The term Emotional Triangle “…describes the way any three people relate to each other and involve others in the emotional issues between them. The triangle appears so basic that it probably also operates in animal societies. The concept postulates the triangle, or three person system, as the molecule or building block of any relationship system. A two person system is basically unstable. In a tension field, the two people predictably involve a third person to make a triangle. If it involves four or more people, the system becomes a series of interlocking triangles”. *
The literature makes clear that emotional triangles are inherently neither good nor bad. They occur universally in human relationship systems, and probably in the environments of all social animals. Every time two people talk about a third person, worry about a third person, or argue about a third person, that’s a triangle. See how long you can talk with one person before you bring another into the conversation. That’s normal. It’s too intense for two people to only focus on themselves all the time, and handling the anxiety generated by dealing directly with one another under all circumstances is impossible.
In relationship triangles two members are always in the inside position and one is in the outside position. These positions are generally fluid, with people moving from the inside to outside positions quite quickly at times. But sometimes people get stuck in their positions in the triangle, which is when symptoms can develop. When spouses habitually argue about or worry about a “difficult” child, that’s an example of a problematic triangle. When a spouse has an affair, another type of problematic triangle is created. Those are just two examples of ways triangles are used (unconsciously) for the purpose of avoiding, and therefore stabilizing, the relationship within the primary twosome (in this case the married couple).
Relationship triangles are operating all the time, usually outside of conscious awareness. The first triangle a person is part of, and that can remain the most significant throughout a lifetime, is the one between the parents and a child. Ed, 47, has always believed that his father was too harsh and punitive. Every time he has to discipline his own son, 15 year-old Tyler, he tries to reason with him and “talk it out”. Usually they end up arguing and the interactions end with Ed losing his temper and thinking that, after all, he’s just like his old man. That’s a kind of a triangle, although it’s only technically thought to be so if Ed’s father is still alive. Sylvia, 34, thinks her husband, Gabe is a pushover with their kids. She complains that she always has to be the “bad cop”. But when the kids act up, this is what goes through her mind; “I know that if Gabe was here he wouldn’t do anything so I’d better be extra tough or these kids will never learn how to behave”. Again, there is a triangle. And because Sylvia is behaving in reactions to her feelings about her husband, rather than according to her own values, she comes on too strong and does end up being, in effect, the “bad cop” she doesn’t want to be.
Because of the power and universality of relationship triangles, and their tendency to be replicated from generation to generation, it’s difficult to recognize when you’re stuck in one. And it can be very difficult to break out of those that have become problematic. But changing your familiar position in important emotional triangles is perhaps the best way to create powerful positive change in your family and, over time, in yourself.
Questions to ponder:
What were the major triangles in your family growing up?
Who was aligned with whom and who tended to be on the outside?
What significant triangles are operating in your life today?
What position do you tend to take in your family’s triangles?
Do these triangles cause or perpetuate problems in your life?
What issues might you be avoiding by creating and maintaining relationship triangles, or letting yourself be triangle into someone else’s problems?
What other functions might your triangles serve?
The concept of the triangle is deceptively simple, but their power cannot be overestimated. Triangles are operating all the time and our position(s) in them greatly determines the quality of our relationships and our lives.
*Bowen, M. (1985). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. (p. 307). Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, inc.