Emotional Triangles: when elephants fight, it’s the grass that gets crushed.
I think I would lose a bunch of my business if my client-friends figured out emotional triangles. I usually suggest they read Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue by Rabbi Edwin Friedman. A tremendous book that is one of my top 10 resources.
You can also read from a presentation I made in New Orleans some years back. I entitled it “Illusions of Power” and it focuses on the three predictable roles of emotional triangles: Persecutor, Rescuer, and Victim.
The basic principle of triangles is that when any two parts of a system become pained or stressed with one another, they will “triangle in” or focus upon a third person, or issue, as a way of reducing the pain in their own relationship with one another. This is what gossip is; blab about somebody else and their deficiencies to make your dyad seem somehow better.
In families or communities, a person may be said to be “triangled in” if he or she gets caught in the middle as the focus of some unresolved issue. This happens when couples fight and then triangle around finances, or sex, or their kids or some other hot issue.
Triangles typically happen when there is too much closeness, as in parent-child relationships — we call this “fusion.” A teenage client that I have seen for a couple of years gets a lot of criticism unloaded onto her. Now she is no innocent but the crap that gets dumped is beyond reason. Makes one think that the parents have a few issues that they project. Of course, she will act out to the measure of their hostility — and she does.
A Swahili proverb states, “When elephants fight, it’s that grass that gets crushed.” I also like Proverbs 26:17 that says, “Getting involved in an argument that is none of your business is like going down the street and grabbing a dog by the ears.”
De-triangulating in these conflicts is complicated and takes some practice. (I guess I will have my job for a bit longer.) Mostly it is about not getting involved in the triangle in the first place. But do you know how hard it is to not gossip? I remember when I was building up a gossipy story that prejudiced someone I didn’t care much about and the person I was talking to interrupted me with “she is one of my best friends.” Well, I shut up really quickly.
Another way of de-triangulating has to do with writing a fresh narrative. If I think of myself as life’s “Rescuer” (see above), I might want to re-think that. Or if I anticipate most people rejecting my interest in them, I might want to approach people differently. I am probably doing something that causes the rejection I so dislike.
When kids grow up, parents have to de-triangulate, especially when they marry or have kids of their own. Benevolent disinterest is a difficult grace indeed.
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