Triangulation

Woman attempting to reconcile couple at oddsTriangulation occurs when an outside person intervenes or is drawn into a conflicted or stressful relationship in an attempt to ease tension and facilitate communication. This situation is often seen in family therapy.

What Is Triangulation?

Triangulation can happen in nearly any type of relationship. For example, a relationship between two siblings can be triangulated by a parent when the siblings disagree, and a relationship between a couple can be triangulated when one partner relies on a child or parent for support and communication with the other partner. Two friends might also draw another friend into a conflict in an attempt to resolve it.

Triangulation can lead to problems in relationships, and the individual members of the triangulated relationship may experience stress, anxiety, or other mental health concerns as a result of the triangulation. When an individual feels as if he or she has been pushed out of an important relationship by a third party, for example, he or she may often feel angry, confused, or rejected and may experience depression or resentment. Further, when tension and focus is shifted to a third person, that person may feel burdened and frustrated and may attempt to withdraw from the relationship altogether.

Pros and Cons of Triangulation

When conflict occurs in a relationship, a third party can be a helpful source of new ideas and advice, as a dyad can often become unstable when faced with stress. Bringing a third person into a two-person relationship can sometimes prove beneficial for the couple, who may need help mediating disagreements, gaining a fresh perspective, or finding support in times of frustration.

However, triangulation can be taxing to individuals who are thrust into the middle of a conflict, and this stress can lead a third party to play an inappropriate or harmful role, whether knowingly or unknowingly, in a relationship. Triangulation can also cause people in a relationship to avoid addressing problems. For example, a couple who is experiencing difficulties might focus on their daughter instead of working on their marriage, focusing on her activities and placing undue stress on her. This may, in turn, cause the daughter to experience significant anxiety. Another instance of triangulation might be seen when a son has a close relationship with his mother and relies on her for marital advice. This can generate tension both between the son’s partner and the son’s mother and between the son and his partner.

Triangulation can also interfere with a child’s development, since triangulation often leads the parents to view the child as a supportive peer rather than a child. Triangled children often end up in a scapegoat position, and scapegoated children have been shown to exhibit a tendency toward rage. Research has also shown that girls drawn into marital conflicts tend to show lower levels of personal maturity. College students who had been triangled as children were also found to experience more intimacy issues than their non-triangled peers.

Identifying and Addressing Triangulation

Triangulation may be troublesome in a relationship if:

  • Attention is drawn away from important issues in a two-person relationship.
  • The third member of the relationship feels pressured, overtaxed, or manipulated as a result of being brought into the conflict.
  • One of the three people in the relationship begins to feel ignored, excluded, or rejected.
  • Triangulation pulls a third party into an inappropriate role (for example, when a child becomes a mediator of conflict between two parents or a friend outside a conflicted relationship becomes a confidant for one of the partners).

When recognized, triangulation may be best addressed by the individuals in the primary relationship. When a third member recognizes that triangulation is a problem, he or she should encourage the other two people involved to communicate directly about their difficulties. When triangulation persists or leads to increased stress, it can often be helpful to find a qualified therapist or counselor and explore possible causes of the conflict.

Triangulation in Therapy

Stress is common in close relationships, and many individuals find it natural to look to people outside of the relationship for help and support in times of stress. Triangulation is a term from systems therapy, which is a type of therapy that helps members of couples and families understand the interconnected roles and patterns that function in relationships. Families who enter therapy will likely learn how to identify triangulation in order to better understand how to deal with relationship problems directly and on their own, rather than relying on a person outside of the relationship.

References:

  1. Bell, D., Bell, L., & Nakata, Y. (2001). Triangulation and adolescent development in the U.S. and Japan. Family Process, 40(2), 173-186.
  2. Gurman, A. S. (2008). Clinical Handbook of Couple Therapy. New York City, NY: The Guildford Press.
  3. Triangles. (n.d.). The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. Retrieved from http://www.thebowencenter.org/theory/eight-concepts/triangles.

