Everyone has experienced interpersonal conflict at some point in their life. What makes this conflict productive or destructive to a relationship is how you handle it. One of the most detrimental ways of handling conflict is triangulation. Triangulation is when a person brings a third person into the conflict because it makes them feel safer. It can also make the relationship feel safer to the person doing the triangulating. Triangulation often happens when people in conflict are too enmeshed with each other either mentally or inter-personally. Triangulation can take many forms. Below you can find information on the types of triangulation, and how to stop it.
Types of Triangulation
1. The Supporting Person
Many times, in a conflict between two people, one of the parties will bring in someone else that will take their side. Sally and Jake have been fighting over money a lot recently. Whenever the two begin to argue, Sally calls her mother over to visit and casually brings up the topic when her mother is in the room. Of course, Sally’s mother sides with her on the topic. After trying to argue his point for a while, Jake backs down out of frustration, leaves the room, and spend the rest of the night buried in the television. Sally probably sees this as a positive thing, because her husband has given in and she has won the argument. However, the problem is not solved, and Jake will eventually become resentful both of his mother-in-law’s interference and of Sally’s tactics to win an argument. This scenario is only one example of bringing someone in for support. The supporting person can also take the form of a married couple putting the child between them in a disagreement. At work, it could present as someone roping in a colleague to support them in an interpersonal conflict.
2. The Human Missile
Lisa is upset with Ron about his proposal at work. It directly affects a project she has been working on for months and will delay it. Instead of talking with Ron about this, she decides to start siding with Paul who she knows does not like Ron and tries to sabotage his work. She she encourages Paul in anything that will upset Ron or make his work harder. In this type of triangulation, one of the people in the conflict sides with someone else to get back at the original person they are upset with. This can often be seen in businesses but is considered unethical. You can also find this in families with one parent siding with a child instead of the other parent.
3. The Substitute Relationship
John is upset with his wife Susan and feels that she doesn’t give him enough attention. To feel better about himself and more comfortable in the family, John begins spending more and more time with their teen son. The two have become so inseparable, that Susan barely gets to spend time with the child and feels like an outsider. She begins to resent her husband monopolizing all the child’s time and excluding her from the relationship, so she retreats further from John and gives him even less time and attention. This is an example of a parent using a child in triangulation to get his needs met. Often this triangulation is not intentional, but the more abnormally close the parent and child become, the more the other spouse is sidelined. Instead of helping the situation, it makes things worse. As seen here, Susan’s resentment of John excluding her from the relationship with their child makes her withdraw even more, having an opposite effect of what he wanted.
4. The Distraction
Shelly and Rodney have a teen daughter with depression. They have entered family counseling to help their daughter get better. When they arrive in the therapist’s office, the parents sit on the sofa with their daughter between them and talk about her problems nonstop. Then the therapist asks Shelley and Rodney to step out of the room so that she can speak with their daughter privately. The child talks about how her parents are always fighting, but when she acts out her parents seem to really see her and give her attention. When the parents return to the room, the therapist sends the daughter out and talks to them about their relationship. The couple continually avoids this talk by bringing the discussion back to their daughter’s depression as this topic feels safer to them. This type of triangulation is when someone else, such as a sick child or clueless coworker becomes a distraction from the original issues. It allows the two in conflict to bond over helping the distraction and avoid addressing the original problem.
1. Remove the Middle Man
A big part of being emotionally mature enough to be in a relationship is the ability to handle conflicts one-on-one. If you have brought a third party into your conflicts, quit inviting them in and remove them from the situation at once. This may mean that you must have a discussion with your supporting person to tell them you are going to try and work your problems out on your own, without their help. It may mean that you need to apologize, not only to the third party, but also to the person you are in conflict with to let them know that you are going to stop the behavior. If the other person is bringing in the third party, you will need to discuss the issue with them. Let them know that you refuse to engage with the third party in the future and that you will only work on the issue directly with them.
2. Communicate Directly and Frankly With Each Other
Any type of triangulation is a type of avoidance. To get rid of triangulation you need to communicate directly with the person who has upset you instead of adding a third person into the mix. Be honest and upfront with them about your feelings and what you would like to happen. You never get what you want if you do not ask for it, so ask for it! This is the best way to solve the problem. If direct, honest communication does not work, the only third party you should involve in a conflict is a therapist, or at work, a manager or HR representative.
3. Walk Away
When you are not doing the triangulation, your ability to fix it is limited to talking to the other person and getting professional help. Sometimes this will not work. At that point, you need to ask yourself if the relationship is worth continuing. At work this may mean speaking to your manager about a reassignment. In your personal life, you may need to end a friendship. Sometimes, however, the peace of mind that you get in exchange will be worth it.
Chabot, D. R. (2011). Family systems theories of psychotherapy. In J. C. Norcross, G. R. VandenBos, D. K. Freedheim, J. C. Norcross, G. R. VandenBos, D. K. Freedheim (Eds.), History of psychotherapy: Continuity and change (pp. 173-202). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.
Dallos, R., & Draper, R. (2010). Introduction to family therapy.