..Problems & Possibilities
"triangles" are a fact of life, even though a lot of
people have never even heard of them.
If you're one,
we'll start by pointing out that the triangles we're talking
about are both imaginary and as real as a stone wall.
have anything to do with mathematics, but they have everything
to do with the geometry of our lives.
And even though
they're not related to the Bermuda Triangle, things do disappear
around them -- especially the sorts of things that hold relationships
If we had to
guess about the triangles that pop up in your life, we'd bet
that some are tolerable, some are terrible, and others are just
a plain pain. But they do affect your life in far-reaching ways.
They're a major
fact of life in families, especially those that include chemically-dependent
(or recovering) members. Here, they often show up in the form
of missed and mangled communications and withheld support and
we've put together this pamphlet: to point out the problems --
and the possibilities for growth -- that communication triangles
people whose lives are most affected by the weird geometry of
communication triangles are usually the ones who are least aware
So what's a
It's a way
of describing communication by reducing it to its key elements:
at least two people, and one other person, place, or thing. The
elements are represented by points and the points are connected
with lines which represent emotional bonds.
Note that triangles,
themselves, aren't good or bad -- they're simply one way that
communication takes place.
They help us
set emotional distances from others. They stabilize our relationships
and allow for varying degrees of intimacy.
Take the people
we bump into in the course of everyday life -- bank tellers,
convenience store clerks, delivery people. We're not interested
in getting to know them all personally, and triangular conversations
are often all that time allows, anyway.
might ask the person who fills my gas tank, "Hot enough
for you?" Or wonder aloud to a bank teller (when I spot
a child's drawing taped to her window): "Who's the artist?"
This is chit-chat,
small talk, social pleasantries that let us establish contact
without intimacy -- useful for taking the stiffness out of ordinary
encounters and easing the isolation of everyday existence.
..Bonds & Bondage
a lot less useful, though, when we use them to avoid or prevent
one-to-one emotional contact in our "real" relationships.
If my husband
mentions that we need to fix the fan in the vent over the stove
and I rip into him about his mother ("You always expect
me to cook like your mother!") because I think he's making
a covert comment about the TV dinners we've had for three nights
in a row, I've created a triangle to avoid dealing with his concerns.
here is made up of him, me, and my mother-in-law.
The fan isn't
part of the triangle (it's circular, anyway) -- unless, of course,
he really is talking about the TV dinners. In that case, we suddenly
have two communication triangles loose in the house, duelling
for supremacy, like alley cats fighting over garbage.
If he wants
to tell me how he feels about something I said to him yesterday,
and I bring up the diet he swears he's always about to start
(but never quite gets around to), I've created another triangle
to dodge his issue.
In both instances
I've attempted to confuse the issue to avoid even dealing with
his feelings -- by creating a triangle: me, him, and whatever
I throw up at him.
tangle, issues become more and more confused and real communication
less and less possible. As intensity soars, communication can
deteriorate into emotional combat so unrelenting that you can
almost hear the roar of a crowd and a ring announcer booming:
"Are you ready to rumble?"
In some homes,
relationships deteriorate so much that family members stop trying
altogether to talk honestly about feelings or things that really
matter to them.
communicate almost entirely in avoidance triangles.
Even on "peaceful
days," they may stick to safe topics like the weather or
the evening's TV line-up. To avoid conflict, each becomes verbally
isolated and only talks to other family members about other people,
places, or things.
an avoidance triangle in a chemically-dependent family might
shape up and sort itself out:
At this point,
the triangles are all equilateral triangles, meaning that
all sides are equal in length. The emotional distances between
individual family members aren't under major stress, and things
are more or less stable.
in this triangle (an alcoholic husband, wife, and daughter) an
issue comes up and the wife sides with the daughter.
As the wife
moves emotionally closer to the daughter, this pushes the husband
further away. As a result, the family triangle changes shape,
morphing into something more like this:
also demonstrates a basic law of triangles. As two points move
closer together, the third is pushed out.
in the family we just described?
probably feels left out and may try to turn things around and
draw closer to his wife or daughter through manipulation or by
creating a new triangle. He could pout and withdraw, or he might
even get drunk or high.
that continually lurch from crisis to crisis and emotional meltdown
to emotional meltdown, the next crisis is typically initiated
by the person in the triangle who is distanced out.
for triangles in any family are endless. Sometimes, they get
twisted together, like hangers piled on a closet floor.
