Warning: Long boring post containing extremely useful information.
This post was inspired by jane who made a post on June 20 posing what I thought to be an excellent question...and I just happen to be qualified to speak on the subject. It's a rather lengthy answer, so I've posted it here. Hope this helps.
They're created everyday and chances are theres at least one that's driving you insane this very moment.
Triangles usually have a long legacy and can "outlive" the people who participate in them-- when one person leaves, another usually takes their place.
There are 8 basic "rules" of relational triangles, and they can be summarized as follows:
1. a stable relationship between two individuals, A & B, can be destabilized by the addition (or removal) of a third person, C.
example: A & B are happily married. C is A's mother who upsets the balance between the couple when she comes to visit.
2. Conversely, an unstable relationship between two individuals, A & B, can be stabilized by the addition (or removal) of a third person, C. The resulting "stable" triangle is actually a dysfunctional triangle, where the relationship between A & B is "balanced" by the 3rd person, C.
example: a commonly occuring triangle is a failing marriage between A & B, in which they decide to have a child as a "distraction" rather than deal with the problems of their relationship.
3. An individual, C, cannot change the relationship between persons A & B. A change in the relationship of A & B can only occur when C changes his or her relationship with either A or B or both. You can only change a relationship to which you belong.
example: supervisor attempts to "make" employee behave in a certain way toward their job (ie: increase production or work overtime). If the boss continues to coerce the employee into the new behavior, the employee will either overtly or covertly resist even more.
4. If C attempts to "take responsibility" for the relationship between A & B, then C will likely end up with the stress of their relationship.
example: Relationship between A & B is damaged. Either on their own initiative, or when asked by A or B, person C takes the role of "fixer". The dysfunctional pattern occurs when C acts as a go between and "counselor" to both. Because they primarily interact through C and not directly with each other, the relationship between A and B gets more distant and less real. A & B are able to relieve themselves of the stress by shifting it onto C.
note: C can fill a valuable coaching role of listening to A or B "vent", help them get clarity about the problem, and encourage them to make plans to talk to the other person directly.
5. If C continues to attempt to change the relationship of A & B, that relationship will likely be transformed, by homeostatic forces, into the opposite of C's intent.
See example for #3.
6. All relational systems consist of a network of interlocking triangles. Homeostasis from other triangles in the system will tend to resist and "push back" change.
example: I think it's easiest to imagine homeostasis as a thermostat. Imagine you set it to 72. The room does not stay at exactly 72 degrees, the temperature may rise or fall causing the heat to come on when it drops below 68 or the ac if it rises past 76. This balance is homeostasis and is very similar to the "push and pull" created when C behaves in a way that is outside of the triangle's norm. Because all members of the triangle belong to several other (interlocking) triangles, this shift of balance has a ripple effect on the other triangles in the system causing them to "push back".
7. Conflict usually gets "stuck" on one of the sides of a dysfunctional triangle rather than "move around" as it would in a healthy system.
see example for #4.
8. A thing or idea can replace any of the persons A, B or C in a relational triangle.
example: A, to avoid dealing with the troubled or unstable relationship with B, "escapes" into a "stabilizing" pseudo relationship with an activity, substance or thing (C). This is a common occurrence in our culture.
note:If the intent is a temporary escape to allow for the reduction of stress or for time to process in order to deal with the troubled relationship, it can be a healthy triangle. A signal that it's possibly an addictive process is when the escape behavior becomes a repeating pattern and the troubled relationship never actually gets resolved. It's important you do not confuse this with physical addiction, which is a different process.
So you've found yourself in a dysfunctional triangle. What now?
Here is a (commonly occurring) example situation:
Someone, in the role of B, is having a problem with another person, A. B tries to relieve their anxiety about the problem with A by trying to engage you, C, into a dysfunctional triangle, rather than address A directly. What do you do?
How to break the triangle:
1. Define boundaries and wants--
Determine what you want out of the situation, and in your relationship with B. Identify your boundaries about what you are willing and not willing to do. Share with B at appropriate points in the conversation.
2. Decide Response--
Decide whether you want to take a limited role or a coaching role.
Points to consider:
a. Would you benefit from an improved relationship between B & A in terms of work or family atmosphere, clarity of responsibilities, etc.?
b. Which choice would best support the type of relationship you want with B?
c. If you are reluctant to coach, how much is due to your possible conflict avoidance tendencies?
3. If you choose a limited role, inform B, and encourage them to deal with A directly.
Elements of the coaching role:
4. Attentive Listening--
Listen without interrupting, agreeing or disagreeing. Wait until B has finished speaking before asking any questions and then paraphrase what B has said to check for clarity and demonstrate understanding.
5. Encourage specificity--
Get B to be specific about what they're unhappy about with A. Elicit specificity using behavior description, feelings description, specifics about who, what, when.
example of behavior description (vs. interpretation of behavior):
descriptive - B did not say anything when A asked him/her a question.
interpretive - B did not hear A.
both are referring to the same incident, but the first example is observable by everyone. The second can only truly be known by B.
example of Feelings descriptions (vs. feelings implied):
feelings implied - They all think their department is the most important one.
feelings described - A & B spoke up strongly about what their department needed in the meeting today. I'm worried that our department's needs on this project will be overlooked.
both examples are referring to the same situation. The first statement conveys strong feelings, but we don't really know what they are. The second clearly states a feeling of worry, and is specific to who, when, and why.
6. Summarize and check perceptions--
Summarize your understanding of how the disruption of A & B's relationship is affecting B, including what s/he feels about it and what s/he wants. Check out these perceptions with B to verify.
Note: Try not to focus on the specifics of a particular incident between A & B (the "he said, she said" trap). Instead, try to get B to focus on the impact of the conflict on them, and the patterns which seem to recur.
7. Coach for clarity and action--
Help B identify what s/he wants in the relationship with A, and what steps s/he will take with A to improve things.
If you've made it to the end of this post and you're actually still interested or have any questions, please leave a comment or send an email.