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Hallway Conversation: Directing Triangles Toward Health in Our Own Lives

By Lynn M. Acquafondata

A few weeks ago I introduced the image of stepping outside of the rooms representing the roles and relationships of one’s life. There in the hallway we can take a deep breath, and observe and reflect.

I invite you to step into the hallway with me for this blog as I introduce a tool to help determine whether the relational triangles in your life are leading towards health, or whether they are complicating existing problems.

As I share the tool, take a deep breath and consider the relational triangles in your own life.

First think about any areas of tension in your life: at home, at work, in your congregation or in your social sphere. Are you able to talk directly to the other person or people when an issue arises between you? If yes, you probably aren’t in a relational triangle in that situation. If no, the following tool can help.

In previous blogs I introduced two main subsets of relational triangles. Avoidance Triangles and Self-Reflection Triangles. In an Avoidance Triangle two people have a disagreement or conflict, but rather than working it out directly between themselves, one or the other person draws in a third party who either distracts from the situation or allies with one of the parties. When we talk about someone being “triangled” into a situation, we are talking about an Avoidance Triangle, not a Self-Reflection triangle.

Self- Reflection Triangles draw in a third party to manage a conflict between two people, but the third party takes a neutral stance and guides one or both people to examine the factors involved and take responsibility for their personal roles in the situation.

Consider these questions as you reflect on each situation in your life:

Avoidance Versus Self-Reflection Triangles

When there is an issue between you and someone else and you have drawn in an outside person how can you tell if this is a helpful connection that will lead to deeper self-reflection?  Consider these questions as you reflect on each situation in your life:  

  1. What might the third party gain if I remain in conflict with the other person? For example, does this person seek the extra close bond with you that this alliance against the other person brings?If the third person benefits in any way when you remain in conflict with the other person, it will be hard for the third person to stay neutral. This could be an Avoidance Triangle.If the third person does not have a stake in the outcome of the issue, they are better able to stay neutral. This could be a Self-Reflection Triangle.
  2.  “Does the third party say negative things about the person with whom I am in conflict and back me up without question?” If the third party has negative feelings towards the person with whom you are in conflict, they cannot help me to reflect. This is likely an Avoidance Triangle. If the third party is able to listen to your negativity without agreeing, or if that person is able to redirect you to more productive thinking, you are likely in a Self-Reflection Triangle.
  3. Am I able to gain a new perspective after talking to the third party or do I succeed in swaying the person to my point of view?” In an Avoidance Triangle you hold onto your negative thoughts. In fact, they might even become more entrenched.  In a Self-Reflection Triangle the third person helps you to think on a deeper level and notice things you had not noticed before about yourself and the other person. If you are able to see things differently than your original view, this is likely a Self-Reflection Triangle.
  4. Has it become unnecessary to talk to the other person with whom I am in conflict because I have unburdened myself sufficiently with this third party?” If you no longer feel like you need to talk to the person with whom you are in conflict, but the issue remains, this is likely an Avoidance Triangle. If it is still very important for you to work on the issues with the original person and this third party is helping you figure out how to do that, you are likely in a Self-Reflection Triangle.
  5. "Am I dependent on the third person over the long term?” Avoidance Triangles often last a long time because if the alliance with the third party ends, then you may have to go back to the first person and face the original problem. Self-reflection Triangles are temporary even if the relationship that holds the triangle is long standing. For example, a good friendship can last a long time, but it won’t focus on the same conflictual issue for years. In a good friendship each person provided self-reflection for the other in a variety of situations over the years.Good therapy works a little differently, but the temporary nature applies. Beneficial therapy sometimes does last months or even years in complex situations, but it’s important to see progress along the way such as being able to handle more and more situations on my own. If you need the therapist or other outside person to function there could be a problem. The ultimate goal of therapy is to no longer need therapy for this particular issue or situation in your life.
  6. “Has the third party changed their behavior towards the person with whom I am in conflict” If the third party now treats the person with whom you are in conflict badly even though they did not have a personal issue with that person previously, this is likely an Avoidance Triangle.  If the third party either doesn’t know the person with whom you are in conflict, or is able to treat both people with respect this is likely a Self-Reflection Triangle.

If you don’t have time for all the questions, use this quick check list. 

  • “Why am I not talking directly to other person?”

If any these reasons apply you are likely in an Avoidance Triangle:

  • It’s not my fault so I don’t need to talk about it.
  • I’m not comfortable talking to the other person.
  • The other person won’t hear me.
  • It’s pointless to try.
  • I’d rather not.
  • It’s too painful.

If any these reasons apply you are likely in a Self-Reflection Triangle:

  • I want a better relationship with the other person, and the third party might be able to help me figure out how to do that.
  • I need an outside view to help me figure out my own motives.
  • I don’t understand what is going on and I need help sorting through my own thoughts and feelings before I initiate a direct conversation.
  • I don’t know how to talk to the other person, so I’m seeking wisdom from someone else before I try.

Next week I will introduce a subset of the Avoidance Triangles that adds a non-human component to the Basic Relational Triangle.


Edited by Johanna Bond.

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