Family Triangles: When Someone Gets Put in the Middle

GoodTherapy | Family Triangles: When Someone Gets Put in the Middle“Jeanette” and “Tim”—names and identifying information have been changed—have been married for seven years when they seek couples counseling. Tim complains to the therapist that each time the couple argues, Jeanette phones her mother, Barbara, to vent. Tim has become uncomfortable around his mother-in-law, feeling as though Barbara has formed a negative opinion of him as a result of these conversations. Tim also feels that the involvement of Barbara makes it more difficult for him and his wife to work on their marriage together. Jeanette insists that she has tried and failed to talk things out with her husband and that she needs her mother’s input in order to resolve her feelings.

“Kristen” is the 17-year-old “baby” in a family of three siblings. As each of her older siblings grew up and left home, Kristen sensed increasing tension in her parents’ marriage. Recently, her father began to confide in Kristen regarding the conflicts between himself and her mother. She fears that upon her graduation from high school, her parents’ marriage may dissolve and they will seek a divorce. She is worried that her father, in particular, will be extremely negatively impacted if this occurs. Kristen’s grades have dropped and she is procrastinating on completing her college applications. She is considering staying at home to work instead of attending her dream university because she is fearful of leaving her parents “alone with only each other.”

“Joe,” “Mike,” and “Eddie” are brothers in their forties. While Joe and Mike frequently argue and find fault with one another, Eddie subsequently receives phone calls from each of his brothers complaining about, blaming, and accusing one another. Eddie feels as if he is constantly being pulled into the middle of a decades-long conflict between his brothers, and spends long hours speaking to each of them in an attempt to move them toward resolution. He has begun to avoid family gatherings in anticipation of the stress of being his brothers’ referee. Eddie’s wife “Lisa” observes the stress he is under and is frustrated by the toll this family conflict has taken on her husband.

In each of these scenarios, a dyad (two-person relationship) has become taxed and communication strangled, which has resulted in the triangulation of a third party into the relationship.

Triangulation is a family therapy concept discussed most famously by multigenerational family systems theorist Murray Bowen. Bowen described dyads as being inherently unstable under stress, much like a two-legged stool. When in balance, the dyad is capable of functioning well and meeting the needs of both people in it. However, when thrown out of balance by conflict, stress, or transitions, the dyad will often pull in a third person, or “leg” of the stool, to help them stabilize the relationship.

According to Bowen, some triangulation is normal and even healthy in the course of a family’s interactions. Because dyads are inherently unstable, the involvement of a third party can assist a two-person relationship in overcoming impasses, meeting needs, and coping through stressful times. For instance, two children who are arguing over a toy may seek out a parent to help them resolve the conflict. This kind of triangulation occurs because both of the people in the dyad are looking for healthy and effective mediation. When the triangulated person gives input, it is accepted into the dyad and processed together in a way that moves the original dyad forward in their relationship. Healthy triangulation can also occur in the context of parents (or other family caregivers) who come together to meet the needs of a third member, such as a child.

Triangulation can become unhealthy in families when it causes undue stress on the third party and/or when it prevents, rather than invites, resolution of the dyad’s conflict.

In the case of Jeanette and Tim, the triangulation of Barbara is being sought by only one of the spouses. Furthermore, the input provided by Barbara is not being brought back into the marriage for joint processing by both spouses. It is being withheld by the wife for her own individual purposes. Jeanette’s conversations with her mother are essentially taking the place of the emotional process that needs to be occurring within the marriage itself in order to return the marriage to healthy functioning.

In the case of Kristen, the 17-year-old high school student, her triangulation into her parents’ marriage is both active and passive. Her father has actively placed Kristen in the role of confidant, replacing communication that should be occurring between husband and wife. Kristen has also been passively placed by her dysfunctional family system into a role in which she must sacrifice her own individuation and growth in order to serve her parents’ emotional needs. Although her mother and father may not be expressly stating this to Kristen, the message is clear: The parents are relying on Kristen’s presence in the home in order to avoid confronting the breakdown of their marriage.

