If you have ever asked someone to help you with a complicated business relationship by being a go between, or if you have ever been asked to do the same, then you have been part of a process called triangulation.
When two people can’t seem to manage conflict or a challenging situation between them, one or both will typically go-between tension by calling in a third person to help. The third person is most often a trusted person, and may even be intimately connected to both people. He or she knows how to soothe, placate and resolve. The person is skilled at minimizing the tension and making sure the situation doesn’t escalate.
This person may have the unintended side effect of ensuring that the two people experiencing conflict never have the chance to figure out how to manage it themselves. As long as the third person offers a safe landing away from the conflict, most people will choose that option.
The third person may be engaged to form the triangle in the midst of an escalating conflict, or even in anticipation of conflict. A third person will usually accept the role with grace. The stakes are generally pretty high, and this person may have a lot to lose if the relationship he or she is calling in to save falls apart instead – particularly in the case of families. But, if you have been that third person, you know that it comes at a cost. If you are the one enlisting the third person, you should be aware of the toll it takes.
When two people are in the midst of conflict, or struggling to avoid it, there is a lot of tension and anxiety. When the seemingly heroic third person is solicited to save the day, it isn’t as though the anxiety just disappears. The third person, in fact, absorbs it and allows the other two to carry on in what seems like relative peace. The triangulated person has likely made a determination that the anxiety associated with getting in the middle is less than the anxiety associated with declining the role: A tough dilemma for an innocent bystander.
Sometimes the third party in the triangle isn’t even a person – or maybe not even a knowing person. There are times when the conflict is so engrained that the triangle is less situational and more an adapted lifestyle.
For couples, when one or both people are dissatisfied, an affair can serve to triangulate that couple. This allows one member to diffuse tension by receiving intimacy and satisfaction elsewhere. Or perhaps someone feeling lonely and depressed uses alcohol, or extreme amounts of exercise, or excessive work hours, to form the triangle. This triangulates that person away from dealing with the issues or relationships that might be at the heart of the problem.
They are designed to distract people from one another or diffuse tension in complicated relationships. Functional, though, does not mean advantageous. As you consider the role of triangles in your life, maybe take a minute to consider what it would be like if you faced the issue head on. If there is something to be gained, maybe you try to remove the triangle. If the triangle feels like the best shape for your life right now, carry on. Sometimes it’s just nice to be aware.
Carrie is a therapist and licensed attorney in Connecticut with a specialization in divorce mediation and parenting plans. She also runs CT Relational Therapy, LLC and holds a Master's Degree from Fairfield University.
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