Tag Archives: triangulation

What is Triangulation?

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I receive mental health and psychotherapy questions frequently, both here and on social media. Two or three times a month, I enjoy sharing some of these thoughtful questions on my social media.

Triangulation is an interpersonal tactic used to avoid a direct conversation. As the name suggests, it involves three parties. This often ineffective communication style is most closely associated with the work of famed family therapists Dr. Jay Haley and Dr. Murray Bowen. Haley and Bowen theorized that a two-person emotional system is sometimes unstable, and that under stress can form itself into a three-person system: a coalition or triangle.

Triangulation can happen in nearly any type of relationship. The following situations are examples of triangulation ; a relationship between two siblings can be triangulated by a parent when the siblings disagree and the parent takes sides, and a relationship between a couple can be triangulated when one partner relies on a child or other family member (e.g., in-law) for communication with the other partner. This can become quite harmful in certain situations, such as when parents are divorcing and a child inadvertently feels that they must “take sides’’.

In a triangulation system, the third person can either be used as a substitute for direct communication (for example, consistently venting to a mutual friend about your partner rather than speaking to your partner directly) or can be used as a messenger to carry the communication to the main party (‘your brother is really upset with you and wanted you to know that’). Most often, this communication is an expressed area of distress or dissatisfaction that the messenger then carries back-and-forth between the two others.

Pitfalls:

  • The immediate outcome of triangulation is that attention is drawn away from the issue at hand, the real conflict between two people in a relationship. It does not actually improve communication.
  • The extra member brought into the triangulation can feel pressured as they are brought into the conflict. Don’t Kill the Messenger is not just an aphorism. Sometimes, the person in the middle can come under attack If things don’t go well.
  • It’s hard for the person who is the messenger to remain neutral if they care about either or both of the others in the triangle. A party in the triangle ultimately winds up feeling rejected or excluded from the alliance formed.
  • The third person may be an inappropriate person to be invited into the situation. For example, a parent becoming a mediator between the other parent and their child. Or, a child feeling like they have to take sides between parents. Sometimes this can seem benign, but rarely is. A common occurrence I have observed is divorced parents with separate households asking a child personal questions about their ex spouse/partner. In my family and couples work, this almost always creates great discomfort for the child, who is thrust into the role of spy or informant in the triangle. I always say to parents, if you would not ask your ex-partner that question directly, don’t ask your child.
  • Do you remember the childhood game of telephone? By the time a message was conveyed from party to party, it was usually lost in translation. Triangulation creates confusion and even distortion. Overall, triangulation is generally an unhealthy form of relational communication.
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