I recently attended a conference on this topic at the Rutgers School of Social Work and found it very helpful. This topic is always relevant to relationships.When you are in a relationship or a marriage and there is someone else (any third party) involved in a negative way, that is called a “triangle”. A famous therapist, Murray Bowen, created this term many years ago and it is still relevant today.
Triangles are a part of human relationships and can sometimes serve a positive purpose: they may reduce anxiety and stabilize the couple “system”, for a time. But ultimately this 3rd person takes the focus of the couple off of each other and hurts their relationship by doing so. For instance, you and your partner are having problems, which results in tension, anger or anxiety.
To calm these emotions, a third person is “triangled” into the relationship. Maybe your mother-in-law is contacted by your husband and the problem is discussed with her. She is now part of the “emotional system” and has taken pressure off him by being added into the “anxious” system. Most likely, her own tension increases because she is now aware of the issues (or always has been) and feels bad about it. His mother may feel powerless to help or hesitant to be involved due to past attempts to help that were not well-received. Perhaps she favors your husband over you or there is a partnership between them that typically works against you. Triangling her in makes him feel better and probably makes you feel more anxious.
Children are also often triangled into their parents’ relationship, particularly babies, who suddenly change the parents’ lives in a big way and create unexpected stress. Kids “interfere” in a triangle by allowing the couple to focus on the child rather than each other. This is not good for the child or the couple.
A friend of yours or your partner may be triangled in to your relationship as a 3rd party, once one of you confides in her about the marital problems. This may temporarily help one of you, but it is best to not allow a triangle to happen in the first place. You should attempt with your partner to work to resolve the issue without the 3rd party. This will decrease that person’s influence and will be better for everyone.
Triangles are always present in some minor form but are more apparent at times of stress. Their purpose is to relieve tension in someone and “give” it to another person. There may be than one third party, which then forms a separate triangle. A good strategy for the 3rd party (which may be you) is to try to remain neutral and not take on someone else’s stress. The more you are drawn into the emotions in the triangle the more you will be affected by it. Do not take sides if you are triangled in! Try to remove yourself and be as neutral and as unemotional as you can. Therapists are often the 3rd party in the triangle of the couple and remain neutral to help the relationship problem.
Cheating in a couple paradoxically can sometimes temporarily help a relationship, by giving stress to the 3rd person and reducing it in the couple. For example, the harmed party in the couple may ignore the affair because it reduces tension in the couple. But this “fix” rarely lasts and not helpful in working towards a healthier marriage. A solid marriage foundation should be built on trust, honesty and a commitment to each other.
So, beware of triangles. You may not notice them and not realize that you facilitated creating them. Try and remember that your relationship is between you and your partner, and nobody else.
Becker Counseling is available to help sort through these type of triangles. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at 732.406.4422.