I found the topic of triangles in marriage to be fascinating. How often do I get my nose out of joint by something my husband does? And then try to get my support from someone else? THAT is creating a triangle!

What Is A Triangle?

Triangles are three-way relationships. Usually, this looks like mom-dad-child, or an unpopular variant: husband-wife-mistress. Sometimes the husband’s work can be his mistress…

They usually consist of two close parties and one distant one. For example, Dad is angry and abusive (distant) so Mom and oldest daughter are close and allied against Dad. Or, husband and work are close and wife is distant.

Why Do We Triangulate?

On the positive side, because they help us relate and understand one another. When we’re not getting along with a parent, we can talk to our spouse.

Triangles can also be used to relieve tension. In any 1 to 1 relationship, tensions grow. These tensions can be relieved by bringing in a third party but can also really increase problems.

Look at it this way: couples that aren’t getting along can talk about their kids, their friends, work; anything but their own relationship. They can both be close to the issue at hand and be distant from each other. The ideal though would be for the couple to be close to each other and allied (distant) against the issue.

Identified Patients (IP’s) are also created by triangles. (An Identified Patient is the one seen to be the “problem” when a family goes for therapy.) Often times the IP is one of the children acting out subconsciously to relieve the tension between the parents. When both parents are focused on the behavior of the child, they are not dwelling on their own tension-creating problems.

What Drives Our Need To Triangulate?

In its simplest form, we triangulate because we have anxiety about closeness. This is about “How close can I be to my spouse and still allow the other person to be different from me?

You can see this when you go home to your parents. If one parent does something socially embarrassing, are you embarrassed? Or do you allow them to feel their own embarrassment and recognize it is not yours to feel while still feeling close to him/her?

Or look at another example: you and your spouse are arguing. One of you points to a kid and says, “Bobby agrees with me and he thinks you’re wrong too!” You just ran into the question: how close can I be and allow you to be different than me? What you thought, perhaps subconsciously, is “If I can’t be close, I’m going to make Bobby close and distance you in order to bring you back to being the same as me.” It reduces my anxiety because I have a coalition with Bobby and I am now controlling you.

Let’s De-triangulate!

What do we need to do to counter this triangulation in our marriages?

First, recognize that it’s always going on and accept that, BUT, watch for unhealthy triangulation in the form of distancing between you and your spouse. Don’t triangulate your kids in order to take the anxiety out of the deficiencies in your own marriage. Remember the Identified Patient – ever see a child who is a problem child because it gives both parents something to be together on?

Second, talk about it! Talk about what you need to be together on as parents. Talk about boundaries you might need to set on in-laws, work, or affair possibilities.

Thirdly, become an emotionally mature, well-differentiated person.

  • Understand your Family Of Origin (FOO) – did your parents draw you in to take sides and relieve their own anxiety? Are you repeating the process in your own family?
  • Learn to identify, name and own your own feelings.
  • Develop a healthy, self-identity and live out of that place instead of others’ expectations.
  • (And this one I LOVE!) Be OK with being different than your spouse: don’t get fixated on how little you have in common. Get fixated on loving each other with the variety you both bring to the marriage.

Fourthly, Stand up for what you believe in – in your marriage! You want to become more uniquely yourself, inside your marriage. Remember, that’s what originally made you attractive to your spouse.

This will bring the heat back to your marriage! Definitely worth the effort in my opinion…

The research in this article was drawn from a great little book titled Family Ties That Bind by Dr. Ronald Richardson.

Image courtesy of damon jan under the Creative Commons license.