Vector illustration triangleWe’ve all been there. You get in a fight with your mother and immediately call your sister to tell her all about it. You and your sister commiserate on how horrible your mother is, you start to feel better, and you’ve got an ally against your mother. Sound familiar? What you’ve created in this situation is a Communication Triangle. In the short term, these triangles help us cope with difficult situations like arguments, or hurt feelings. What they also do, however, is create a pattern of family communication that can increase hurt feelings. They can also inadvertently decrease the likelihood that the person who annoyed or hurt you in the first place will change their behaviors for the better in future communications. How can they change, they are not getting any direct feedback about the need to?

This idea of Communication Triangles comes from Family Systems Theory, and it is a common, normal feature in families. The problem with the triangle is that there is always one person who is in conflict with the other two. Round and round we go in this triangle, moving closer to one another, then further away when there is conflict. The triangle works in a family system because it can hold a lot of stress and tension. By containing all that stress however, it allows the pattern of arguing and conflict to continue over time rather than giving it a chance of being resolved by direct communication. In other words, keeping the triangles intact allows for the whole family to resist change, rather than address the conflicts effectively.

To demonstrate a typical triangle, we can use a common experience in a family where substance use is an issue. Mom and dad can act as the “insiders” intensely worrying and talking about their young adult child’s drinking, who is now the “outsider.” The intense focus on his position as the “outsider” (or the “problem”) can make the child feel angry and rebellious, decreasing the chances that he will take his parents’ concerns seriously. The triangulation difficulties can get even more complex over time. For example, mom and dad may disagree about how they should deal with the drinking. Dad’s anger might be so intense that mom decides to go to her son and talk with him about his dad’s anger. She has now moved closer to her son (by playing “good cop”, she moved into an “insider” position paired with her son) and made angry dad the outsider. Moving from insider to outsider (and eventually back again, and again, and again) is a lot of stress on the relationship between mom and dad, on mom’s relationship with her son, and on the system as a whole. Stress can manifest as insecurity in the marriage, decreased effective authority of the parent team, and undue stress and responsibility for son to feel about the emotional well-being of his parents.

So how do we get out of this pattern?

  • It begins with increasing your awareness of your own propensity to create insider/outsider relationships. Be thoughtful regarding when and why you tend to engage in insider/outsider dynamics. Notice when you are reaching around the person you are upset with to vent to a third person.
  • Examine your reasons for the indirect communication. Think about why you are going around the person you are actually struggling with. What feelings/emotions are present for you? Are you feeling hurt by the other person? Are you upset about something that happened? Take a minute (or many minutes) to think about and evaluate your feelings about the situation and the feedback you would like the other person to have about their impact on you.

Once you have a more clear sense of why you want to create insider/outsider relationships, see if you can use positive communication skills to express what you are feeling to the person you are in conflict with directly (instead of using your sister to relay the message). By talking to the person directly, and using direct and non-judgmental communication, you can eliminate the triangle and increase your chance of making real changes in your relationships. Remember, people don’t tend to change unless they know they need to.

Can you increase the strength of the twosome relationship without making someone else the outsider?

  • Consider finding ways to increase direct communication with the person that tends to be the “outsider.”
  • Make more effort to (non-judgmentally) communicate directly to people – and if you are going to a third person, consider incorporating a discussion of how to best communicate directly to the first person.
  • Review positive communication skills (see other CMC blog posts and Chapter 9 in Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change) and use them directly with the person you are having negative feelings about.