Part of a healthy relationship is being able to navigate conflict in a healthy, effective way. Navigating conflict in healthy ways has its benefits: an opportunity to learn more about the person you’re in a relationship with, an opportunity to expand your emotional window of tolerance, and learn to not fear adversity or conflict. When it comes to family members, friendships, partners, and even work relationships, things can get really sticky and complicated when we end up resorting to ineffective ways of reducing our stress within conflict. One of these strategies is known as triangulation.
What is Triangulation?
Triangulation happens when a relationship experiences some stress or conflict, and someone (or even both partners) in the relationship turn to another person to involve in the conflict. This temporarily diffuses tension but does not teach anyone to resolve conflict head-on long term, in fact, triangulation can often further escalate unhealthy communication cycles or lead to avoidance of the issue…recipes for disconnection.
When can it turn messy?
- The third person that is pulled in can be put into inappropriate roles (ex. children put in the middle of parental conflict, or a third sibling being pulled into another 2 siblings’ conflict, talking to a friend about conflict you have not addressed with your partner)
- One person in the triangle can feel isolated, ignored, excluded, or being outcasted
- The person who is triangulating another person may be putting unwelcomed pressure on them
- Direct, respectful, authentic communication is not occurring between the 2 original parties
Sometimes I consult with others, is that okay?
It is normal and helpful sometimes to consult with a third party to obtain fresh perspectives, finding support, or gathering educational information to help you communicate and make decisions better in a primary relationship. Like many things, it depends on multiple factors. Context, intention, consent, boundaries, and type of relationships are things to consider.
You may ask yourself things like:
Am I bringing someone else in to diffuse my stress without the intention of working through the issue with the original person?
Am I trying to get a third person to directly help with the issue in the original relationship you’re stressed about (i.e. Can you talk to her about this?”)
Am I getting the third person involved without their agreement or despite protests not to? Are they okay with being involved?
If you said yes or maybe to any of the above, these are some signs you may need to re-consider bringing a third person into the conflict.
If you find yourself in the primary relationship and engaging in triangulation, it is important to address the conflict with the primary person in the relationship. If you find yourself being the third party being triangulated, practice setting boundaries by asking the person in the primary relationship to discuss the issue with the other person in the primary relationship.
If you are interested in building healthy relationships, a mental health professional can help you navigate how to build them.
Thank you for taking the time to read!
Elizabeth Weber, LPC, LMFT-Associate