And even though
families who live with communication triangles may feel as twisted
as tangled coathangers, they need to keep in mind that they don't
have to stay that way.
All they have
to do is untangle the triangles.
So how do you
untangle -- or even know if you're stuck in a triangle? Easy:
Your feelings will tell you.
If you find
yourself taking sides with someone or feel the need to "rescue"
someone, or you're angry or confused or sad about your involvement
with the family (a group of feelings we'll call "triangular"
feelings), or you find yourself telling others how to feel or
act, then you're probably in a triangle.
son and I are having a serious discussion about his grades --
and the after-school detention he got today because he forgot
a homework assignment.
I'm in the
middle of disciplining him for a clear infraction of our family
rules. He tells me that his sister didn't do her homework, either.
And besides, she didn't clean her iguana's cage like I told her
At this point,
I may feel any -- or all -- the feelings described above. Maybe
I'm angry and confused. I may want to come to my daughter's defense
because he's tattling on her. More likely, I'll probably want
to check the iguana cage to find out the truth.
I'm hooked and the original issue is suddenly sidetracked. In
short, I'm "triangled."
The trick is
getting "de-triangled." And this is where the basic
rules of triangles come into play.
important to point out that often the best thing to do when you
become aware that you're starting to feel "triangular"
is to do nothing.
Stop what you
were about to say, rethink the way you were about to react, and
just chill -- and create some breathing room for yourself.
You may need
to temporarily stop a conversation. That's okay. One more step
into the triangle and the closet of hangers will come crashing
At this point,
you may need to talk the situation over with someone outside
the family. Or it may help to sit down and draw your particular
triangle -- or your closetful of triangles -- and fill in the
people, places and things involved.
But to have
any chance of breaking out of a communication triangle, you first
have to refuse to participate. You begin to do this by forming
a one-to-one relationship with the other member(s) of the triangle.
Refuse to talk to anybody about anyone else.
In our current
example (Let's call it The Case of the Missing Homework and the
Iguana from Hell), I could tell my son that his sister isn't
the issue, but his grades and missing homework are. I'd also
tell his sister (if she were around -- and not suddenly busy
with the iguana cage) that we'd have our discussion later.
Next, I'd base
my communication on statements about me rather than about him.
This means starting sentences with "I" rather than
I might say:
"I feel angry when I try to talk with you about your homework
and you bring your sister into the conversation. But I won't
let it distract me."
We all have
a tendency to fall back on "you" statements. "You
always try to change the subject!" "You never listen!"
"What's the matter with you?"
with "you" statements is that they don't work -- at
least not at ending triangles. "You" statements only
put the other person on the defensive, which encourages the triangle
to continue and beget more triangles.
A fourth triangle-breaking
rule is to never ask "Why?" If you do, you will get
an answer -- but rarely a helpful one and usually only a rationalization.
to ask questions that begin with "what," "who," "when," "where" and
In this instance,
instead of asking my son, "Why do you always do that?"
I might get a more thoughtful response if I asked: "What
would you do if your son didn't do his homework?" Or "How
can you make sure that you won't forget about your homework from
here on out?"
If I did, I
might get more communication and less "triangulation."
triangles are a fact of life. We all get tripped up in them,
often without even knowing it.
When we do
become aware of them, though, it's a good idea to remember the
four main rules for untangling triangles:
When in doubt, don't react. In
a triangularly-shaped world, your first impulse is usually wrong.
Maintain one-to-one relationships
with others in the triangle. Don't talk "triangularly"
about a third person.
Use "I" statements.
"You" statements only beget more "you" statements
-- and new and improved triangles.
Don't ask "Why?" Open-ended
questions elicit more thoughtful responses and "who/what/when/where/how"
questions generate more facts.
Good. It is.
The trick is
to see a triangle coming before it sucks you in. Like other traps,
communication triangles are easier to avoid than they are to
get out of.
Now go clean
your closets. You'll feel less hung up.