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Author Topic: What does triangulation mean?  (Read 104835 times)
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We're not in Kansas anymore.

« on: June 14, 2010, 07:30:29 PM »

God Bless all of you! Everyone had helped me so much and sometimes I feel much better.

Someone replied to one of my posts and used the word triangulation.  What does triangulation mean?


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« Reply #1 on: June 14, 2010, 08:37:17 PM »

Triangulation 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: 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.  

Misconceptions  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" Smiling (click to insert in post). 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.  

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« Reply #2 on: June 15, 2010, 04:00:00 AM »

Hi Ve01603

I'm on the Healing board but as triangulation has been a regular fixture in my life since I was a child, thought I would add to your thread (hope thats okay  )

My NPD/uBPD stepfather is a master at triangulation.  When used regularly, it becomes a communication pattern - with one family member acting as the messenger or go between, rather than speaking directly with the person whom they want to communicate.  For example:

Mum and dad have a fight.  Rather than Dad going to Mum and communicating directly with her, Dad goes to 10 year old Billy and says, "Billy, will you go and ask your mother if she's still mad at me?  Tell her I didn't mean what I said, and ask her if she wants to go out for dinner."  Billy, thinking he's helping, does what he's asked.  Mum says, "Billy, tell your father I wouldn't go out for dinner with him if he was the last person on earth.  And you go and clean your room like I've already told you an hour ago."

Billy was trying to help get Mum and Dad back together, but he ended up with Mum taking out her anger at Dad on him, he was then left feeling that he was part of the problem.  

Obviously, the above example could be tailored to fit any relationship, not just a family one.  When triangulation becomes a regular feature in any relationship, communication becomes blurred and people become enmeshed in problems that aren't theirs becoming pawns in power struggles.  

Children who grow up with lots of triangulation between adults at home, may come to believe this is 'normal' behaviour and may repeat patterns in their own adult lives.  It may be this was a staple in your SO's childhood?  I know my ensister communicates in this way with her husband and me to some extent - she has recreated the dysfunctional system she grew up in.
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We're not in Kansas anymore.

« Reply #3 on: June 15, 2010, 06:16:00 AM »

Thanks Skip and normally normal and I'm sorry that you had to endure this.
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« Reply #4 on: June 12, 2012, 01:38:11 PM »

This was a hard one to deal with. My expwBPD would try to recruit me to stand against anyone she had a conflict or a disagreement with, from her best friend to my friends.  

If I took her side, she felt that she was right and she felt better, even in situations where she obviously wasn't right.
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« Reply #5 on: June 12, 2012, 04:08:20 PM »

Couldn't a degree of triangulation be perceived as existing in a lot of relatively healthy relationships?  For example, in an argument we might find ourselves saying "I was talking to my brother/sister/friend about this and he/she thinks/says bla bla bla.

The difference being that this form of triangulation isn't always negative and manipulative (although it can be...).  When we involve someone else in our story, it's usually because they have something useful to contribute or express a valid point.  I think the difference with BPDs is that they are ALWAYS in the role of 'victim' in these scenarios?  For myself, I can't think of a single instance when my ex reported something back to me that revealed him to be in anything other than the victim role except for when he lavished praise on somebody else.  In this case it wasn't really a compliment to the other person but more a passive aggressive comment on ME!  Sometimes I couldn't see the direct relationship at first but, a bit like advertising, it would sink in later as a kind of negative subliminal message.  I could never confront him with it though as it seemed to me childish and a bit ridiculous because I don't usually get jealous of strangers who are portrayed as saints when I don't even know them!

Life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans - John Lennon
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« Reply #6 on: June 13, 2012, 06:05:27 PM »

Couldn't a degree of triangulation be perceived as existing in a lot of relatively healthy relationships?  For example, in an argument we might find ourselves saying "I was talking to my brother/sister/friend about this and he/she thinks/says bla bla bla.

Triangulation is a very common family system dynamic.  We all do this.

It's important to recognize it in ourselves when we do it.  It's also helps to understand why someone else is doing it.
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« Reply #7 on: June 15, 2012, 03:33:22 PM »

Why do they do it and what purpose does it serve.

While we had split up (her doing), she had been telling me that she thought I should date other women. So I did.  We get back together and she asked me if was seeing anyone and I told her yes. She built herself into a rage about it. While she was chewing me out over the phone and in mid sentence she breaks into "and if you think you are gonna replace my friends and my (child) in my life, you are wrong you will never replace them" and got mad and hung up.

Later she told me her child was standing right there when all that took place and could hear her side of the conversation. No talk was about her child or her friends. Her child is in there 20's.

Can anyone shed some light on what possible could have been occurring.
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« Reply #8 on: June 15, 2012, 11:37:22 PM »

As Skip says, triangulation is just a way to (usually, unconsciously and/or habitually) reduce anxiety between two individuals by recruiting a third individual rather than problem solving.  That's all it is.    


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« Reply #9 on: June 16, 2012, 02:31:32 AM »

My exuBPDSO uses her d13 as the third party - too young for this stuff - there should be no-one else in the communication with a BPD when things are not going well.  During one rage in front of the d13 I was required to explain to the d13 why my previous 2 long term relationships failed (one 24 yrs the other 7 years) - the rage was triggered by my then uBPDSO thinking I was a bit grumpy after dinner that nite!
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