How One Person Learned to Deal With Triangles
April 22, 2019—Being a caring person who was “trained” in her family of origin to be the “fixer” or intermediary when family spats happened, Rebecca was naturally drawn to entering triangles—invited or not. Early on it was a comfortable role for her. People at the church described her as the “glue” that kept everyone together. She became the “confidant” to people’s complaints about others. In time, however, that familiar and comfortable role became burdensome to the point of burnout.
A triangle is a three-person constellation. It is not a structural arrangement (e.g., three persons sitting around a table talking does not necessarily constitute a triangle), rather, a triangle is a dynamic fueled by emotional anxiety.
Triangles tend to come about when two persons are not able to resolve the issues between them, or, when their anxiety becomes too great to manage between themselves. It is the intensity of the anxiety that reaches a relative tipping point in creating a triangle. Some persons have a higher tipping point than others. For example, young siblings, due to their emotional and psychological immaturity, will have a very low tipping point, resulting in what is referred to as “sibling rivalry,” in which their inability to work out their relationship results in triangling in a parent. Others have a higher tolerance for interpersonal discomfort, but triangles tend to be a common and automatic behavior in everyday life.
When two people triangle in a third person tension can shift around three relationships. Spreading the experience of anxiety can help stabilize the relationship between two persons having difficulty working out their issue, but nothing gets resolved. In fact, while Rebecca’s tendency to get into triangles makes the other two parties feel better for a while, it also serves to increase Rebecca’s anxiety as she takes on the issue or responsibility for the feelings of the other two. Some, like Rebecca, make it an art form in interpersonal relationships.
How Rebecca Manages Triangles
In time, Rebecca started feeling the effects of her triangling tendencies. With help, she realized how her family of origin trained her for the role of mediator and peace-keeper, something she had previously thought of as a strength and a “gift,” now had become a burden. She realized that the number of triangles in her family were few. When she got in the middle of things, in time things would calm down and she could step back. But in her ministry context there was no end to the number of triangles she impulsively engaged in.
In addition, the highly anxious context of her work environment ensured that the intensity of the triangles she involved herself in brought incredible stress to her work days. Rebecca realized that the more she worked at the triangles she was involved in, the less of her own work she was getting done.
With her coach, Rebecca came up with a short repertoire to deal with her triangling tendencies. Here is her strategy:
- Accepting that being in triangles was not “ministry.” Despite the positive affirmations Rebecca received for “caring” and mediating, she realized that the longer she engaged in triangled relationships, the worse things got between the two others. She determined that she would not be the cause of impediment to two persons working out their relationship.
- Rather than give advise, Rebecca learned to ask questions. This helped keep her neutral and seemed to promote better thinking on the part of the other person.
- Rebecca determined that the troubled relationship between two other people were their responsibility to resolve, and not hers. She decide to invest more on the relationship with the one person who was more mature and interesting than in the relationship between the two others.
- She learned to engage with people individually and talk about their issues rather than another’s issues.
- She learned to recognize gossip as a form of triangulation and refused to encourage or receive it when she recognized it.
The list was short enough to be manageable, though at times it was all Rebecca could do to not jump in and get in the middle of things. In time, she noticed that as she changed her behavior, fewer people came around to triangle her in, or asked her to be the go-between in anxious conversations and issues. While this sometimes made her feel unwanted and uninvolved, she recognized that she was less stressed. Being “out of the loop” on everything that was going on was not a bad thing, she discovered. As a bonus, she found that the quality of conversations she was having with persons at the church were more satisfying and uplifting.
What are your de-triangling strategies?
Do you tend to instigate yourself into triangles, or do you tend to get invited to join?
In what ways did your family or origin teach you about triangles?
Do you want help with leadership development? The Center for Lifelong Learning offers the Leadership in Ministry workshops in five locations: Atlanta, Boston, Portland OR, Kansas City MO, and Lynchburg, VA. Learn more about Leadership in Ministry workshops.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.