15 November 2006


If you've ever suddenly found yourself being pressured to 'take sides' in a conflict between two family members, when you haven't seen the conflict and you're only getting one person's 'story'...

If the Office Bully pressures you to join in excluding, ignoring, and otherwise scapegoating a co-worker who has never done you any harm...

If you suddenly find two members of your family, or two friends, or two co-workers, or your spouse and stepchild, acting as though you are their enemy and they are enlisted in common cause against you - and no matter what you do, it makes no difference, until you begin to wonder if they're simply looking for a pretext to fight with you, because it makes them feel like more of a team...

If the guy in the next office saves up all the nasty things X says about you behind your back, then  tells you about them, encourages you to share your reactions about X, and tells those to X to fan the flames...

You're getting triangulated.

It happens all the time. Two folks pair off and gang up on a third, in the blatant version; in the subtle version, sometimes A &B gang up on C; sometimes A &C gang up on B; sometimes B & C gang up on A. Sometimes they all know what's going on; sometimes none of them do; sometimes A gets a kick out of winding people up and aiming them at each other, and B & C are clueless or innocent enough to provide hours of entertainment.

In a particularly damaging version, dueling triangles can be set up. Parents who have hostility between them can use their own children as puppets to act out that hostility. Dad picks the older, Mom picks the younger, and they play the kids off against each other all their young lives, while blaming the kids and bemoaning their inability to get along. In this case, each triangle consists of a parent and the two kids in conflict, with the kid who isn't the parent's pet being treated as a stand-in for the other parent.

[A variation on this often happens at work between feuding executives, too. And the phenomenon of mobbing at work, or scapegoating anywhere, is really nothing more than triangulation writ large.]

It's an old, old, old game, and not a healthy one. When you combine it with that tempting, tempting Karpman ready-made drama, with the Persecutor, Rescuer, and Victim roles just waiting for A, B, and C to try them out, you have the makings of a serious relational rut.

Here are a few links that can explain this a lot better than I could.

Moore, Triangulation [A really good foundation here]

Wikipedia: Triangulation (social science) 

Sandelin, Interpersonal Relationships and Conflict Resolution  [this one is very solid and practical, a lot of good stuff here]

10 Things Never to Do in a Marriage [see point 10.]

Relational Coaching [Richard Morrison, Australia]

The Family and The Child [focused on family triangles, esp. with kids]

Awareness and breaking denial about triangles are the only antidote. When you find yourself dealing with a triangulation, the only way to win is not to play. Step out, step off, step away.

You can try to make the other participants aware of the dynamic, but if they haven't reached the point of recognition and they're still in denial about it, be prepared for your perspective to be dismissed as an opinion, even as you watch the triangle reassert itself and become more and more obvious with every repetition of the cycle.

[And yes, it can go on for awhile without you, you get triangulated 'in absentia' then, but that often loses steam in non-family situations if a substitute target cannot be found. Sadly, in family triangles, as long as you stay connected to A or B, even these 'ghost triangles' can go on for years. Some go on for generations. See what Melanie Beattie has to say about 'removing the victim' for more on this.]

People triangulate because it meets a need; it's ego-syntonic. The actual conflict is frightening and meeting it head on feels overwhelming. The drama provided by the triangle is distracting, absorbing, energizing, takes the place of actual progress, lets us 'split' and put all our less-than-lovely aspects onto the chosen scapegoat, lets us recruit supporters to 'our side', and thus allows us to avoid dealing with whatever the actual problem might be.

People also triangulate because it's so prevalent, it may be the only type of interaction they have ever seen modeled.

When the drama becomes dull, the repetition stale, the lost friends', colleagues', family members' value is recognized [which sadly may never happen] and the damage done by the triangulation is finally understood, then there may be hope; but it seems as though people have to 'bottom out' with triangulation just as with other compulsions, before they realize there are other options available.

Watch for the triangles. They are literally everywhere. They've destroyed my own FOO, damaged my own workplaces, affected my career, and hindered my recovery. You probably won't have far to look to see triangles in your own life, with similar effects.

Awareness is the only antidote.


Blogger CZBZ said...

YES! It's taken years for me to understand triangulation. When first reading about the Karpman Drama Triangle, I nearly yelled out loud--it was just that enlightening!!

But recognizing triangles is only part of the process. We have to stop leaping in the center of the drama ourselves and gosh it's so tempting to leap! Especially if we were set up to view 'triangles' as a means for creating intimacy.

You've done a great job explaining how triangles work, Storm. I'd like to link this message on WoN if that's okay with you.


17 December, 2008 21:02  
Blogger Stormchild said...


Absolutely. Feel free! And you're right. Once we learn how to see them, we have to do that Kenny Rogers thing... know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away and know when to run.

A lot of which consists in knowing when - and how - to say NO to our own inner enabler, and learning how to live with the emotional discomfort that causes.

It's not easy.

18 December, 2008 21:40  

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