The basic observation is that all two-person relationships are unstable; eventually a third person is involved to calm the anxiety between the two. Relationships automatically shift so that two people are close and the third person is excluded. For better or worse this is the ebb and flow of relationship patterns.
Here is a simple exercise to see how easy all of us will triangle in someone or something else. Just begin by innocently asking your best friend or spouse to participate in this exercise to see how open relationships work. The only rule is you just have to talk about you or them. For most people this intimacy will not last more than five minutes before one of you will begin to talk about someone else or something else.
The two person relationship breaks down very fast. You can easily experience the relief that comes from talking about a third or a thing.
Triangles are misused when two are close by “using” a third to blame or to simply complain about. You can think about triangles as being run on cheap energy. It takes more energy to be a separate self who does not complain or blame others. Gossip is form of cheap energy.
Now there are times when we need to form triangles or collations. This occurs when two are close and one is on the outside but not being focused on in negative way. For example the therapist role in marital therapy is to never take sides with one but to remain able to relate to both sides. In this example the therapist talks to one, is close, and lets the other be on the outside, listening. This enables more calm neutrality to exist in a complex relationship system. Neutrality in the triangle provides a greater ability for each to learn from the others.
The higher the level of anxiety, the more challenging it is to be close in a mature way; the easier it is for even reasonably mature people to blame others.
In calm times, the close or togetherness position is preferred, but in high anxiety the outside position is calmer and therefore better. The person, who is in the outside position, may be scapegoated with the fears and anxiety of the other two. Or the person, who is out, may be able to listen to the other two without feeling threatened by the lack of being close.
Mature people can use others to talk about the problems they are having and yet take responsibility for clarifying problems with others. This is in contrast to complaining about others and never dealing with them.
Triangles are run for good or “bad” by anxiety and each person’s ability to maintain a mature separate self and not get polarized or take sides. The chief usefulness of the triangle is in conflict resolution.
Building of Coalitions
Triangle patterns become interlocking relationship coalitions. These patterns are regulated by the amount of tension, available energy, or anxiety in the system. You can easily see triangles building as you watch people taking sides. Listening to rumors and watching people take sides helps us to become aware of the building of coalitions.
- Yes, signals, (body language operates at the speed of sight) are being passed back and forth to let you know who is on your side.
- Yes, most of us will automatically take a feeling oriented side, and only upon noticing this can you willfully decide to be neutral.
- Yes, it can cost you maturity to triangle and take sides without some serious thought.
To understand the seductive side of triangles and the harm that can occur, it sometimes easier to think of the close two as being in a love lock.
What is a lovelock? It is agreement with another at an unthinking level. It is the accumulation of non-verbal and verbal signals to go along with others. Sometimes, it is hard to know what one really thinks, even if you are getting paid to think. Agreeing with others, especially authority figures can be totally automatic.
We humans, like other animals, are wired for consensus. There are many signals that are sent that say “agree, be nice, or get out”. Research such as that by Solomon Ash shows how social groups alter the cognitive nature of an individual’s mind.
Rest assured that there are also a thousand and one techniques that one can learn to be more separate and on the outside of triangles. Here are a few:
- Some techniques involve not looking directly into peoples eyes as trying to maintain eye contact can create a loss of ability to think for self. If you feel people are trying to influence you too much you can look at their forehead and find a greater ability to think for your self without annoying the other person.
- Being able to make contact by asking very thoughtful question of both people gives the message that one person is not more important than the other.
- If you feel you are getting caught in side taking you can focusing on your body, breathing, even holding your breath can create more separation between you and others.
- There are more complicated techniques like reversals and joining, but they require serious emotional neutrality to work well.
- Above all, it is useful to belong to many emotional systems that can give you the ability to express yourself in many social roles. Multiple social roles function to insure against dependency and convey a certain freedom from the need for dependencies and or intense emotional alliances that endanger your common sense.
Each time one achieves a bit more separation there are a few more people, who will want to drag you back into the love lock, so be ready.
Leaders, who go to the emotional gym, enter into a discipline to thoughtfully consider the details of alliance building. It requires inhibiting the need for love and approval and using the rational mind to form healthy alliances.
Dr. Bowen explained that an intense triangle was like a three-legged stool. Individuals just cannot stand alone if they are functioning as one leg of a stool.