re-focus your life away from parenting. Once you push yourself to do it for a while, you will feel happier and more vital. Your teenager is likely to notice and respect you more for it too.

In summary, avoid pursuing too much closeness and control over your teenager. Maintain reasonable expectations and mutual respect while your teen is living under your roof. Be understanding, yet focus more on your own life and expand it in new directions.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Related Posts

Family visits:
“I feel overwhelmed thinking about my family visiting next week.”

"Orchestra Assemblage" by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

When facing a family visit, people often have ambivalent feelings, wanting to make everyone happy, yet dreading the work and potential personal conflicts that loom ahead.

Expectations

You may feel obligated to put everyone up at your house or prepare the meals because you think that’s what is expected of you. While giving to others can be deeply fulfilling, it’s best to give at a level where you can do so wholeheartedly and lovingly rather than resentfully. You don’t want to slip into martyrdom.

Instead of succumbing to what you think is expected, decide what you are willing to do and state so up front.

If, for example, you are happy to prepare one meal or one dish, graciously invite everyone for that meal or to a potluck. “I invite you all for dinner on Friday night. On Saturday, we can go out,” or “You’re on your own.” “You can pick up your favorite breakfast groceries at the store down the street.”

People like to know what is expected in the way of itinerary, sleeping arrangements, kids’ rules, differing holiday traditions, and dogs. If you clarify expectations and don’t promise too much, you can be giving without becoming exasperated and resentful. When you communicate clearly ahead of time, people are less likely to be disappointed because they understand the game plan and your expectations.

Saying “No.”

If your relatives or friends tend to ignore your requests, hints, and desires, or are generally unpleasant, then there’s no need to accommodate them with meals or housing, unless you are willing and able to live up to Mother Theresa’s philosophy: “People are generally irrational, unreasonable and selfish. Love them anyway.”

You can say “no” while still communicating warm-heartedly. For example, “That’s not a good weekend for us to have visitors. We would love to see you though if you come into town. Call us and we’ll meet for coffee/a drink/lunch.”

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “Dreading intrusive questions at family gatherings: “It’s none of your business!”

Related Posts

“My life feels out of control.”

 "Peace - Buddha" by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“Peace – Buddha” by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

If you are facing life challenges, such as a break up, illness, tragic choices made by family members, or financial distress, your life can feel out of control. As a result, you can feel helpless and powerless, and become anxious, overwhelmed, and depressed.

There are many things we don’t have control over in our lives and many more that we have very little control over. While we may not be able to change our external circumstances, what we can change is our internal perspective, and this can make all the difference in the world.

It may be difficult to change negative thought patterns, let go of grudges, and stop complaining about our circumstances, all of which bring us a certain comfort. Yet with practice, we can control our thoughts and change our perspective. We can admit to our negative thinking, understand it, and then move on.

Viktor Frankl, who survived the most dire circumstances in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

Therefore, we should focus on what we usually do have control over. We often can determine the following:

1. how we spend our time,
2. whom we spend our time with,
3. what we read,
4. what we think about,
5. how to view the events in our lives,
6. what we learn from our relationships,
7. how to respond to other people—their love, their anger, their expectations,
8. the words and tone we use,
9. where we spend our time.

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

~Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

by Alison Poulsen, PhD


Related Posts

A Better Way to Break-Up: 20 Ways to Leave Your Lover
by GUEST AUTHOR Dr. Jennifer Freed with Molly Green

"Grazia" by Mimi Stuart ©

“Grazia” by Mimi Stuart ©

GUEST AUTHOR Dr. Jennifer Freed with Molly Green writes:

The dissolution of any romantic relationship is invariably painful: At its worst, it is devastating and harmful and leaves a lot of emotional collateral damage in its wake; at its best, it’s done with tenderness and care, and both parties put aside a desire to just be done with it in favor of taking the time to separate with patience and love. The latter is difficult to achieve, but ultimately a more expedient path to peace. Below, Dr. Jennifer Freed, a therapist, astrologer, and the founder of Santa Barbara’s AHA!, together with her colleague, Molly Green, explains what needs to be reckoned with.

Paul Simon suggested:

“You just slip out the back, Jack
Make a new plan, Stan
You don’t need to be coy, Roy
Just get yourself free
Hop on the bus, Gus
You don’t need to discuss much
Just drop off the key, Lee
And get yourself free”

This song hit a national nerve precisely because people tend to leave their lovers in the most hideous and harmful ways. There may be any number of causes or triggers—an affair (physical or emotional), growing disdain, physical rejection, addiction, and anger—but when the betrayal results in often-public drama and fireworks, rather than a calm, loving, and honest reckoning, it lays waste to all the joy the couple in question might have experienced together, coloring the entire relationship with pain. It begs the question: Why do so many people, who have often spent years loving one another, leave their relationships in such hurtful, harmful, and unconscionable ways? How can it be done differently?

People leave their love relationships in tatters because they:

1. Are too frightened to actually face their own unhappiness and take responsibility for it.

2. Are unwilling to face the pain in their partner’s face when they tell them the relationship is over. They don’t want to witness the loss band-aid being pulled off in slow motion and thus feel responsible for the hurt.

