I once knew this guy who regularly started conversations like this: “Have you got a minute? I need your prayers.” Except there was never any prayer involved – it was just a religious intro to gossip.
I couldn’t be good friends with that guy unless I played a quiet, supporting role in his dramas, and there were plenty of those to go around. He thought he could discern everyone’s ulterior motives and issues. And although he never explicitly said it, I knew I wasn’t allowed to question his suspicions or say anything positive about those he resented; because if I did, he would either get defensive or stop trusting me with information.
Getting the inside scoop on his various grievances felt awkward at times – especially when he dished about people I knew. But he was older and more powerful than me, and I wasn’t willing to let go of the privileged position of an insider.
Eventually though, I got uneasy with my relationship with him and began resisting him when he would try to talk negatively about people. I also started suggesting positive alternatives to his suspicions and encouraged him to go talk to people directly. You may not be surprised to find that our friendship soon drifted apart after that.
In his book, Failure of Nerve, Edwin Friedman warns against emotional triangulation, a situation in which a person doesn’t have the guts to deal with his own conflicts, so he brings other people into them.
Triangles may involve individuals (my friend, his annoying ex-wife, and me), an issue (my dad, his chronic health problems, and me), or groups (my sibling, our extended family, and me). But the common denominator in all these relationships is that there’s some negative third pillar that keeps the relationship together – without it, we would have no relationship. And we maintain the status quo in these relationships because we’re emotionally unhealthy (or as Friedman puts it, we don’t know how to “self-differentiate”).
Here are some of the symptoms of people who can’t self-differentiate:
- when they get connected to other people, they tend to lose their identity in their relationships;
- when they feel uncomfortable with someone, they always find someone else who will sympathize with their discomfort;
- when people get close to them and have struggles, they take on the other person’s emotional anxiety; and
- they can’t disagree with others without becoming anxious.
Basically, when I don’t know how to self-differentiate, I can’t just let me be me and you be you – I tend to emotionally connect to your negative issues, and I tend to dump my negative issues on you. As a result, the anxiety multiples.
How to Get Out of the Triangle
If you want to avoid triangulation, you’ve got to practice resisting triangles when people try to recruit you for them. For example, you can politely decline to listen to gossip about someone else by saying, “Why don’t we just go ahead and pray about this?” instead of letting the person gossip their “prayer request” to you. Or you can encourage the person to deal with his issue directly (believe me, he will stop bringing it up if you do that). In doing so, you’re essentially asking people to take responsibility for their own anxieties. They probably won’t appreciate it and may even cut off the relationship, but let them do it. Then ask God to show you how to make Him the healthy third pillar that was missing in your unhealthy friendship all along.
Perhaps you’re the one who triangulates, and you don’t know how to be friends with someone without bringing in your anxieties or taking on theirs. Cut it out. Get curious about who they are instead of always prying into their dramas. And stop talking about the conflicts you have with other people or “processing” all the time. Instead, spend time talking about “whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things” (Philippians 4:8, NKJV).
Make God the third pillar in your relationships instead of always gravitating towards taking on yours and other people’s emotional garbage. You’ll be surprised how much healthier your relationships will become.