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How Triangulation Can Harm Relationships

Do you know what triangulation is in a relationship? It’s exactly what it sounds like—pulling in a third party or a behavior to avoid direct interaction in a dyad. “Triangulation is a manipulation tactic where one person will not communicate directly with another person, instead using a third person to relay communication to the second, thus forming a triangle.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triangulation_(psychology), accessed 2/27/18)
Although the Wikipedia definition says “person,” the third “party” can be the family dog, drinking, eating, work, hobbies, children, etc. It happens when two people don’t communicate directly with each other, but use someone or something else to convey their messages. It’s based on avoidance of direct conflict by pulling in a third party to speak for you. Sometimes the behavior is obvious (a spouse having an affair due to an unhappy marriage) and sometimes it’s more subtle (partners who pay more attention to the family dog than to their lover or who spend all their free time on the computer).
Triangulation is a dysfunctional way to communicate and is often based in passive-aggressiveness, a way to get a message across without taking responsibility for doing so. Here are some examples of triangulation:
  • You speak to your son about why he fails to clean his room when he says he’ll do it. Instead of talking it out, your son complains to your spouse about you nagging him.
  • Your partner swears she has no time to spend with you on the weekend, but spends hours on with her mother, then returns exhausted.
  • Your partner heads for the garage to tinker with his car every time you two have a disagreement.
  • You ask your daughter’s friends to speak to her about the fact that she’s gaining weight rather than address your concerns directly with her.
  • You stay late at work hoping that your spouse, with whom you’ve been arguing a lot lately, will be asleep by the time you come home.
  • Your give your daughter messages to tell her father, your ex-husband, rather than speak with him yourself.
  • You regularly seek comfort in food/alcohol rather than from your spouse or partner.
Consider if you or your spouse/partner often triangulate or if you’re engaging in this dynamic with your children or any other family members, including grandparents or in-laws. If you are the one triangulating, stop doing so. If it’s a family member, speak to him or her directly about ceasing the behavior. It is not part of healthy family dynamics.
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