Whether your relationship is monogamous, polyamorous, or any other configuration, conflict is inevitable. And that’s ok! Working through conflict helps relationships grow stronger and more resilient. Today I will be talking about one way polyamorous relationships negotiate conflict: triangulation.
Decades ago, the psychiatrist Murray Bowen argued that triangles (a system consisting of three people) are the smallest stable relationship system. A two-person system, he believed, was inherently unstable. When conflict between two people erupts, both parties experience large amounts of anxiety.
Since nobody likes to feel anxiety, one or both of these parties will often recruit a third person into the conflict. This “recruitment” might take the form of venting, asking for advice, or even demands. This lets the anxious (or angry) person blow off steam without having to confront the person they are upset with directly (which would also be anxiety provoking!). For example, if Alissa becomes angry at Blake, they might complain about Blake to Charles, which will make Alissa feel better, instead of confronting Blake directly. This is called triangulation.
There are three problems when this occurs repeatedly in polyamorous relationships. First, in polyamorous relationships people are often very interconnected. If Charles were partners or metamours (i.e., a partner’s partner) with Blake, then Alissa’s venting might change Charles’ opinion of Blake. This can happen especially frequently if we triangulate the same person each time into our conflicts with another. In polyamorous relationships, this often occurs when a person repeatedly vents or complains about one partner to another. Then they are dismayed when the two partners don’t get along!
The other problem with triangulation is that it tends to “freeze” conflict in place. If Alissa is mad at Blake, but constantly vents to Charles about it, then Alissa might maintain a low enough level of anxiety to avoid feeling like they have to confront Blake, and the conflict might linger unresolved. This not only prolongs tension within the polyamorous system overall, but it also deprives Alissa and Blake of the opportunity to strengthen their bond by working through conflict together.
The final issue with triangulation, particularly in polyamory, is that it tends to add lots of stress or anxiety for the person who gets triangulated. If Charles is always feeling caught in the middle between Alissa and Blake, then Charles is more likely to become anxious or weary. In some cases, Charles might even “act out” in order to relieve the tension, such as by confronting Blake on Alissa’s behalf. When people form triangles, they often assume the roles of Victim, Perpetrator, and Rescuer. In this example, Alissa would be the victim, Blake the perpetrator, and Charles the rescuer. If Charles intervenes on Alissa’s behalf, that might set off a whole other round of conflict that could rapidly escalate.
So is triangulation always bad? No. Sometimes triangulation is temporarily necessary. For instance, we often benefit from blowing off steam and/or talking through problems with a third party. Triangulation is common, but can be problematic if it becomes the default way to handle conflict, or if the triangles become rigid over time.
Here are some tips to avoid unhealthy triangulation:
If possible, avoid venting about a partner or metamour to someone who is also partners or metamours with that person. Especially repeatedly.
If you need to vent to a third party, let that person know specifically that you want to vent, and ask if they are comfortable listening non-judgmentally.
Other people can be great for advice and support, but do not recruit others to fight your battles for you, unless your emotional or physical safety may be at stake.
Whenever possible (and safe), always try to address conflicts directly with the person you are upset with, ideally sooner rather than later. The longer conflict tends to last, the more entrenched it can get.
A qualified and licensed psychotherapist can be an excellent objective third party that can help you work through interpersonal conflicts, as well as allow you to vent guilt-free!
Triangulation is a natural and common way that people relieve anxiety during interpersonal conflicts. Using these tips and being mindful of these pitfalls can help you avoid falling into the triangulation trap! If you are experiencing difficult interpersonal situations, whether or not they involve triangulation, and you would like to talk to a professional, please reach out.