Last Updated: 01-8-2016

  • 6 comments
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  • Madeleine

    Madeleine

    May 22nd, 2017 at 6:16 AM

    Pls help

  • Sach

    Sach

    May 31st, 2017 at 2:03 PM

    Very helpful, good examples

  • Charlotte D

    Charlotte D

    August 18th, 2017 at 7:01 AM

    My oldest brother put himself in between my youngest son and myself and between myself and my next slibing sister whom I was very too, and now my youngest son claims to live in fear from me now, and so does my sister and neither one if them will have anything to do with me because of my brother.

  • Lori D.

    Lori D.

    October 21st, 2017 at 3:40 PM

    I would ask my husband to counsel me concerning our school aged daughter who is now 17. We are now getting s divorce bc he doesn’t believe the issues I brought to him where of any concern. I truely desired support and affirmation that my parenting skills were noble too. I feel like he did not like the triangle. And is now putting a stop to it by petitioning for divorce.
    I’m sad that he will also have custody of our daughter. I feel that I have lost my marriage and my daughter by continieing this triangle.

  • jdredhawk

    jdredhawk

    November 9th, 2017 at 9:54 AM

    A good article all-in-all, although I would like to see an article that addresses more specifically lies-of-omission, and specifically lies-of-omission used in triangulation with a variety of examples given. Thank you.

  • Lynne K

    Lynne K

    October 11th, 2018 at 12:54 PM

    Many years ago, I had what I now know to call a triangulated relationship with my parents. They had a bad marriage. My dad was extremely controlling. They both drank, especially him, and he was verbally abusive to my mother and us three girls. He used to hit us with a belt up until our early teens. I hated it, but there was nothing we could do. The verbal abuse grew worse over time. Apart from that, I had undiagnosed psychological issues which led to problems in my life—dropping out of college, difficulty finding or keeping a job, extreme constant anxiety and depression, codependent relationships with men, feelings of hopelessness and inferiority, impulsive and even dangerous behavior (although it seemed normal at the time.) Unbeknownst to my parents, I was sexually assaulted several times over the years. Instinct told me to keep quiet about it. I did go to the police after one instance, when I was about 23. They all but accused me of making it up, yet at the same time they also blamed me for ‘hanging around the wrong people.’ I was officially kicked out of the church I attended because of my ongoing sexual activity. The clergyman blamed me for one of the molestation incidents, which happened when I was 15, insisting that I was old enough to know better. He also made me confess and apologize (!) to the assaulter’s wife. But getting back to triangulation: my mother began labeling, referring to me as a ‘troubled’ person. I’m sure there was some truth to that, probably quite a bit, but an equally significant reason they started sending me to counseling was that it took the focus off their bad marriage. I went to counseling, therefore I was officially the one who had ‘a problem.’ My dad made sure the counselor knew that he was the one paying for it rather than me. This was a manipulative ploy so that the counselor would see me in a way that was sympathetic to them. When they picked me up after each session, their manner was pleasant, even solicitous. Completely unlike the way they treated me at home. Finally, I couldn’t stand the stress and, with no real plan, got on a bus and went to another state. There I floundered, had problems, lived hand-to-mouth. I’d gotten away from the immediate toxicity of my parents but was still a wreck. The one ace I had up my sleeve was that I was attractive, which made survival easier because there were always men who would let me live with them. I didn’t enjoy sex and didn’t want to have it with them, but I wasn’t able to get a decent job, and so that was the price I had to pay for a roof overhead. There were many more problems over the years, but the focus here is on the triangulation aspect, so I will end by saying that in leaving my parents’ home, I wrecked the triangle. Without me, they were forced back to dealing with their bad marriage. Years later, I learned that they resumed a triangle with my sister, who lived near them with her family. The dynamics were different; they didn’t heap abuse on her, but rather, they each would take turns going over there and telling ‘their side.’

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