How to extricate yourself from a tangled family triangle

August 31, 2009
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When it comes to relationships, there is nothing quite like becoming enmeshed in an emotional triangle. The emotional triangle can be between any three people in a family, or between any three people at work, or between any three parties anywhere. These tangled-up relationships can use up a lot of energy and a lot of time.  This is the stuff that will keep you up at night.

There are rules about how such “triangulated relationships” work. Those of us in the field of marriage and family therapy are very familiar with some of the more classic examples. Imagine a mother who is battling her teenage son or daughter, and then Dad is pulled in to “solve the problem” for the two of them. Or, the wife who is struggling with her husband and gets on the phone to complain to her daughter about her husband’s rude behavior.

How about this: One employee comes to you to complain about another, asking you to talk with the other employee and straighten out the problem. Then there is the daughter-in-law who wants to be involved in the family business somehow, and your son wants you to address her directly.

The stories are endless. In each case, however, there are some predictable rules. As you read this, think about a “triangulated relationship” that you are in or have been in.

Rule One: The third person in the triangle can’t fix the problem between the other two. This is most interesting, because so much effort can be put into trying to fix the problem by the third person. It is as though the harder the third person works to solve the problem, the less helpful the effort is. And, if it is helpful, it is only temporary.

Rule Two: The third person will bear the stress of the relationship between the other two. It is very common for the third person to worry and fret and stay awake at night trying to solve the problem the other two are having.

Rule Three: Efforts by the third person to leave the triangle will be countered by one or both of the other members of the triangle to pull the third person back in, thus producing an ongoing mess. If the third person tries to back out, the drama will be ramped up, and he or she will be sucked back in.

Rule Four: Triangles exist where there is a lack of open and healthy communication between two people in the triangle. The triangle is a symptom and a perpetuator of that lack of good communication. This really is getting close to the root cause of the problem. Two people aren’t dealing directly and openly with each other.

Rule Five: Increased open communication between the two who are distant from each other is a necessary condition for change. This is critically important. The problem won’t really be solved until the two people with the problem openly communicate with each other directly. That’s why I try to get everyone in a room together when I find myself getting sucked into a triangle.

Rule Six: The third person in the triangle is present due to some personal needs that are being unmet elsewhere in his or her life, and those needs should be addressed directly.

Rule Seven: Put the two together and challenge them to work out their problem through direct, open and honest communication with each other, while cutting out the third person.

Each of these seven rules points the way out of the tangled and stressful mess that an emotional triangle creates.

If you do a gut check and find yourself stressed out over a relationship between two other people, assume you are triangulated. If you try to extricate yourself from their problem and they pull you back in again, you will have the reality of triangulation confirmed again.

Watch and listen. You should see and hear a lack of direct and open communication going on between the two people. Instead of talking with each other, they are talking with you and everyone else. And you have to wonder what is driving you to stay involved. Usually, there is some fear or anxiety that you feel at the thought of continued conflict between the other two, and so you are ripe for being triangulated.

There is simply no substitute for good, healthy, open, honest communication between two people who are having a problem with each other. It is always smart to encourage effective relationships day in and day out. Build it right into your home life and your work life. Make good communication the normal way of being together. Do so within your family and within your business, so that the basic expectations and skills for healthy relationships are in place when needed. 

Then, when two people are struggling with each other, nudge them into the same room and invite them to open their hearts and minds to each other.

While they are working out their problem, you can go about enjoying your work and life. And, if done well, you will be sending a clear message to everyone in your family and in your work environment that triangulation won’t be tolerated, and that good, healthy, open, honest communication is expected among one and all.

Andy Atwood is an ordained minister, a licensed marriage and family therapist and an adviser to family-owned businesses and “businesses that feel like family.” He can be reached at www.andyatwood.com

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