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When One Plus One Equals Three

In scientific math one always means a single item, whether it’s an apple, a dog, a tree or a unit of measure like inches or teaspoons. The shortest distance between the two points is always a straight line.

But when human interaction enters the picture, point C becomes a factor. To get from Rochester, NY to San Francisco, you end up flying through Chicago or another city. Or, in order to let your mother know something important going on in your life, you talk to your sister and assume she will tell your mother.

Basic mathematical principles do apply to human interaction, but people tend to look for alternatives to those principles when things get complex.

One of the basic alternative formulas we gravitate toward is the relationship triangle. The formula looks like this: one anxious person, plus another anxious person equals three people. These three people keep the same total amount of anxiety, but with a shift in who carries it.  Usually two of the people end up being relaxed and the other one feels highly anxious.

This skewed mathematics works so well, at least on a temporary basis that we repeat it all the time.


For example, one person gets upset by something his or her clergy person said, but that person feels intimidated by the clergyperson and can’t imagine talking directly to him or her. Instead the person vents to a friend about what the clergyperson said or did. The two friends join forces against the clergyperson.

The anxiety has shifted, but the original issue is not resolved and now there are three people involved instead of only two.

Dealing with conflict without getting involved in this kind of fuzzy math can be a challenge. Here are some mathematical principles of human interaction to keep in mind when dealing with conflict

  • The shortest distance between two human beings really is a straight line. Direct conversation between two individuals produces the most effective communication, and it is the best way to address the root causes of anxiety.
  • Engaging separate identities helps to resolve conflict. In order to resolve conflict, two people need to understand themselves as separate beings.

Sometimes the psychological boundaries between two people get blurred. When two people do not see themselves as separate entities, they cannot communicate effectively.

Married couples are a unit, but in order to communicate effectively each needs to understand him or herself as a separate person as well.

Sometimes there are physical limitations that make the boundaries between one person and the next unclear. A baby cannot survive apart from a parent. Sometimes an ill, injured or disabled adult depends on another for survival. This affects communication.

  • Write it down. Only a few people can figure out mathematical equations in their head. Most of us wouldn’t think of doing math without writing down numbers and figures or making a chart. Similar techniques can also help in figuring out complex human situations.

Next week’s article will explain some simple written tools, including charts and diagramming to sort out life’s complex issues using the mathematics of human interaction.


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