Invariably when I am meeting with a client a significant portion of time and discussion may be focused on a person or people who are nowhere near our session. Some of these folks may not even be alive, yet they maintain a presence as large and as vital as anyone in the world for my client. The absent person(s) speak more loudly and more directly to my client’s beliefs, hopes, and fears than even his/her own thoughts and feelings. And often clients voice feeling trapped and overwhelmed in attempting to find happiness and move forward in their lives as a result.
Murray Bowen, MD, one of the founders of the field of family therapy described a similar dynamic in developing the idea of “triangulation” as a part of the dynamic that plagued dysfunctional families. These days many therapists refer to this same dynamic as a “drama triangle”. Triangulation grows out of a strain in communication and trust between individuals. In an attempt to relieve the tension and anxiety in this relationship a third person, or sometimes even a group of people, is drawn into the interaction as a way to ‘dilute’ the tension.
For example- a couple experiencing stress in their relationship may find gossiping, criticizing another family member a means to express anger and disappointment in their own relationship. In a similar vein, one spouse may voice criticisms of the other spouse to their children while never addressing the spouse with their concerns. In each instance stress and uncertainty is temporarily relieved in one relationship while it is shunted into another.
For individuals raised in families with a high degree of triangulation, the patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors associated with these dynamics can continue long after the individual leaves their family of origin. These patterns become a part of the individual’s interactions and communication in their current relationships. Conflicts go unresolved as the emotional tension and stress is diverted and resentment and loneliness go unanswered.
They may even shape aspects of the individual’s self-esteem in that the person begins to think and define his/herself as part of their particular ‘drama triangle’. For example, a wife defines a part of her identity as the ‘mediator’ between her spouse and their children rather than confronting alienation in her marriage or a husband who makes jokes about his spouse to friends defining himself as ‘long-suffering spouse’ and this gaining support and sympathy from others that he has not been able to get from his marriage.
As I noted at the beginning of this blog- the power of the drama triangle may continue to hold us even when we are no longer directly engaged with a conflictual figure. Given the power and significance of memory in guiding our thoughts, emotions, and behavior, we can continue to be held in internal states of tension and conflict with individuals and groups long after we have left home or moved into new relationships. We can continue to fight old fights, to try to settle these old hurts and grudges far into lives. Yet the power and suffering of these conflicts remain as strong and hurtful as when they first began.
The drama triangle’s power derives from its means of defusing tension and reinforcing a sense of connection when our sense of belonging to others and to ourselves feels strained. It allows us to feel a sense of relief from the tension we feel internally and interpersonally. However, it does not allow us release from the root conflict that exists between us and within ourselves. There may be an illusion that we are now ‘closer’ for having shared a mutual sense of disdain, pity, or anger with another party but essentially we have only ‘papered-over’ a fracture in the relationship. The differences we experience in others and in ourselves continue to exist- they have just been deferred.
A particularly destructive aspect of triangulation, as I have experienced it with clients, is the disempowerment that emerges for individuals who are trapped in them. By assigning responsibility or focus to someone(s) else, we give them power over us- we define ourselves as ‘less than’. While there may be a sense of relief in placing focus outside of ourselves, there is a sacrifice in our ability to believe that we are able to care for ourselves- particularly in times of stress and conflict.
Breaking free of triangulation and drama triangles starts with a decision to embrace and remain focused in the present moment and to your own experience (thoughts, emotions, and sensations). Triangulation attempts to divert from our experience of the current moment and redirect us to the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors of others. By remaining in our own head, heart, and body we simplify the demands on ourselves and allow ourselves to focus and act productively.
In practical terms this means being able to recognize and acknowledge when I am ‘talking about’ rather than ‘speaking to’ a particular emotion, thought, need, or person. ‘Speaking to’ to my own experience will be more active and engaged. My focus is on identifying what I am thinking, feeling, and doing and if or how I will plan going forward. Instead of allowing myself to use others or life circumstances to serve as scapegoat for my reactions I will directly address my own responses and my options for addressing them. Rather than complaining to friends “My husband is so selfish- he never pays any attention to me…” I will say “I am very lonely. My husband I do not talk enough for my needs. I need to figure out if there is a way to engage him more…”.
When we speak and focus on own experience we have the opportunity to feel more empowered, more engaged in or own lives. Clients report that using this idea results in feeling more energized and happy in all their relationships and in themselves. So, when the urge to “talk about” those things and persons around us strikes, try “speaking to” what you experience, thinking, and feel and observe how the energy shifts from being burdened by the weight of life to the power of being actively in charge of your own life.