3s a crowd

Have you ever had an experience where something has happened with one person, and that person goes to another friend to complain about you? Or have you ever had a work experience where your boss comes to you and says that a colleague complained about you and you’re left wondering why the colleague didn’t come to you directly? If you answered yes to any of those situations – or maybe you’re the person who is doing this indirect communicating…what you’re doing is called triangulating.

Today we’re going to be talking about “triangulation”, which is basically the unhealthy back channel, potentially toxic communication that happens in many relationships. Why is it called triangulation? It makes sense because it looks like a triangle. You have an incident with Betty and then Betty goes to your other friend over here. So that means that a third party or an outside party gets involved.
 

 

This is a common dysfunctional communication pattern within family systems. If you have a fight with your sister and your sister goes and talks to your mother about it, knowing your mother will say something to you, that is triangulation. If you have a fight with your mother and your mother won’t talk to you about it, but makes your sister talk to you about it, that is triangulation.

So let’s talk about the impact of triangulation, what it really is and why you don’t want to participate in it:

Triangulation is a passive aggressive, unhealthy way of communicating. It is unhealthy not only because it is indirect but also because it involves another person – who is not actually involved.

Think about your life and be honest with yourself – do you do this?  If you do – don’t be ashamed or embarrassed – we all do it a little.  BUT, if you do it a lot, it’s really not cool, and it’s unhealthy – not just for other people but for you – and it can be toxic to your relationships.

This way of communicating is not a good problem-solving method. The truth is, it usually exacerbates problems. Think about your own life, your family system, and the family that you grew up in. If you’re grown and you have children of your own, is there triangulation within those systems as well? When you have a problem with someone, is your first instinct to talk to them about it or talk to someone else about them?

If you have had a painful experience with someone and you want to talk to a close friend or a mentor about that experience, that is a different scenario and can be part of coming to a resolution. I’m talking about going to a third party to talk badly about another person. That’s triangulation because it involves this other person and often we tell another person because we want it to get back to the person we originally had the problem with – we often just don’t have the courage to say it directly to them.

Let’s talk about your choices. What are the choices that you have when you are presented with this situation?

 

Let’s assume that you’re on the receiving end of the situation and someone comes to you to talk badly about someone else.

You have three choices:

 

1. JOIN IN 

You can join in with them and talk badly about the other person – agreeing with them and add to the negative comments, in turn talking badly about that third person yourself, or

2. GET DIRECT

So someone comes to you and says that a third person has a problem with you. If you get direct, you have to choose to say to the messenger (because that’s really what the third person is) “I really appreciate you coming to me, but I’m going to go talk to <original person> directly.”

Of course, the messenger may not WANT you to – as the original person told them ‘not to say anything’. If that is the case, you can say “Okay, but can I make a simple request that going forward, if someone comes to you with a complaint about me, that you please ask them to come directly to me? Would you please decline to be the middleman?” This is an effective way to stop future triangle involvement.

When someone is trying to triangulate you, they are trying to express their displeasure about something that doesn’t involve you. If someone complains to you about someone else, you can draw a boundary and be compassionate by simply saying “I hear you but I think it would be more productive if you went directly to <third person> with how you’re feeling.” Once again, consciously removing yourself from the triangle.

Indirect communication does not help solve the actual problem. If you find that you are afraid to draw boundaries and/or afraid to speak honestly, then you need my Boundary Bootcamp and while that program isn’t going to be around for another couple of months, you can start by reminding yourself now that life is too short for this kind of confusing communication that becomes a block to satisfaction in relationships.

3. GUIDANCE

Of course, the third choice that you have when you’re in this situation especially if it’s someone who is perhaps a subordinate to you at work or works for you is that you can guide them by coaching them with what would be a more productive response. You might say, “I would really appreciate you going directly to <third person> about this because I think that you guys getting a problem-solving dialogue going would be really helpful. If it’s something where you need me to step in, I will. But right now, you’re basically just complaining about something that you could go directly to them about, and it will really build your work relationship with them.”

It takes courage to have the hard conversation, but it’s always worth having.

 

The reason that I don’t want you using passive-aggressive behavior at work or at home in your family of origin (and your chosen family with your friends) is because not only does it NOT WORK and is unhealthy, but it keeps you stuck in a circular way of behaving that does not give you the satisfaction that you desire.

Indirect communication also damages trust. Do you know why? Because going behind someone’s back to talk about them makes you untrustworthy. One of the most empowering experiences is becoming someone that people know is REAL. When you say something, they know you mean it because you speak your truth and keep your word (and if you have something to say, you say it to their face.)

Don’t judge yourself for triangulation – I’m certainly not. I was a massive triangulator in my past.  Before I really spent time working on myself and becoming aware of my behaviors and my choices. Be kind to yourself and make the choices that are healthy for you.

“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” Maya Angelou

 

If you liked this video, if it added value for you, please share it on all your social media channels. Send it to friends or family members who you think it might help because you know my heart’s desire is to help as many people as possible to live their happiest lives. And as always, take care of you!

