is an often misunderstood term on this site. Triangulation as coined by Murray Bowen MD is the “process whereby a two-party relationship that is experiencing tension will naturally involve a third party to reduce tension”
(Bobes & Rothman, 2002).
Simply put, when a two-person relationship becomes unstable the individuals will tolerate only a small amount of tension before they involve a third person. The resulting triangle can hold much more tension because the tension can shift around the three relationships.
Bowen's observations are incredible. We all do this. Triangles often help us cope.
Sometimes, however, triangulation can cause more turmoil in the relationship, causing further communication difficulties and conflict. According to Bowen''s Theory, a triangle creates an ‘odd man out,’ which is a very difficult position for individuals to tolerate. Anxiety generated by anticipating or being the odd one out is a huge force in triangles.
In calm periods, two people become comfortably close "insiders" and the third person is an uncomfortable "outsider." If tensions increase, insiders more actively exclude the outsider and/or the outsider may work to get closer to one of the insiders. If the tension is too much for one triangle to contain, it spreads to a series of "interlocking" triangles.
A classic example of triangulation is a mother telling her son that his father is treating her badly, rather than facing her husband directly and resolving the conflict. And while this may initially solve the mothers anxiety, the triangulation may create issues in the relationship between the son and the father where the mother takes sides - in effect, there are now two conflicts being triangulated among the parties.
According to Bowen, these three part relationships (triangles) have at least four possible outcomes which are as follows - 2 are good and 2 are bad:
(1) A stable pair can become destabilized by a third person;
(2) a stable pair can also be destabilized by the removal of the third person (an example would be a child leaving home and no longer available for triangulation);
(3) an unstable pair can be stabilized by the addition of a third person (an example would be a conflictual marriage becoming more harmonious after the birth of a child; and
(4) an unstable pair being stabilized by the removal of a third person (an example would be conflict is reduced by the removal of a third person who takes sides).
The triangulation concept is one of eight parts of Bowen's family systems theory: http://www.thebowencenter.org/pages/concepttri.html
. Bowen's point is that triangulation is occurring all the time - we are all involved in triangles - some good, some bad. Getting Out
For the purpose of conflict resolution, it's helpful to understand triangulation and to avoid it. Generally speaking, the first step for getting out of the triangle once you are in it is to identify the original source of the tension or problem and deal with it and not get all caught up the additional issues created by the triangulation.
The way to avoid creating triangles is to be self aware and not be lured by the immediate gratification that they offer. The Karpman Triangle
further explained the conflict dynamics that can develop in triangulations. Karpman identified that polarized roles of the participants emerge as one person assumes the role of victim. He also explained that the roles often shift around in time increasing the conflict among the 3 parties. Staying out of the drama generally means not reacting in kind to the polarized view of the victim or embracing the polarized role in which you are cast. Stay centered. Karpman is explained here: Karpman Triangle
Some members think of "triangulation" as a dysfunctional BPD behavior perpetrated on them by a person with BPD - and why not - this is how we see triangles when we are in them and the '"odd man out"
. Seeing it this way is exactly the opposite of what we want to do to end the drama.
Triangles are all around us. This was Bowen's point. And while it is true that some triangulation can be dysfunctional - triangulation is most often functional or benign.