Finally, in the case of brothers Joe, Mike, and Eddie, the triangulation of Eddie over the course of many years has simply become an ingrained part of the conflict-heavy dyad between Joe and Mike. Joe and Mike have become accustomed to being able to discharge the anger and tension of their dyadic relationship onto a neutral party. After they utilize Eddie to manage their emotions, they return to their battles with one another with ever-renewed energy. The triangulation in this case is a piece of the unhealthy cycle rather than an honest attempt to seek mediation. Eddie has begun to bear the symptoms of the dysfunctional relationship, and his own bonds with uninvolved family members are crumbling under the weight of his “referee” role.

It is predictable that everyone will encounter triangulation in their family relationships at some point, whether as one of the dyad seeking stability or as the third party who is being put in the middle. If you find yourself involved in a triangle, it is helpful to ask yourself a series of questions in order to determine whether this triangle will ultimately be beneficial or harmful to the family system:

  • Are both people in the original dyad jointly seeking the input of the triangulated member?
  • Is the input of the triangulated member being brought back into the dyad itself for mutual discussion and consideration?
  • Is the dyad openly and directly communicating with one another before, during, or after the triangulation occurs?
  • Is everyone involved, including the third party, able to speak frankly and express their own emotions and opinions authentically?

If the answers to the above questions are yes, then the triangulation is likely to be of the normal type which necessarily occurs in families over time.

  • Does any member of the triangle feel overly forced, pressured, stressed, blamed, or manipulated by the interaction?
  • Does any member of the triangle feel as if he or she is not allowed to speak freely, express emotions, or ask for needs to be met?
  • Is the triangulated member being pulled into an inappropriate role (such as a child being parentified or overly confided in by a parent)?
  • Is this part of an ongoing pattern of interaction in which the original problems never seem to be resolved?

If the answers to the above questions are yes, then the triangulation may be the type that is unhealthy and dysfunctional in the overall family system.

If you find that unhealthy triangles are occurring in your family, there are steps you may take to counteract the negative effects of such triangles:

  • A triangulated person can decide to step out of the middle by refusing to speak about the conflict with the involved members. The triangulated person may inform the two people in the dyad that he or she will continue to have a relationship with each of them that does not include taking a referee, peacemaker, or other inappropriate role.
  • Encourage the original two-person dyad to speak to one another rather than projecting their conflict outward. Open, honest, and direct communication between family members is the most efficient antidote to dysfunction in families.
  • If a triangle is still needed for the dyad to stabilize, encourage the two people to seek a professional mediator, counselor, or therapist. The professional will likely become triangulated, but can step into the triangle with a background of training and objectivity which will allow the professional to work from his or her triangulated position to help the dyad return to healthy functioning.

© Copyright 2013 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Kyle S. King, LMFT, LCPC, Family Therapy Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • jo

    June 18th, 2013 at 10:51 AM

    You might can tell others not to put you in the middle, and you may resolve to not let this happen to you. But when this is your history, your role in the family that has been written for you so to speak then it is lots easier said then done. You start to feel pulled in a million directions and you sort of default to the only behavior that you know, which is to try to become the mediator. If you think that doing the pulling isn’t fun then you should try to be the one in the middle aleways getting tugged on. I assure you that this is a far more difficult role.

  • Greta

    June 19th, 2013 at 4:21 AM

    I feel like this with a few of my girlfriends. We all say we are friends but I think that some of them are more frenemies than they are real friends. And I always feel like I am being stuck in the middle, and it is not a good feeling at all. I just want to sit down and tell them how their words and actions are making me feel but I love them all dearly and I am afraid that saying something would cause us to not be friends at all anymore, and that isn’t what I want. I just want us all to be adults and treat each other as adults and with respect. I don’t see that happening much at all sometimes.

  • Rae

    June 23rd, 2013 at 6:58 AM

    My whole life I’ve been triangulated by my parents and their issues with each other as well as the relationship between my parents and my sister. It has effected me greatly to the point where I get severely depressed, isolate myself from friends and others, and can’t focus on my school work or maintain relationships. I moved but its still hard to focus on just me and finding happiness with myself.