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  1. My husband and his mom have an enmeshed relationship. My father-in-law does not pay enough attention to my mother-in-law, and she tries to fill the void through her sons. As a result my husband talks to her everyday and feels compelled to report every little incident in our daily life. I feel there is no privacy in our relationship, and can’t trust to share my feelings with him. My mother-in-law is very judgemental and opinionated. She doesn’t miss a chance to force her point of view to my husband. If I get involved, I’ll get worked up, and if I do not get involved to put a stop to it, then my husband will criticize everything in our life which his mom does not approve of and has succeeded to brainwash him with. If I try to talk to him, he will report our conversation to his mom the next day when they video chat (sometimes shamelessly in front of me!) and if I had given my opinion about how his mom’s inappropriate behaviour has had a negative impact on our relationship in our private conversation, he will even tell that to his mom, and the two of them would mock and challenge me… so I would leave the conversation as it obviously isn’t constructive… but when I walk away, they still mock me of being too sensitive! They minimize the situation I’m in and tell me that I make a great deal out of nothing as I am way too sensitive.
    A few months ago, I heard my mother in law provoking my husband against me, I confronted her, begged her to stop this behaviour as it ruins our marriage, but she denied it all, and what’s worse, my husband jumped in and sided with her. The whole encounter was very hurtful. My husband and I are now separated. They never apologized for their behaviour. My husband wants to get back. What should I do?

    1. Hi Liz,
      I’m holding space for you with so much compassion as you navigate this tricky situation. I think it’s important for you to discuss this with your husband, especially if you’re considering getting back together. What do you want to say to him about his behavior? What boundaries do you want to make clear? It’s important to remember that you can’t change other people’s behavior or thoughts, and you can only focus on yourself. Set your boundaries and what you’re willing to deal with from both of them and communicate it clearly. ❤️

  2. Thank you for you video. I just recently left my marriage because of the level of triangulation that was going on. I was going through complicated grief due to the death of my parents within three months of each other (my mother’s death being traumatic) plus my husband went through multiple bypass surgery in the middle of their deaths. My husband, thankfully survived, however he was not able to support me during my grief. Rather than try to support me, he would complain and talk badly about me to his two sisters and his friend….to the point where I was then excluded from all family get togethers and holidays and left at home alone. I asked my husband to please stop, however, he chose not to and says this is how he prefers to deal with any problems that come between us. I have been looking for help to develop better coping skills but I finally decided I cannot do this anymore…I was not able to make it stop. I made the decision to leave my marriage because it was just too painful to continue on…I cannot express how awful it makes you feel…I knew he had done this same behavior with his first wife but I did not think it would happen to me. It was all the same people involved …I am now working on myself and finding healthier relationships. Thanks again!

    1. I’m sorry you had to go through that pain. Deciding your threshold for what you can take is important, and backing it up with your actions. I am cheering you on for standing up for yourself, and I’m sending you compassion. You are not alone.

  3. I am looking back at my past behaviour… sometimes I went to talk to someone about a problem I was having that involved another (abusive) person, as a means of better understanding my feelings and trying to find a solution. I assumed if I confided in them about something they would keep it between me and them. But they went back and told the person, which I didn’t want them to do (or expect it to be honest). The abusive person interpreted my behaviour as triangulation and it made the situation 100x worse. I guess the important thing is to only confide in people who have no relationship with the person that you’re having a problem with. The thing is that I thought it was better to talk to people who knew the character, to help me better disentangle what was my “fault” and what was their “fault”, Sometimes it’s hard to know where is the line between triangulation, resolving problems, and building stronger relationships. Anyway thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    1. Forgot to say, I felt that discussion with that person directly was not an option because of stonewalling and invalidation (I tried a few times and then gave up…I do recognise there probably are ways I could have expressed myself more assertively or coherently)

    2. Thanks for sharing your insights and your story. It is an important distinction to make – who to share your feelings and experiences with- I call it voluntary vulnerability and when you are talking to a third party WITHOUT trying to get them into the triangle – then it is not triangulation. Sending you strength to choose you!

  4. This is so timely for me. My mom just sent my brother and me another email telling us what an asshole my Dad was. I do know that no one really knows what goes on within another relationship… but the man she describes is not the man that I knew and loved. From my perspective, my Dad was loving, kind, gentle and cognizant of his faults and looked to improve himself.

    Also relevant: my parents divorced in 1985 and my Dad died nearly 21 years ago. She has never dated and sends us/me bitter emails every year, and sometimes talks about it in person. For literally 30 years, I’ve been telling her that I don’t want to hear it anymore, yet here we are… she has thrown away her adult life on anger and resentment.

    Also relevant: my Dad used to talk shit about her, too… but I told him I didn’t want to hear it and he stopped!

    1. Julie,
      Thanks for sharing here with us. How amazing that your Dad was able to respect your boundary and sad that your mother’s obsession consumed her life. She is taking it out on you and your brother and it is not fair. I would not read one more email bad mouthing your father and tell her if she sends them you will delete OR just don’t read them and accept she is most likely incapable of changing at this point and accept the good while just letting the rest go (easier said than done, I know!)

  5. I have been the target of triangulation. Was invited to work on a project. The woman invited me and a woman she has worked with last year to a “kick-it” session. The other woman invited me to lunch. I was not strategic and got suckered by her apparent “friendliness”. We talked about getting together, and she jumps up for Uber w/out setting any day /time. I called and emailed but no response.

    In the meantime I called the woman who HAD mentioned the B word—BUDGET!! – And basically blew me off and asked “would I allow her to call me in a couple of weeks”. A month—I called her. No answer at all.

    I KNOW the woman (Joanne) went to Gerry (contractor) with some mess. ANY IDEAS ON WHAT TO DO??? I NEED WORK.

    1. Annie,
      I am sorry to hear about your experience. At this point, I think your best course of action is to learn from this one. If you approach Gerry with speculation about what Joanne might or might now have said, you seem unprofessional. If you think approaching Gerry is the way to go, you can write an honest email saying you wondered what was happening with the project as you were excited about the possibility of working together or something like that and see if she responds. I would say nothing to Joanne as it is pointless and beneath you, my dear. Sending you abundance energy!

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