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Understanding Triangulation

What to do when someone tries to draw you into a personal conflict.

Key points

  • Triangulation occurs when two people who are involved in a conflict attempt to involve a third party.
  • Triangulation is problematic for a range of reasons, and can have significant impacts on the dynamics within a social group.
  • When managing triangulation, it is useful to start reducing the frequency of communications that involve this pattern, and to work on boundaries.
Photo by ryota nagasaka on Unsplash
Source: Photo by ryota nagasaka on Unsplash

A range of subtle emotional dynamics can play out in communication within relationships, families, or groups. A common, and problematic, dynamic involves the concept of triangulation.

Triangulation occurs when two people who are involved in a form of conflictual communication attempt to involve a third party. Examples of this include separated parents who have a difficult relationship and ask their child to share information with the other parent to avoid communicating with each other, or friends who are having a fight and ask a third friend to arbitrate the difficulty. Sometimes triangulation can occur without the presence of a third party, such as when a parent uses the threat of the other parent (“Wait till your dad sees what you have done!”) instead of directly expressing their own displeasure and openly communicating with their child.

Triangulation is a relatively common dynamic when conflict occurs, but it can be very problematic. People engage in triangulation for a range of reasons, including:

  • Seeking reinforcement and support for one’s views, possibly due to a lack of confidence in one’s own emotions and views
  • Avoiding conflict and utilising another person as a deflection
  • Garnering support as a way of demonstrating to the other party the correctness of one’s views
  • Attempting to mobilise emotion against the other person from a social group as a means of retaining control or social capital during a conflict

Triangulation is problematic for a range of reasons, largely because it typically means that conflicts are not discussed openly, and thus cannot be resolved. In addition, drawing other people into the conflict typically results in broader tensions within a social group, including the likelihood that other people will feel forced to align themselves with one party. Over time, triangulation results in the development of highly problematic communication patterns, including unspoken and unacknowledged dynamics and tensions.

The person being triangulated often finds themselves feeling controlled, even though they may not fully understand why. They might also feel confused, or coerced into adopting a certain stance, or feel like they must align themselves with one of the parties. Depending on the intention underlying the triangulation, they may find themselves punished for expressing opinions contrary to the view of the dominant party in the interaction or may find that their broader relationships with other people are damaged as they continually align themselves with one person.

How to Cope with Triangulation

To manage triangulation, it is essential to first notice that it is occurring. Simply noticing the types of communications within your relationships and becoming aware if you are asked to undertake a relational or social task that someone else is capable of undertaking, or if you are frequently being inserted into a dyad can be helpful. Examples might include being asked to pass on unpleasant messages to someone else, being asked to be present during private conversations that do not directly involve you, or being asked to provide a decisive opinion about a conflict between other people.

When trying to manage triangulation, it is useful to start reducing the frequency of communications that involve this pattern. While it may sometimes be helpful to address the dynamic directly with the person engaging in this behaviour, at other times this may not be beneficial, and it may be sufficient and more helpful to focus on extricating oneself from the dynamic. This process is likely to require consistency and slow boundary-building.

Some simple phrases to use to start withdrawing from this dynamic might include:

  • “I don’t want to become involved in that.”
  • “I feel uncomfortable being present during this conversation and am going to leave now.”
  • “I would prefer it if you discussed this with her directly.”
  • “ I am happy to discuss this with him later, but how do you feel about this?”

If you notice that you are the person engaging in triangulating behaviour, it can be helpful to consider why you might have developed this relatively passive style of communication, and what would support you with learning to take ownership of your own thoughts and feelings and to communicate them directly, without relying on the agreement or support of a third party.

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