A two-person human relationship is about as steady as a two-legged stool. We often look to family members, coworkers, and friends to calm us down when we’re angry, disappointed, or confused by another person. When we pull in or focus on a third person to manage our anxiety, we are activating what is called a triangle.

When you start to look for triangles in your day-to-day life, you’ll find them everywhere. How many of these examples feel familiar to you?

  1. Venting to a coworker about your boss.
  2. Asking your mom how a sibling is doing.
  3. Texting your friend to complain about your partner.
  4. Gossiping about old acquaintances.
  5. Asking someone to relay a message for you.
  6. Bringing someone to a family gathering as a buffer.
  7. Focusing on a kid to calm down your marriage.
  8. Complaining to your therapist about someone.
  9. Lecturing your parent about their new love interest.
  10. Asking to speak to the manager when you’re upset with a staff person.
  11. Grumbling with a fellow student about your teacher/professor.
  12. Always talking to one parent because they’ll update the other.
  13. Convincing someone to be angry at another person with you.
  14. Running to your boss or HR rep when you have tension with another coworker.
  15. Having an affair.
  16. Buying a pet to improve a romantic relationship.
  17. Asking someone whether another acquaintance likes you or not.
  18. Asking a friend to update you about all your other friends.
  19. Focusing on another family member to fill awkward pauses in conversation.
  20. Gossiping about a celebrity to fill a conversation.
  21. Gathering allies when you feel attacked.
  22. Asking a third person to help when someone has come to you in distress.
  23. Being angry at a friend for being too focused on a new romantic relationship.
  24. Asking someone for advice about an interpersonal problem.
  25. Asking someone to let people know you’ll be late.

Most people can’t go 24 hours without activating a triangle. Triangles aren’t good or bad. They simply are an automatic reaction to stress. And the more stress you add to your day, the more likely you are to use triangles to get through it.

However, when we use triangles to manage anxiety, there is a cost. The triangle often prevents us from developing a stronger one-to-one relationship with others. If you’re always complaining to your siblings about your mother, then you don’t get much practice learning to be a calmer, more thoughtful person in her presence. If you’re always gossiping about others with a friend, you won’t learn about their life and their beliefs. If you spend eighteen years focusing on your child with your spouse, life might get very uncomfortable when they leave for college. Triangles promote temporary calmness at the cost of long-term maturity.

This week I’d like you to think about how triangles are propping up tense relationships in your life. Where might there be opportunities to manage your own distress, and to move towards the people you tend to complain about? What might it look like to focus on building a person-to-person relationship with everyone in your family, your office, or your friend group?

Recognizing triangles and choosing not to activate them is a big part of growing up. Anytime you can turn off your autopilot and determine how you really want to respond to anxiety, you’re inching towards maturity.

News from Kathleen

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