Three’s a crowd: Understand emotional triangles in your relationships

Emotional triangles are a way to understand relationship dynamics, particularly among family members and teammates. Specifically, exploring emotional triangles can help you understand ways you might decrease relationship stress by involving a third person or focus. Typically, a triangle will develop during times of change or stress, when you or your partner shift your attention to someone or something else as a way to stabilize a shaky relationship. Triangles aren’t always bad, but they can distract you from dealing with relationship issues in a healthy and direct way if you’re not careful. Stay on top of triangulation so you can keep your relationships strong, even in tough times.

What is an emotional triangle?

The most basic relationship unit is between 2 people (a “dyad”). Families, large groups, and teams are made up of multiple one-on-one relationships. But as any engineer will tell you, a triangle is the most stable shape out there. That fact holds true even outside of construction. Relationships that include a “third point” can often withstand more pressure. A triangle might occur between 3 people (for example 2 parents and their child), or between 2 people and a third element (such as work or illness). The trouble is, adding a third point (usually unknowingly) can stop you from actually addressing relationship problems head on. And if that “third point” is another person, they might become an unwilling part of your unhealthy relationship dynamic.

Consider this example:

After their first PCS, a military family of 3 has been having a hard time managing the stress of moving and adapting to their new home, which is far from family and friends. The couple has been fighting almost nonstop, until they notice how deeply the move is affecting their child. He’s struggling at his new school and starting to show some concerning changes in behavior. The couple shifts their focus to their son, meeting with his teachers, talking to his school counselors, and even having him begin therapy. With so much time and energy centered on their son, they’ve set aside their own struggles. Their conflict seems to settle down as they team up to support their child.

On one hand, it’s crucial for parents to support their child during a challenging time. On the other hand, it’s important to make sure parenting issues don’t distract from couple issues. It’s possible this couple’s son has unwittingly become the stabilizing force in their relationship. Focusing on his needs might provide a convenient detour to their relationship troubles. But imagine what might happen if their son starts to adjust and improve in his new situation…the couple could suddenly find themselves never having addressed their own issues.

Triangulation around a child happens fairly often, but it’s certainly not the only way a triangle appears. Sometimes dyads (often couples, but also friends or teammates) might triangulate around an in-law or a team member. A dyad might rally together to support a family member or team up against another person, creating a “common enemy.” Or the triangulation point might not be a person at all. Pouring yourself into your job, focusing on an injury, using drugs or alcohol, or even triangulating around the military itself can all become distractions to ease anxiety in damaged relationships.

Keep damaging relationship triangles at bay

Not all triangles are bad. Sometimes they’re a natural part of a relationship’s growth. It’s normal for external issues to become a focus…for a time. The key is to recognize when shifting your focus to something is more about looking away from something else than it is about facing the issue head on. Try these tips to keep relationship triangles to a minimum:

  • Get ahead of issues. Since the function of relationship triangles is to stabilize relationships, one way to avoid them is to make sure your relationship has a solid foundation. Focus on building healthy relationship habits from the get-go.
  • Seek outside support. Identifying a triangle is the first step in removing it. But recognizing triangles within your own family or team can be really hard. Most people need some help to see unhelpful patterns in their relationships. Consider reaching out to a therapist, counselor, or chaplain for a relationship checkup or to set up regular meetings.
  • Take action. If you notice or suspect you might be a part of a negative relationship triangle, take steps to return your focus to the one-on-one relationship. As you find your conversations detour to that third point, mindfully pull your focus back to the dyad. And when you start to notice conflict, take a step back, and address it with the other person while avoiding argument traps. Take breaks when necessary.

Consider this example:

A team of Service Members have experienced high levels of conflict and stress during their current deployment. Their anticipated homecoming date has been delayed, and morale is down. After living in such close quarters for months, and not knowing their homecoming date, the Service Members have had more interpersonal conflict and felt higher-than-average stress levels. As a result, they turned to distractions to help manage their emotions. Some of the Service Members have turned to excessive drinking or smoking. Others have turned to other potentially addictive behaviors, such as playing video games for hours. With so much time and energy focused on these distractions, they’ve shifted their focus away from the issue of the heightened conflict and deployment stress.

On one hand, it’s important for Service Members to find activities to help them decompress from the events of the day, especially during deployment. On the other hand, it’s important to make sure potentially addictive behaviors, such as substance use and video games, don’t distract from the team’s issues. It’s possible that substance use and video games have become a stabilizing force for the team, but it’s also possible those distractions are preventing the team from dealing with their stress in a healthy way.

So what should the team do? Based on the advice above, the team can:

  • Get ahead of issues. It can be easy for team dynamics to shift throughout a deployment. But focusing on strong team dynamics from the get-go can help ward off the distractions of substance use and video gaming. Read HPRC’s tips for building strong teams.
  • Seek outside support. Once the Service Members recognize that their substance use and video gaming are distracting them from the real issue of deployment stress, they can get help. Maybe they can meet with a therapist or chaplain to talk about their distractions and potentially addictive behaviors. A therapist or chaplain can also offer productive ways to combat interpersonal conflict and improve communication under stress.
  • Take action. The Service Members can also focus on the real issue of their deployment stress. Beyond talking to resources like a therapist or chaplain, the Service Members could also engage with their teammates to strengthen their relationships. Strong relationships help relieve stress. Service Members can engage in other relationship-building and healthy activities, such as team exercising or bonding over a healthy meal.

Bottom line

The triangle can be a helpful metaphor to make sense of relationship dynamics, particularly in times of stress or transition—a common state of many military families and teams. Even though a triangle can create stability in an otherwise-rocky relationship, that stability will likely be short-lived. Keep your relationships healthy from the start, and if you do notice a “third point” creeping in, address it sooner than later.

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