  • Annie

    October 14th, 2014 at 7:52 PM

    My mother and sister have not spoken in years, and usually will put me in the middle of their shut out to find out the status of their concerns.
    Its becoming the norm and theyre getting no where, my sister will ask for my moms phone number then never call because she doesnt want my mom to grill her parenting and life choices. My sister will shut me out and change her number if i ever give details or a number to reach her to my mom. I dont know where they fell apart, but my sister eventually felt that my mom was out to get her and stopped all contact and moved to pursue her goals. My mom can be very harsh and agitated. Neither of them know how to resolve xonflixt. My mom has no understanding or speaks none. Most of her anger is from not seeing her granddaughter, and im not sure she knows that her reprumanding my sister at this age is silly. Im always being asked and trying to guard what info my sister wants private at my moms expense and my mom gets mad at me for not breaking my sisters confidences, What do I say to my mom? Sister? Please help me im being squeezed in the middle for years.

  • Kelli

    November 7th, 2014 at 9:21 PM

    Both my older siblings have been problems my brother no longer is causing problems after devoting himself to Christianity but my sister is getting worse. My parents are divorced and my Dad remarried in the divorce my sister had taken my Dad’s side overtime. I am constantly being confided in while she talks bad about are Mom and whines over things that are her fault. She bullies me and when I stand up to her which I hardly we get into fights. She blames every thing on my Mom even when my Dad is the one grounding her and she constantly throws fits. There have been multiple times she has snuck out of the house. With this happening and me being the youngest the expect more for me. There is a lot of pressure put on me and anger unleashed on me. I have expressed my self on this and the situation has gotten better but it is still not good. My Mom has to ask me to text her if I hear my sister sneaking out and then I get to hear but don’t tell her I said that. My Dad and stepmom are both great but my sister portrays my Mom as the bad guy and I’m sick of it. My friends don’t have these problems with there siblings and there is no one I can confide into.

  • Pete A.

    March 16th, 2015 at 3:34 PM

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  • Victoria

    September 26th, 2015 at 8:19 PM

    Your views on triangulation drove the message home to me. In my family I have been triangulated. My sister will lie to me about other family members how they treat her badly. My sister will make false allegations about family members to me and vice versa knocking our heads together. I decided to pull myself out of the triangle as I
    Discover my sister hurts everybody in the family.
    I have pulled out from the triangle, to remain
    neutral. But my sister split our family into
    Pieces but accepts no responsibility.

  • Samuel

    October 16th, 2016 at 8:27 PM

    Ambassador, referee, psychotherapist, these roles have been relegated to me numerous times. Forced to assume the adult role too early in life, I was confidant to my mother and then to my sister. My parents appear challenged by direct communication with my sister, and the result is how much their conflicts suck the life out of me. Now, after a nearly eight year absence, my sister contacts me to ask how my parents are. Why not pick up the damn phone and call them yourself is what I want to ask her. I rewrote my response to her several times to make certain that I was not opening the door to playing the ambassador’s role again. Lord, give me strength. Her timing is never good, and I am in the middle of writing a dissertation. What I read above helped me and reaffirmed what I had learned in my own weekly therapy sessions. If I may offer some unsolicited advice to anyone reading, remember that there is a tomorrow and remember that it is okay to be a little selfish and to carve out some peaceful moments for yourself without the clutter left by everyone else’s drama.

  • Ian

    February 14th, 2017 at 10:19 PM

    My wife and 22 year old frequently clash over issues, mostly to do with her refusing to accept his increasing demands for independence. Lately this has taken the form of vociferous disapproval of his current girlfriend. He often responds by lashing out in unacceptably abusive and disrespectful ways. While I cannot accept the manner in which he speaks to her, and feel obliged to act in response to it, I am not without sympathy for the frustration that led to it. My wife finds it hard to understand that, however diplomatically I try to discuss it with her, and simply expects me to reprimand and discipline my son for his disrespect. The result is that I end up reprimanding him without real conviction, which satisfies no one and resolves nothing.

  • Charlotte

    June 30th, 2017 at 6:49 AM

    As an only child, triangulation was a huge part of my life from a very early age – triple triangulation. My mother would talk to me about her problems with my father and at times I felt like it was me and her against the world. My father would talk to me about problems with my mother. At other times when they appeared to be getting along better, they would shut me completely out not speaking to me for days. I had no one. I have been in therapy for more than 20 years trying to overcome the effects of this insidious emotional abuse. I’m not sure I will ever fully recover.

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