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Triangulation in families

Updated on June 27, 2010
Woman in Therapy  Stephanie Swartz: Dreamstime
Woman in Therapy Stephanie Swartz: Dreamstime

Many couples and individuals who come into therapy have communication problems with someone in the family: mom, dad, wife, husband, kids, adult children, boyfriends, girlfriends, etc.

Those individuals have no idea that they are actually part of the cause of their communication difficulties in the relationship, even though initially they blame others in the home.

Triangulation: Definition

Triangulation simply put means a three-person relationship system. When you have a two-person system which becomes unstable the individuals will tolerate only a small amount of tension before they involve a third person. A triangle can contain much more tension without involving a fourth person because the tension can shift around three relationships. If the tension is too high for one triangle to contain, it spreads to a series of "interlocking" triangles (Adapted from the Bowen Center).


An example of triangulation is when you and your partner (Patty) have a fight, she goes to her sister (Tara) to complain and get feedback. Her sister has now triangulated herself into the conflict between the two of you.

When tension builds between yourself and Patty, your sister Tara sides with you by agreeing that Patty is the problem. The conflictual (a disagreement or clash between ideas, principles, or people) side of the triangle then shifts from you and Patty to Patty and Tara. If the conflict gets too intense between Patty and Tara, then you side with Tara and Patty is now on the outside of the triangle, thus in a more comfortable position.

Bowen Theory

According to Bowen Theory, the “triangle creates an ‘odd man out,’ which is a very difficult position for individuals to tolerate. Anxiety generated by anticipating or being the odd one out is a potent force in triangles. The patterns in a triangle change with increasing tension. In calm periods, two people are comfortably close "insiders" and the third person is an uncomfortable "outsider." The insiders actively exclude the outsider and the outsider works to get closer to one of them.”

Triangulation can cause more turmoil in the relationship than what was started in the initial argument. It pulls others into the relationship in a negative manner, causing further communication difficulties and conflict.

Getting out of the triangle

The first step to getting out of the triangle once you are in it, is to identify the original source of the problem. Although looking from the outside in, it appears obvious to the outsider, once involved in the conflict, the emotional anxiety has perpetuated so much that all three individuals no longer see the original source of the dilemma.

Therefore, taking an objective stance and looking at the predicament with clear eyes, can assist you in identifying the original cause.

Once you have identified that the problem originates with them, you can now be more objective, less defensive, and have insight into obliging the couple’s needs and helping them find resolution.

The point to remember is not to get involved in the triangle to begin with!

Be sure to inform the first part of the dyad who attempts to involve you, that although you care and will be there for them to vent to, you cannot afford to get involved. Suggest they see a Therapist, couple’s therapist, or resolve the issue themselves.

Providing empathy, compassion, and love is the best way to help another in time of relationship turmoil.

Have you engaged in Triangulation?

How many times this year have you had a problem with triangulation?

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    • lrohner profile image


      8 years ago from USA

      Great job on this hub. Very informative.


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