The Trouble with Triangles: Being the Best Third Party You Can Be in Church Conflicts
A few years ago, I served as the president of the faculty senate at my college. In that position, I was surprised by the number of communications I received from Party A complaining about Party B. These communications always felt like hot potatoes to me. My strategy was to listen to Party A and then send him or her back to Party B to resolve the conflict, all the while coaching myself to resist the temptation, under any circumstance, to side with A against B, even if I too had been irked by B in the past. Typically, I never heard again from Party A about Party B. One might argue that my strategy wasn’t effective, that Party A simply sought out a more sympathetic ear. Perhaps.
“Triangulation” was recently a topic on some of our minds at First UU when we came together at a workshop in January to begin the process of creating a covenant. We generally acknowledged that hurtful communication has been a problem in our church, particularly during the past year or two, and when we reflected on the turmoil, pain, anger, grief, and brokenness we have lived through, we knew it was incumbent upon us to practice more intentional and compassionate ways to communicate. Mostly, we focused on positive communication and did not venture into “thou-shalt-not” territory. But when it comes to triangles, we agreed that they have been corrosive to our church body. “Triangulation,” or “triangling”– as family systems theorists call it, is common. It is likely that at some time or another, whether in our church, workplace, or family, we will all be “triangled” into a two-party relationship that is tense. How are we to handle this hot potato?
The good news is that triangles are not inherently bad. In fact, according to family systems theorist, Murray Bowen, they are the smallest stable relationship unit—inevitable, necessary, and good. The problem is that they are often handled poorly by the third party invited in. In contrast to the stability of triangles, the two-person relationship is inherently unstable and volatile, and tensions may increase to the point of overheating. When overheating occurs, one party seeks to reduce anxiety in the quickest way possible—by spreading it to a third party. After all, it seems a natural human impulse to seek out a shoulder to cry on when we are frustrated and uncomfortable in an important relationship. It is an easy thing to triangle somebody in when we’re in pain.
It is also an easy thing to be triangled in if we’re not conscious about what is happening. Triangling in a third party changes the two-person dynamic. When an outsider is drawn in, there are now three players in the relationship, two in conflict and one in the outsider’s position. If the outsider bungles it by taking sides, then the initial conflict will not get settled but become more entrenched. For example, suppose I (Party A) am working with Party B on a project to develop spiritual autobiography workshops for the church when we fall into a protracted conflict over how to structure these workshops. Feeling more and more frustrated in my relationship to B, I pull in an outsider, Party C, into whose ears I pour a steady stream of complaints about B, whether about her perceived lack of vision, her tediousness, her lack of punctuality and inability to do paperwork, or whatever. Or maybe in my anger and frustration and in a careless moment, I complain to the office manager or another congregant. In any event, I have attempted to reduce the discomfort and frustration I feel in relationship to Party B. Party C might respond in the typical way by being sympathetic and “taking my side,” at which point she and I are now enjoying a comfortable bond at the expense of Party B. This feels good emotionally; somebody finally understands what I am up against in my relationship to B. Both C and I agree that B is to blame for all the problems, especially the one about the workshop not happening. My anger at B keeps me distant from her and draws me closer to C. In fact, C and I might even find ourselves growing closer over the topic of B, meaning that the calm between us is gained at the expense of my negative relationship with B.
How the third party behaves in a triangle is critical to the outcome of the conflict. For a healthy outcome, Party C needs to figure out how to “detriangle.” Detachment is the key. This does not mean cutting contact with the two disputants. It means, rather, being in contact but remaining “emotionally separate.” How exactly do we do this though if we observe ourselves being triangled in to someone else’s trouble at the church or elsewhere? For one thing, avoid taking sides. Avoid writing lengthy emails or having telephone conversations or coffee hours about “what’s wrong” with B. Instead, C can gently turn A’s focus back onto the relationship with B and the work that needs to be done there. If C simply agrees with A that B is the problem, then A’s anxiety is reduced to a tolerable level such that she may never do the necessary heavy lifting in her relationship to B. Moreover, in times of high stress, C might even turn around and spread the anxiety to other interlocking triangles she belongs to in the church. Sound familiar?
Alternatively, C can respond in way that is progressive for all. According to family systems theorist Michael E. Kerr,
The tension in a two-person relationship will resolve automatically when contained within a system of three persons, one of whom is emotionally detached. In other words, despite togetherness urges to the contrary, a problem between two people can be resolved without the well-intentioned efforts of a third person to “fix” it. The third person need only to be in emotional contact with both as well as emotionally separate from them.[i]
What great news this is that tensions will resolve if the third party works toward detriangling. Party C, then, can choose to remain in emotional contact with both of A and B, albeit emotionally detached such that the troubled process between A and B can be brought back into equilibrium. Imagine how much precious human time and energy could be saved in churches, workplaces, and families through this simple technique of detriangling.
But some might argue that “emotional neutrality” is just another term for coldness, unconcern, or an objectivity that is not humanly possible. According to Kerr, emotional neutrality
does not mean a refusal to approve or disapprove of particular aspects of human behavior, and it does not mean making rules for oneself about not passing judgment on people’s actions…Nor does neutrality mean straddling fences or being wishy-washy. One can have a very clear position with respect to what occurs in a family and in society and still be emotionally neutral. Dogmatic positions, a lack of position, and efforts to change others all betray the absence of emotional neutrality. In essence, neutrality is reflected in the ability to define self without being emotionally invested in one’s own viewpoint or in changing the viewpoints of others…..Emotional neutrality is reflected….first, [in] the ability to see both sides of a relationship process between two others, and second, the ability not to cloud one’s thinking about that process with notions about what “should” be.[ii]
In other words, to be the best third party we can be, we have to be able to see the parts both people play and to be in contact with their relationship without “defining it as sick or abnormal or bad or pathetic—as something that ‘should not’ be.” When a third party acts with neutrality, much can be accomplished.
People who wish to triangle us in just want sympathy because they are in emotional pain. Our best move is to hear their pain and to gently direct their attention back to managing their relationship with the other without trying to fix it for them. And when we ourselves feel the urge to triangle due to a tense relationship, we need to deal more honestly and directly with the person we’re having the problem with. Or if we are so frustrated and clueless about how to proceed, we might go to a third party not to complain but to take responsibility for our part in the conflict and to answer the question of what we can do to move the situation toward resolution. Sometimes, taking responsibility for our anger in a situation might mean identifying and articulating without blame our “bottom line” and most basic needs.
Detriangling is the best way to defuse gossip and rumor in the church community. Consider the poet Edmund Spenser’s description of rumor and gossip in his epic poem The Faerie Queen. He calls it the “Blatant Beast,” a “monster bred of hellish race” that has annoyed “good knights and ladies true, and many else destroyed” with its thousand wagging tongues. It has been sent out into the world “to be the plague and scourge of wretched men,” to “wound, and bite, and cruelly torment” with its “vile tongue” and “venomous intent.” We must fight as the young knight Palidore did when the beast with a thousand wagging tongues comes calling to pour poison into our ears. Or if you recoil from martial analogies and prefer the more velvet directives of modern psychology, then by all means, when the beast comes a calling, don’t gratify it with a hungry ear. Detriangle!
i Michael Kerr, “Chronic Anxiety and Defining a Self. The Atlantic 262.3 (1988):35-55, 15.
[ii] Ibid. 16-17Marguerite Regan