The Danger of Triangles

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In the physical world the strongest foundation is three, a triangle while the weakest is two.  In the world of relationships, the strongest foundation is two while the weakest is three.  The Torah says, “And a man will leave his father and mother, cleave to his wife and they will become one being.” 

 Triangles destroy relationships.  A healthy relationship is formed by two people who create one single emotional bond between them.  When a third person or entity is introduced into the dyad the emotional energy is diluted and that which was shared by two is now shared by three.  In family systems theory, the introduction of a third person or entity into a relationship is called, triangulation.

 I met with a woman who complained about how terribly her husband was treating her and how much he had changed for the worse in the four years they had been married.   She explained that he had become a workaholic and that his work was consuming him.  She felt like she was competing for his attention and was becoming more and more dissatisfied with the quality of their relationship.  The more she asked for attention, the more he resisted which resulted in a series of ugly fights.  After listening to her story, I queeried, “I wonder how things might change if he had 50 million dollars in the bank.”  Without hesitating she said, “Ninety percent of our problems would disappear because then we could start working on our relationship again.” 

This is a good example of triangulation and how destructive it can be.  In this case, the husband had triangulated work into the marriage.  There was now a third “partner” in the marriage.  The husband was having, so to speak, an “affair” with his work and his wife felt left out and betrayed

There are many forms of triangulation.  The most common is when someone has an affair or has an excessively close tie with a family member or friend.  Triangles can be formed with sports, working out, shopping, drugs, community activities, hobbies, and even charitable work!  Just because the activity is something “good” doesn’t mean that it is immune from triangulation.

Perhaps the most toxic and insidious of all triangles is when a parent triangulates a child into the marital relationship.  A parent will triangulate a child into the marital relationship when there is serious problem between the husband and wife which they are not willing to face.  To alleviate their emotional pain one or both parents may triangulate one of their children into their relationship.  The parent is in essence using the child to relieve his or her emotional distress.  A common form of this is to turn the child into a confidant, friend, or worse, the parent’s “therapist.”  Parents must never use their children in this way.  Children must be allowed to be children and never be forced into being adults for the sake of taking care of the parent’s emotional needs.  When a child is forced to take care of mom or dad, it almost always is traumatizing and therefore destructive to the child’s emotional development which may adversely impact the child the rest of his or her life.    

How do you know if a triangle exists in a relationship?  The person who is triangulated out of the relationship will feel it and know something’s wrong.  It will become obvious to you that your spouse is spending too much time with so and so and investing too much emotional energy.  You will feel like you are competing for your spouse’s attention.  You may begin nagging and will feel guilty for doing so.  And even if you try to stop, you will still feel angry and resentful. 

What’s the solution?  The person who makes the triangle must break the triangle.  This is easier said than done for two reasons.  First of all, triangles are often formed unconsciously therefore confronting the person may be met with deaf ears because of the person’s lack of awareness of what he or she is doing.  Secondly, because a triangle serves an important emotional function for the person who created it, he or she will not very easily let go of it.  It can be like trying to take away a child’s security blanket.  The person who created the triangle will often defend himself and attack you by claiming that you are too possessive, paranoid, jealous, etc.  A sure way to know there is a triangle is if when you confront the person he or she is defensive and attacks you.  Don’t give-up.  Continue to try to bring the problem to your spouse’s attention.  If she refuses to face the truth, you may need to seek professional help.

A good piece of advice is that couples always need to be vigilant and protect their relationship by constructing strong boundaries to ward off the possibility of triangulation.  It is especially important for couples to create good boundaries between themselves and their families.  It is a well known fact, that intrusive in-laws and family member is one of the top three causes for divorce.  Healthy and happy couples work together to build a fortress around their love in order to protect and nurture it.