The concept of the emotional triangle often is referred to as the “building block” for emotional process dynamics in relationship systems (families, churches, organizations, etc.).
Dual relationships (one on one) are difficult to maintain so it does not take long for a triangle to develop.
A triangle is made up of any three persons in a relationship, or two persons and an issue.
Triangles are not only the way we tend to default in our relationships (dual relationships are impossible to maintain) but they are also the most effective (if not always the most efficient) way we have for handling interpersonal anxiety.
However, getting into an anxious triangle is a sure way of tripping and stumbling into something that can get us stuck.
One important insight into the nature of emotional triangles is that once we’re in it it’s difficult to get out of it.
But we can, however, “reposition” ourselves in the triangle, and we can choose how we will function as one point in that triangle.
I’ve always found it helpful to distinguish between a “relationship triangle” and an “anxiety triangle.”
For example, in my family I am always in a relationship triangle with my spouse and my children.
That’s just a product of the structure in the family constellation.
But anxiety triangles form when two persons are in conflict or there is anxiety at play in the relationship and they triangulate another person (or issue) to mediate that anxiety.
This is done as an automatic response and seldom with intentionality.
The triangulated person is on the “outside” of the triangle because he or she being asked to address, take responsibility for, or intervene in the relationship between the other two.
But that’s an untenable position to be in.
Not only can we not change the relationship between the two others on the other side of the triangle, in addition, (1) the more we try to do so the worse that relationship gets, and (2) the more we absorb the free-floating anxiety in the triangle.
So, the key to handling triangles is not to try to get out of them, rather, it is discerning how we will function in them.
The basic rule is to relate directly to the two parties in the triangle without taking responsibility for their relationship with each other.
But there are some strategies that may help us move toward functioning better or to shift the dynamics of the triangle.
Here are some examples of how to move from the outside in:
- Play “Monkey in the Middle” and refuse to “catch” any anxiety thrown your way
- Play “Lets you and him/her fight.” Turn the issue back to the other two parties in the triangle who rightly need to take responsibility for it
- Play “I’ve got a secret” by telling each of the parties in the triangle that you know something the other person said about them—but that you’re not telling (if they want to know what that is they’ll have to go ask the other person directly)
- Play “Duck-Duck-Goose” by randomly picking one or the other to take a turn being the one on the outside of the triangle
- Play “Hide and Seek” by ducking the issue every time one member of the triangle wants you to hear them talk about the other or seeks to involve you in their issue
- Play “Telephone” by passing along information–accurate or not, from one member to the other (“I’m just passing on information.”)
- Play “Hot Potato” by throwing the issue back to one player or another.
What all of these strategies help accomplish is to shift one’s functioning in the emotional triangle.
The idea is not to find what the “right” thing to do, nor to make the others in the triangle act a certain way.
The focus is on getting ourselves “unstuck” from the outside position in order to function better.
Want to learn to play more triangle games? Join us at the Leadership in Ministry workshops where we learn to better manage triangles.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia 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.