3. Selfishly tell themselves that what their partner doesn’t know will not hurt them.

4. Want to punish their partner emotionally for what they have experienced as coldness, distance, or waning desire.

5. Are addicted to novelty and idealization at any cost.

6. Are unable to face the material consequences or insecurities of their decision to leave.

7. Blame their partner for their lack of success or dissatisfaction with their own life.

Any of the choose-your-own-adventures above indicate that there is a lot of pain between lovers that has not been addressed in an appropriate way, and that a lot of collateral emotional damage could be spared if people felt good enough about themselves, and had the correct tools, to deal with immense fear, insecurity, and emptiness. It takes tremendous courage to actually face relationship despair head on. Instead people bolt, cheat, lie, withdraw, get addicted to things, or trash the whole thing with an abrupt cut-off and hostile attack listing every imagined resentment and flaw. Rarely do people face each other and discuss the dying elephant in the room. To do so would be to take an honest look at the demise of the dream, the failing of the promises, and the personal sense of inadequacy and hopelessness that intimate relationship endings bring.

If we are to truly absorb and assimilate the grief of a coming ending—in its raw and undistracted state—we actually need to confront our own shortcomings. Both parties need to look at their parts in the deterioration of the connection and the many personal patterns or flaws that contributed to the dying of attraction and affection. This is the psychological work of warriors, quite frankly, and many folks just do not have the inner muscles or resolve, or outside resources to flex that deeply.

However, if we could all agree that it is in the best interest of ourselves, and our communities, to get into some serious intimacy shape, we could begin to deal with the reality and the sorrow of relationships that are fizzling out, and do so with dignity, maturity, and kindness. We could support one another to take regular inventory of the health of our love relationships and not go into cruise control or denial about intimacy erosion. Once we start hearing the whisper of the death rattle through long periods of emotional disconnection, avoidance of sex, constant bickering or fighting, increasing times apart, and a vapid joylessness, we can roll up our sleeves and wrestle these emotional demons. If all efforts fail to revive the romance and quality of connection, then everyone can feel more empowered to move forward.

Below, 20 ways to leave your lover with love and respect.

1. Take full responsibility for your part in the ending, as in:

“I gave up a long time ago when we were drifting apart and I just didn’t fight for us.”
“I stopped appreciating you and took you for granted.”
“I need something different than what I am getting with you and I want to move on.”

2. Take time to dissolve the ending by giving your partner notice and discussing reasonable ways to end things.

3. Speak highly of your soon-to-be ex, because what you say about them actually reflects a great deal about you.

4. Spend a good deal of time reflecting on how you got into the intimacy bog and what you could have done differently.

5. Give your soon-to-be ex a lot of space to be upset and remove yourself immediately from any conversations that are hateful or abusive.

6. Pay off all debts and split things up fairly.

7. Seek professional help to mediate finality if you are too frightened and find yourself backing off from your firm decision.

8. Refrain from clingy sex and keep appropriate new boundaries to avoid confusion and undue stalling. Respect your partner’s boundaries and their need for distance.

9. Be kind to all of your mutual friends, as well as the friends of your partner. Avoid taking sides. There are no sides. There is just loss.

10. Use this time to take great care of yourself by getting in shape, not just physically but mentally. This is a very stressful time, no matter how adrenalized you may feel in leaving.

11. Keep your words in the affirmative about the situation and avoid all attempts to make you right and your partner wrong. Again, it is all just loss. There are no winners.

12. Be faithful to your soon-to-be ex and do not involve anyone else romantically in your complicated emotional maelstrom until you are truly separated.

13. Give your soon-to-be ex lots of physical space and let them attend to things without having to see your face.

14. Take up a new class or hobby to help you fill the new free time that is often fraught with compulsive over-thinking.

15. Take a short road trip alone or with friends to get some perspective after the big announcement.

16. Refrain from any social media postings about your status. RESPECT the transition.

17. Keep all your soon-to-be ex’s secret vulnerabilities SECRET. Do not ever reveal intimate facts. That would be tasteless and petty.

18. Let go of all letters and memorabilia as soon as possible, but in a discreet, honorable way.

19. Take time to feel all the emotions without involving your ex in a blow-by-blow battle. It is time for you to feel it all. Get a therapist or friend to be there for you.

20. When you make mistakes along the imperfect road of breaking up, admit to them and move on. Making a mistake is not code for failure.

If you are the friend of someone in the midst of this process, you can be truly helpful by encouraging the person to look in the mirror for the real lessons to be learned, and to keep an eye on the path ahead. There is only power in looking at his or her part of the relationship, no matter how screwed up their partner’s actions seem to be. After all, so much of falling in love is in the feeling we get about ourselves in the eyes of the beloved. It seems fitting that falling out of love is also about bravely enduring the feeling we get from looking in the eyes of one we have disappointed, whether they be our ex-lover’s or our own.

by GUEST AUTHOR Dr. Jennifer Freed with Molly Green. Dr. Jennifer Freed PhD, is a child behavioral expert and co-founder of AHA! (Attitude.Harmony.Achievement.)

Related Posts