Let’s You and They Fight: Triangulation

By Kenneth Hurto

A triangle with an arrow on one leg

Triangles (three-sided relationships) arise because all two-person relationships are unstable (as is a two-legged stool). The
quickest way to calm the anxiety between two people is to pull in another. This is the purpose of a triangle—to bind anxiety.
The basic rule is this:

Whenever two parts of a system become uncomfortable with one another, they will turn their focus to a third person or issue as a way to stabilize their own relationship with one another.

How do you identify a triangle? A triangle can involve people, things, events, or issues—anything with emotional intensity. You are in a triangle anytime you feel the urge to push something. The following are some illustrations:

  • A mother and child are having a difficult day together. Mom says, “Just wait until your father gets home, young man.” The child, feeling excluded by his mother, outfoxes her. As Daddy comes in the door, the child runs and leaps into the father’s arms and begins to cry, muttering, “Mommy is so mean.” The husband and father is caught in the middle, now carrying some of the mother-son tension as he tries to figure out what’s going on.
  • Two neighbors are discussing politics over the backyard fence. They both agree that the president is a great man, noting in passing that the neighbor to the east must be an idiot for disagreeing.
  • A congregation is coping with growth and considering adding staff. Several groups form, one arguing for a second minister, another for a full-time music director, and a third for the launching of a capital campaign to build a new sanctuary. After several months, the district executive gets called in to deescalate the growing fight. She does so, and after several meetings returns home with a terrible headache.

Triangles are automatic. They are inescapable. They are neither good nor bad—just inevitable. They are a product of our lack of differentiation. Every person triangles others in (by alliance formation, as did the child and the neighbor friends above) or out
(by factionalization, as in the church example). Every person triangles and gets triangled several times a day. Here is the simple test to know you’re in a triangle: Are you and your partner talking about a third party who is not in the conversation? The sense of relief we feel anytime we do this reveals how powerful this dynamic of human relations is.

From time to time, people talk about staying out of triangles. This idea represents a misunderstanding of the concept. Even to say it that way reveals you are in a triangle. The issue is not that triangles can be or should be avoided. More, it is a matter knowing when you’re in a triangle and managing your anxiety about the relationship.

That said, triangles can be pernicious and destructive. Talking (complaining) about others without their knowledge is both unkind and unjust. Moreover, when we talk about another, not only are we trying to get closer to the person we’re with; we are 
also shaping forever their perceptions of the third party. For instance, to say to your partner that the schoolteacher next door has a drinking problem will affect how he interacts with the schoolteacher at the next block party. To the extent we use triangles to scapegoat others or not take responsible steps toward problem solving, triangles can be extremely hurtful.

Triangles relieve tension and thus become a means of conflict management. True, they can become a way of perpetuating conflict by keeping issues from coming to the floor. At other times, just bellyaching to another about a child, spouse, co-worker, or church issue is sufficient to let us move onto something more productive. Sometimes, complaining about others enables us to get useful feedback so we can move toward a less whiney, more productive engagement with whoever is irritating to us. In short, triangles are productive ways to calm things down. To the extent they give us breathing space to be less reactive to others, to think more calmly, and to take responsibility for getting our wants and needs fairly met, they are an important part of conflict management.

The triangle concept explains why we call upon counselors or consultants to help deal with conflicts. As they are not part of our system, they simply are less anxious and thus more able to see what’s going on among group members.

As has been noted, triangles form around persons and issues. Healthy families often have many triangles going at once. This situation serves to keep any one relationship from having to carry too much of the energy in the system. Conversely, individuals with few relationships extending beyond the family tend to be more intense within their family. At the congregational level, smaller groups tend to be far more reactive to issues of disagreement than larger ones, because there are correspondingly fewer places to triangle energy in or out. To link this concept back to cutoff, people who are not broadly connected are just that much more vulnerable to changes external to them.

Another way to notice triangles is to watch how energy flows among people. Watch how people take sides on an issue, literally moving closer to those with whom they agree and away from those who differ. The simplest triangle involves three people.
Larger triangles create alliances or coalitions that may involve hundreds. Indeed, much political strategy involves intentionally creating such triangles defining who is “in” and who is “out” in order to move issues along.

This list suggests some rules as to how triangles function:

  1. When two people are in a stable relationship, bringing in a third will destabilize things. For many young couples, their first real crisis is the birth of the first child. Changing careers or having an affair does the same thing. In church life, adding new members or staff will disturb existing balances.
  2. When two are stable, a third leaving also destabilizes things. Consider the anxiety around weddings as a child exits his family, or how a congregation becomes tense if the beloved minister announces her retirement. Similar things can be said of presidential assassinations or the sudden death of the family matriarch.
  3. The most identifiable pattern is that when two are unstable, they can stabilize things by bringing in a third. One example already mentioned is the use of consultants. Another is the young, conflicted couple who gives birth to a child and discovers a new peace in the household.
  4. Again, when two people are anxious together, they can stabilize by pushing a third party out. Listen for all the times people talk about getting rid of “troublemakers” or taking delight in exposing the secrets of gossips.

Discussion Questions

  • How does gossip within your congregation serve to calm things or to keep anxiety going?
  • Try to hold a steady conversation with another and not mention a third party. How long can you go?
  • In what ways do your family members avoid conflict by talking about one another?

About the Author

Kenneth Hurto

The Reverend Kenneth Gordon Hurto served our ministry for over 45 years in a variety of parish settings in Indiana, Iowa, Wyoming, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Florida, and in New Zealand and Australia. He also served in the UUA’s Department of Ministry, authored several UUA congregational resources,...

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