Triangulating Hurts You and Your Loved Ones

Many families and groups are built on unhealthy “triangles” of three-way relationships that harm people and create dysfunction. It’s a simple concept, that once we understand, we can use to love one another better.

The theory of triangles helps explain why being part of a family (also a small group, staff team, or church community) can be so complicated, stressful, and conflictual!

When Kristi and I had our first child there were three of us. That’s one triangle. Our second child made four triangles and our third child raised it all the way up to ten! Add in marriages and grandchildren and the number of three-way relational tensions gets really crazy!

In the 1950s, psychiatrist Murray Bowen identified this problem of triangulating and used it to develop his approach to family therapy. He found that normally two people in a relationship can’t tolerate much stress before involving a third person. This alliance family triangle is stable but damaging.

For instance, consider how the alliance triangle works in marriage. If I’m frustrated with my wife Kristi it’s “easier” for me to vent with a friend then to work it out with her and risk hurting her feelings or escalating conflict. It’s a slippery slope that can cause a lot of damage:

Probably when I complain to my friend I blame my wife for our tension. That’s harmful to her — even if she doesn’t know about it. It’s also harmful to our marriage because I’m allowing emotional distance or resentment to grow rather than resolving the conflict and repairing our relational connection.

When I “triangulate” my friend into my marital tension it helps me to feel close to him and to feel I’m right because I’m getting him to align with me against my wife. It’s really just a pseudo-intimacy that props me up and harms my wife.

It’s especially harmful when a spouse triangles in one of the children. In a church, this happens when a pastor or elder in a leadership conflict triangle in a church attender.

In any relational system when someone is triangulated into a conflict it’s very damaging to them. They’re tempted to:

  • Feel pressure to fix things or be a peacemaker
  • Think worse of the person being blamed
  • Internalize a lot of negative distress
  • Withdraw from the relationship or group

This alliance triangle is a way of describing what’s going on when we gossip and slander. Often it’s a major factor in family fractures and church splits.

That’s why Jesus teaches us that when we’ve been offended by someone to first go to that individual in private and work out the conflict. We’re only to involve other people if it will help resolve the conflict. In either case, we’re to keep forgiving the one who wronged us. (Matthew 18:15-17, 22).

Similarly, Paul counsels us to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), “Forgive as the Lord has forgiven you” (Colossians 3:13), and “keep the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).

But abiding by this Biblical wisdom is not as straightforward as is often preached. It’s not just a matter of right actions. The situation is complex when today’s conflict or emotional injury is extremely damaging or is put on top of repressed anger, grief, or insecurity from previous relational wounds with loved ones (especially in early childhood).

In these cases, we need to share our experience with someone in confidence to release painful emotions and receive empathy and gentle wisdom. This helps us to heal, forgive, and gain the strength even to love our “enemy” (Matthew 5:43). In this way, we’re working with God on the re-forming of our heart and soul which are the source of our actions.

We’re learning to participate in the perfect triangle of unbroken love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!

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Listen to the companion “Soul Talks” podcast, Family: De-triangulate into the Circle of Love. Bill and Kristi continue to explore how triangulation works in real life and what the Bible teaches us about conflict resolution.

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