Friday, February 5, 2010

Triangulation: Staying out of the Middle


As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"
"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."

Luke 10:38-42

Today's blog is the final article in the interpersonal boundaries series. We are going to focus on "triangulation." This is a psychological concept introduced in the early 1970's, although it is an interpersonal maneuver as old as man. Basically, triangulation is drawing a third person into an unstable two-person relationship. For example, this happens frequently in homes with toddlers. Two children, Tommy and Sally, are playing relatively peacefully with their toys. Suddenly, a disagreement erupts. Tommy picks up a block that Sally decides she wants. Sally begins tattling to her mother, asking her to "make Tommy give it back." Sally believes that by enlisting her mother's help she will solve her problems with Tommy. This is triangulation in a nutshell. We involve an outside person to help us deal with our difficult relationships hoping that it will improve our interpersonal position.

Triangulation is rarely a healthy move. It usually signals that this relationship has communication and conflict resolution problems. There are a few appropriate situations of triangulation. Marital or family counseling is a great example of this. A therapist is enlisted to help troubled relationships. A pastor or priest is another healthy situation of triangulation. We are also using this strategy when we hire an attorney or utilize a medical/legal case manager. But outside these few examples, triangulation isn't functional. In fact, it usually complicates the situation and in some instances, backfires.

The two main impetuses for triangulation are 1. to shore up a weak interpersonal position, and 2. to indirectly communicate to another. The scenario with Sally and Tommy is an illustration of the first reason. Sally believes she doesn't have the resources to convince Tommy to give her the desired toy. She recognizes that her mother has power, so she enlists her mother‘s help. She hopes her mother will make Tommy comply, but this rarely works. Usually the enlisted individual resents being pulled into the conflict and retaliates against both parties. The mother may end up punishing both children before the conflict is finally resolved.

Triangulation also is used as a method of communication. It is an indirect way to share information. You often see this used at high schools. Sue likes Bill, but is afraid to tell him directly. Instead, she tells a mutual girl friend of both parties about her feelings, in hopes that this information gets back to Bill. This technique is not only used to convey risky positive information, but also as a way to resolve conflict. For example, after dating Bill for awhile, Sue and Bill have a falling out. She is angry that Bill can't drive them both to the prom. After getting no where with Bill about the issue, she tells a friend about her frustrations. She hopes Bill will hear about this from his friends and be influenced to go along with her wishes. She is using additional pressure from outsiders to get her way.

Triangulation is often a roundabout, manipulative way to get one's needs met. It runs the risk of hurting others and failing in its objectives. But, we love to use it. Pay attention to your social network. Where do you find triangulation? It is often between parents and children, in-laws and adult couples, and co-workers and supervisors. If you find examples of this dysfunctional style in your life, identify whether or not you are the one enlisting the outside help (i.e. Sue and Sally), the one who is being influenced by the outside involvement (i.e. Tommy and Bill) or the one being enlisted (i.e. the mother or outside friends). Finally, if you find yourself in one of the first two positions, deal with the other person directly about the issue. If you are the one being enlisted as an outsider, politely decline and recommend that the two parties talk to one another.

Jesus was often enlisted in this way to help others, but he rarely got involved. Two examples come to mind. James and John's mother wanted the best heavenly seats for her sons and asked Jesus for those spots. It is interesting that the story mentioned James and John were present. I wonder if they were too embarrassed to ask Jesus directly. Jesus told them that those heavenly seats were not his to give (see story found in Matthew 20:20-24.), then dealt with larger issue of jealousy among the disciples by urging them to model his example of humility. We see another situation of triangulation in the story of Mary and Martha. The women had a house full of guests. Martha was busy preparing a meal while Mary listened to Jesus' teachings. Instead of dealing with Mary directly, Martha tattled to Jesus and asked him to make Mary help. Jesus chastised Martha instead (Luke 10:38-42). Despite its popularity, triangulation is an unpredictable interpersonal strategy, one to be avoided, if possible.

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