In relationships, triangulation occurs when a dyad (2 people) is experiencing conflict or tension, and pulls in another person to help stabilize the connection. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this idea, except for the fact that it’s almost always done in a dishonest and manipulative fashion. The dyad is either unaware of the problems in their relationship, or refuses to look at them. They enlist a third person upon whom to focus their discomfort and dysfunction.

Triangulation is best explained using examples. Let’s say a couple is afraid of conflict, or has never learned how to manage it. (By the way, conflict is part of every healthy relationship.) So instead of working to resolve their differences, they focus on difficulties concerning one of their children. Children being children, it’s not hard to find some sort of misbehavior. But instead of trying to understand the child’s behavior as communication (as it frequently is) or chalk it up to a phase – the couple will become critical, demanding, and punitive. And as all these parental behaviors are self-fulfilling prophesies, the child will start to act out. Now the parents have something to really point their fingers at.

Another example could be two 7th grade girls who have been close friends since kindergarten. Now, however, one of the girls is maturing more rapidly than the other one. Her body and her interests are changing, and the girls have less and less in common. Both are unsettled by this and fear losing the relationship. But instead of talking this out, they begin to single out and bully another girl. While they may not share much at this point, they can share animosity.

As we can see, triangulation finds a common “enemy” and trumps up charges again that person. The 3rd person becomes the scapegoat. The dyad is then able to shove their own difficulties under the rug.

Parents will sometimes involve an acting out child in psychotherapy. They will basically deposit the child in the therapist’s office with instructions to fix him. Or her. However, some interesting things begin to happen if, with the right sort of support and understanding, the child gets better. The misbehavior diminishes. It is then rather predictable that the parent’s relationship will begin to fall apart. Hopefully it falls apart just enough so the parents can no longer ignore their difficulties and begin to address them.

So, if you find yourself in a situation where two other people smooch together and then turn against you, think triangulation. Either detach or find the exit.

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