How Do You Get Out of a Triangle?

As I noted, if someone comes to you with a complaint about someone else, you’re in a triangle. How do you get out of it? The short answer is, you can’t. And the good news is, you don’t have to. We all live in triangles all the time. You were born into a triangle with your mother and father (no matter how traditional or non-traditional your family was, and even if you never knew either parent).

To repeat, the key is not getting out of triangles, but how we manage ourselves in the triangles we’re already in. Sometimes when we’re anxious, we create new triangles, or intensify the ones we’re in. You may automatically call your sister when you learn your mother is ill, to share the anxiety. Or go to the pastoral relations committee when a particular church member or staff member is driving you crazy.

We’ll do better if we act thoughtfully rather than reactively in the triangles we’re in. Talking to a sister can be a way to maintain relationship rather than simply raising the anxiety in the family. Working with a church committee on how to manage challenging personalities can lead to more maturity in the congregation. But only if we are managing ourselves in the way we relate to others.

It takes time to learn to do this, and we all get emotionally hooked sometimes by intense triangles. The least mature people are masters at triangling in others to help with their problems. Most of the time we’ll do better if we can stop and think through what our next steps should be, rather than automatically responding to someone’s anxious appeal.

4 Responses to How Do You Get Out of a Triangle?

  1. I do think drawing out triangles can be really helpful, and considering what your choices are in terms of where to position yourself. We might revise Ecclesiastes, “There’s a time to step into a triangle and a time to step away. There’s a time to position yourself on the inside of a triangle, and a time to seek out the outside position. There’s a time to accept an invitation to be in a triangle and a time to decline it.” Simply asking the question of where you should stand puts you in a different place already.

  2. Rebecca Maccini says:

    Since reading Peter Titleman’s book, I have been thinking more and more about triangles. I wonder how helpful it would be to consciously think about the triangles (and also draw a visual presentation of them) I am in on a weekly basis and think about how I would like to ‘be’ in those triangles. I think about how Bowen really increased the intensity in his family of origin triangles on purpose, and I wondered if I could do that at all to get at some crazy issues going on in my family of origin. When to step in? When to step away? When to stay and how much ‘presence’ do we give? I have been thoughtful, Margaret, about your comments about presence. That ‘presence’ is on a spectrum from withdrawing to being present, to being in people’s faces.

  3. Thanks, Israel. I won’t forget “I don’t have a dog in that fight.” Hope it works as well in the West.

  4. It’s always interesting how much conversation the concept of triangles can generate. I have one presentation in which I just cover Friedman’s “Seven Laws” of emotional triangles in the course of three hours. In various groups (couples, family, divorce) I’ve never been caught short on material.

    Yes, with time we get better at recognizing, or intuiting, when we’ve been “triangled.” And while it’s true that the GOAL is not to “get out of a triangle” it’s also a gift when we’re able to discern the triangles that do not belong to us. If we’re in triangles by virtue of the position we occupy in a system then it’s not a matter of “getting out” of the triangle, but rather, as you say, learning and choosing how we need to function in it. But when anxiety spikes we’re often “invited” into triangles in which we do not belong. For those times I’ve learned a helpful lesson during my sojourn in the South. The phrase, “I don’t have a dog in that fight” can be a speedy way to bow out of an invitation to overfunction in someone else’s issues.

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