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Three Can Be Too Many

by Maxine
Posted August 19 2010 12:37pm
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One Mom to another…
"Martha, you will never guess what Sally just told me about her little Jason…but keep it to yourself, okay?"

Dad says to his friend…
"I want to see my father this weekend, but I know Jane is tired. I know, I'll tell Jane my mom wants to see her grandchild."

One child to another…
"I told Mom that you won't let me play Lego with you and your friend."


Mom to child…
"Honey, you should tell your father how much you enjoyed the dinner he bought us…and after that, maybe I'll gently mention the little fender bender we had on the way home."

These are examples of daily conversations that take place among millions of people. However, they all have something in common: They’re examples of what communications experts call triangulation. Triangulation happens when an issue exists between two people and one of them involves a third person. This is done in an attempt to control the conflict, achieve a desired goal or to prevent someone from getting angry. Triangulation is frequently used to maintain closeness or become closer to someone, to avoid conflict with or transfer conflict to someone else. Typically, one of the parties is not aware of what is happening.

Message Triangles

Usually, triangulation occurs to give a message in an indirect way or to share information that is personal and private. This happens because, for whatever the reason, the person sending the message is not comfortable to do it directly. For example, a husband who wants to have some time alone might triangulate a message to his wife by saying, "Do you know what I heard on the news last night, Mary? Men who spend time on hobbies tend to have stronger marriages," rather than saying, "I need more time for myself."

Are you now wondering if you're guilty of triangulation? Don't worry. We all use triangulation and we all become triangulated: it's commonplace in how we deal with issues. Pay attention to how often triangulation happens around you. Most soap operas and sitcoms are based on it—you know…Mom, Dad and in-laws. As you become more aware of triangulation, you'll be fascinated at just how common it is.

During the Victorian era in European and North American high society, triangulation was the preferred way of communicating. It was almost an art form! Some cultures around the world still value triangulation as the preferred way to communicate about interpersonal problems. In some families today, it's simply unacceptable to speak directly to a person about feelings—especially when it's likely to have an unhappy or angry impact, or when it concerns an intimate topic, such as sex or health issues.

The Impact

Although triangulation is common, it can have a negative impact on your family.
Triangulation doesn't allow couples to resolve the issue between them. If you're only talking secretly to your parents or your best friends about an issue with your partner, there's no chance for your partner to give you the real facts. Unless you speak to your partner, there's no way for the two of you to deal with the issue in a constructive way. The problem can become a thorn in your relationship—especially if it's a recurring issue.

Triangulation interferes with building trust in a relationship. In intimate relationships, it's difficult to keep issues a secret for long. When one partner—Mom, for example—discovers that Dad has been discussing aspects of their relationship with his friends, it can move his partner relationship to disappointment and even distrust. This is especially likely if as a result of those conversations, Dad tries to manipulate Mom indirectly.

Triangulation can make it easy to misrepresent a person's actions or motives, or to exaggerate them—even if it's unintentional.
In the example above, when the triangulation comes to light, not only will Mom be hurt because her husband didn't trust her, but now she feels like she looks bad to the friends her partner confided in.

Children will attempt to triangulate very early in life. One of the most common ways is to maneuver between Moms and Dads to get what they want.
Here's a simple example: Bradley toddles over to his Dad to see if he can have a piece of candy. Dad permits it. However, after Bradley has the candy in his mouth, Dad finds out that his son asked Mom first and she said "no". While Brad is enjoying his candy, Mom and Dad are in a heated argument.

In these situations, parents need to quickly learn to band together for their own sake, as well for their children's sake.

Another way children learn to triangulate is when parents say something like, "Don't tell Mommy." or "Don't tell Daddy…it's our secret." Fortunately, there's a natural stop for this type of triangulation—children can't keep secrets until they are 3 to 4 years old. They can't knowingly lie either. So, don't encourage your child to hide anything. Your child needs to be able to speak freely to each of you.

Stopping Triangulation

As parents, you will be triangulated—by your child and by each other—not to mention family, friends and coworkers. Here are the three key strategies to stop triangulation:

Make sure everyone knows what is being said.
For example, if Granddad tells Dad that he believes Mom shouldn't be working, Dad should encourage Granddad to speak directly to Mom. Dad could say something like, "I think the two of you need to talk about this together. Why don't you tell her what you think, but do it in a way that makes it easy for her to say why working is important to her?"

Discuss touchy subjects.
For instance, in the example above, Dad may have to work hard to find the right time and place to get Granddad to talk honestly about his views with his daughter-in-law. If emotions are running high, it won't be an easy conversation. But having everyone's views out in the open—especially when they are deeply felt views—is more constructive for long-term relationships than triangulating or keeping issues a secret.

Keep a united parenting front.

This can make a huge difference! It doesn't mean that you have to agree with each other on everything, but it does mean that you have to make sure you respect each other's decisions and deal with issues when all those involved are present. Statements like, "Wait until your Dad gets home," or "I don't agree with your Mom, but you know how she is," give the wrong messages to your child.

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