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Avoiding Problems with the Embedded Triangle

By Lynn M. Acquafondata

Have you ever had a conflict with someone and you just don’t want to face the person and deal with it? There are many ways of avoiding problems, whether they involve relationships at home, work or church.

Last week I shared the difference between healing and harmful relational triangles. To review, Self-Reflection Triangles bring in a neutral outside party. Avoidance Triangles bring in an outside party that either amplifies or distracts from a problem between two people.

Avoiding a relational problem by distracting oneself with work, an activity, or an addiction, is such a common human strategy that I’ve created a name for it: The Embedded Triangle. Like any Avoidance Triangle, an Embedded Triangle begins with two people in conflict, but instead of drawing in a third person, the third point on the triangle is a non-human component such as an illness, an addiction, a job, a pet or an activity.

A subset of Avoidance Triangles, Embedded Triangles also temporarily stabilize tension in human interactions. The solution often feels satisfying at first, but this quick fix is deceptive. Embedded Triangles do not heal conflict and can lead to relationships which become either disconnected or contentious over the long term.

No healing can happen in any setting without facing the underlying issue and working through it. Some of us spend our lives avoiding the root issue that is the key to positive transformation because the anticipated emotional pain of facing it appears insurmountable.  

Alcohol and drugs are often used to form an Embedded Triangle. In a few months, I will explore a scene in which alcohol interferes with relationships in a family owned business. Today I will examine the use of money as a point on an Embedded Triangle at Coastal Church. It is not uncommon for money to become a focal point in relationship issues in congregations.

An Embedded Triangle at Coastal Church

A few weeks ago, I introduced funeral scene from Coastal Church that contained many triangles including this Embedded Triangle.


Triangle Point One: Mrs. Nancy Hartwig

Mrs. Nancy Hartwig had been in conflict with the ordained clergyperson at Coastal Church for four decades. The pastor changed over the years, but no matter who filled the position, Mrs. Hartwig always ended up in a conflictual relationship with the ordained clergyperson. She had never been willing to address the conflict directly even when pastors approached her and tried to initiate conversation. Mrs. Hartwig was a very wealthy woman who often used her money to influence others and to distract from direct conversation. She kept the conversations at bay in part by her use of money.

Triangle Point Two: Money

Mrs. Hartwig had a history of giving and withholding money at Coastal Church in order to influence programs and decisions. The large sums of money she commanded would draw people’s attention away from conversations about differences in values and varied opinions about how to approach particular issues. Others tended to focus on the money rather than on her. When she was able to influence people with money, she did not have to work at building good relationships.

Her bequest comes in the form of a triangle, not because she gave a monetary gift, but because she asked for it to be given in a certain way (announced by the pastor at her funeral) and because she directed her gift to a specific program in the church rather than allowing church leaders to make decisions about how to direct the money.

Triangle Point Three: Rev. Amy Goldberg-Strong

Pastor Amy began her ministry at Coastal Church a year and a half ago. Mrs. Hartwig was already ill at that point. She never met Mrs. Hartwig.  Pastor Amy made repeated attempts to visit her to no avail. Though she knows a lot about her through other church members, Rev. Amy is unaware of the animosity Mrs. Hartwig felt towards ordained clergy people.

Pastor Amy felt compelled to follow the lawyer’s instructions and announce the gift at the funeral. However announcing the gift makes her appear connected to the choices implied in the gift. Mrs. Hartwig gave the money exclusively to the Christian Education (CE) program.

Because Pastor Amy is fairly new to this church she is unaware of the decades of relational dynamics at play in this gift.

Characteristics of this Triangle

This is an Avoidance Triangle because the underlying conflict is not named and may not even be understood by other people involved in or affected by the triangle.

It is an Embedded Triangle because of a non-human component: money.

This particular triangle has the distinction of involving a person who has died. This is not uncommon in both churches and families, therefore I have given these kinds triangles their own name, the Ghost Triangle.

Ghost Triangles can involve either someone who has died or someone who no longer has contact with a particular family or congregation. In congregations, a former clergy person is a frequent ghost point in a relational triangle, even though that clergyperson is alive and well, living their life at some other location.

Mrs. Hartwig’s use of money and her recent death makes this an Embedded Ghost Triangle.  

This triangle actually has many additional layers which will be explored in future articles.

The Choices

Mrs. Nancy Hartwig used money as her last relational statement to the world. Through money she hoped to fix a problem she perceived in the church. Though this indirect approach may stabilize the church for a time, it will not address the underlying tensions. People now have an inanimate point on which to pin their hopes and vent their anxieties: money.

Pastor Amy could have benefitted by talking to other church leaders before announcing the gift at the funeral.

At this point with tensions rising, she can start asking questions to learn more about the relational history of the church. If she wants to retain her position as a grounding presence she will need to find ways to manage her own reactivity. Forming a Self-Reflection Triangle with someone outside of the congregation such as a colleague, a therapist or a consultant, could help her reflect on her own contribution to the situation and her own reactions, and make wise choices.

Other lay leaders in this church also have choices in this situation. Some people have knowledge of the history of the issues involving Mrs. Hartwig. Others may not know the history, but are able to recognize the relational dynamics that are unfolding. Each of these leaders can either contribute to the reactivity and intensity or find ways to be a grounding presence and help others to do some self-reflection.

At first glance Relational Triangles may seem simple, but there are actually many layers and variations involved. Reflecting on the variations of Relational Triangles can help deepen understanding of the complexity of relational dynamics. It can also guide us in make choices that lead to healthier relationships.

Next week I will introduce the role of power dynamics in triangles.

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Edited by Johanna Bond

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