Triangulation as an activity means we have given up on the other person.

An old piece of relationship advice begins this way:

“If your brother sins, go and show him privately his fault. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be confirmed by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’”

Even though that’s from the eighteenth chapter of the Christian Gospel of Matthew, I’ve known Christian clergy who don’t follow that wise advice. Instead they practice what many do in a variety of human relationships – triangulate.

As a concept, triangulation originated in research and discussions about dysfunctional families. Parents might often complain to a child about their spouse, for example, bringing the child into the adults’ problem.

But it applies quite often within numerous friendly, romantic, social, and business relationships. And it has helped bring down some very good organizations, from churches to non-profits.

Someone has something against someone that might even be legitimate, but instead of talking to the person with whom they have a problem, they gather together others to discuss the person and their problems. It’s like recruiting a team of people to agree with you, and in doing so it broadens what is first always an issue between two people into a problem of a group.

The wider the group, the better the triangulator feels about the strength of the complaint. Rather than communicating directly with each other, triangulators use a third party or a larger group to bolster themselves. It feels easier to do this than to do the difficult, healthy work of that old advice.

There’s fear involved in such moves. Gathering people in agreement makes someone’s criticism feel more justified and gives them greater courage of their convictions. Going it alone is, well, lonely. Not only misery, but criticism really, really loves company.

And the result could be an ally, or two, or three, or more on ones side who can gang up on the person we should talk to first alone, and even the second time directly. Talking to others rather than going to the object of the complaint is about our insecurities and fears, not those of others.

We often do this because we have already given up on the idea that the person we should talk to first by ourselves, will react the way we think they should. That person might come back with their own version of what happened.

Yet that would be the beginning of healing in relationships. Listening carefully to each other is a key to doing so; and understanding the perspective of the other person helps us see how that person might see everything differently.

But oh, no. It might actually make us question what our own interpretation was. It might threaten the courage we would otherwise build up among our recruited team.

Triangulation as an activity means we have given up on the other person. We might think that group pressure will be required to change them or correct them, but it means we have already given up on our individual relationship with that person.

It tells us a lot about the relationship we have. It’s not one of love, friendship, honesty, or depth.

Triangulation is something we do when we ourselves don’t want to be vulnerable. It’s what we do when we’re afraid of the response of the other and how it would challenge us.

Unless we reject triangulation, we will find that the relationships that need our attention and effort, whether they are friendships or others, will never grow. It also means we have chickened out in the work of our own relationship growth.

If we reject triangulation, we have the opportunity to move into deeper and more valuable relationships. And we will have also made it clear that we expect those with whom we have a relationship not to triangulate behind our own backs either.

Contributed by

Bob Minor

University of Kansas
Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies
A national resource for information on gender issues and gay/straight relationships for organizations, businesses, educational institutions, and media outlets such as NBC and USA Today, Bob Minor, Ph.D. …

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