Triangles aren't sustainable when it comes to relationships. Embrace the idea of circles, which are stable over time.
We are living in strange times, to put it mildly. Division between groups seems stronger than ever, and expressions of prejudice keep appearing in the news. We’re not seeing eye-to-eye, and other people may feel like enemies in a way that they haven’t for a very long time.
We all have unconscious biases. We organize around hierarchies, placing people above or below each other depending on things like race and income. It’s impossible not to internalize that hierarchy to some degree. But many of us are also working really hard on our mindfulness, compassion, and kindness, and trying to see each other as human beings. This is a wonderful practice, but it’s not exactly easy when we’re faced with someone whose views are exactly opposite our own—whether that’s across the Internet or across the dinner table. How do I understand Grandma when her views make me want to throw myself out the window?
Stuck in an Unstable Triangle
Triangulation is a dynamic that frequently shows up within families when there is some unprocessed emotion or unmanaged stress in the family system. One person is set up as the victim, another as an enemy, and a third person (or, sometimes, concept) as the rescuer. The victim and the rescuer bond by excluding the person who is seen as the enemy.
This can show up in a lot of different ways—a “problem child” who misbehaves might become the only thing keeping mom and dad focused on the family and avoiding divorce. Two girls on the playground become best friends by bonding over their shared hatred of a third girl. Or, perhaps, some powerful figure becomes a rescuer to some groups and an enemy to others, thus solidifying the bonds within the groups while pitting those groups against each other.
Triangles are always unstable, and relationships or behaviors based on them cannot be sustained. They are not a sustainable way to manage the unprocessed emotions that are at the root of the issue. But we are very vulnerable to entering into dynamics like this when we do not know how to hold our own emotions or communicate honestly and effectively with them.
Working Toward Sustainable Relationships
There are plenty of things to feel stressed about right now. The climate, the pandemic, and the economy loom large while we’re also trying to live our own lives. Of course we’re stressed! It feels a lot easier to blame some particular group or politician than to face the struggles we are feeling on the inside. As easy as it feels to blame, though, it sure doesn’t help—and it can often make us feel worse.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that we can’t disagree with each other, and it certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t actively fight for what we believe in. But when we are spending our emotional energy hating someone or a group of people instead of focusing on solving our real problems, we’re stuck within a triangle, which means we’re not really getting anywhere.
The way out of a triangle is honest communication and a commitment to see all parties as human beings. When we’re dealing with difficult people, can we remember that their difficulty almost always stems from hurt? Can we consider how our own hurts are contributing to our reactions?
Remembering that humans are humans, no matter their views, may help us return to a loving circle where we can work together to access real change—rather than a spiky, uncomfortable triangle.
More from Julie Peters: “When Friends Break Up”