How You Might Be Avoiding Conflict in Your Relationship
After parking in your driveway, you notice that the walk from your car to the door of your home seems much, much longer today. You’re feeling uneasy about going inside as the going has been rough with your partner lately. It’s a stressful time for both of you, and you’ve been at odds more than usual. While you may not be concerned about the health of the relationship—you’ve weathered storms together before, you’ve understandably been texting and talking with your best friend about it as you’ve needed some support. The calls, the coffee meetings, the texts with your friend have been a breath of fresh air. Without even knowing it, though, the uptick in contact with your friend might be a way you’re avoiding conflict in your relationship.
Avoiding Conflict in Your Relationship via Emotional Triangles
We’ve all been there. Whether it’s with your partner, a difficult coworker or boss, or a friend, we’ve all had relationships that have been on the rocks, and in these moments of relational distance, it’s natural that we as relational beings seek out emotional support elsewhere. In other words, we bring in a third party in an attempt to stabilize the relationship.
Therapists call this an emotional triangle; as a relationship goes through cycles of distance and closeness (as individuals’ needs for autonomy and dependence fluctuate), we bring in someone (or something!) close to us to stabilize the relationship by temporarily alleviating our feelings.
How Emotional Triangles Work
When tension exists between two people in a relationship, one or both parties may attempt to “triangle in” a third party in order to relieve the tension. So, when faced with a difficult boss, we talk to co-workers about how angry we feel, or when we’re fighting more with a girlfriend, boyfriend, or spouse, we might connect with a trusted friend about our relationship woes. Or, someone sympathetic to our relationship troubles tries to insert himself into the middle, and we oblige. It makes us feel better, at least for a while. Meanwhile, the relationship conflict remains unchanged.
That’s because emotional triangles don’t address the problem in the relationship; in fact, you can unwittingly use them to avoid such conflict. In your intimate relationship, when you turn to someone other than partners and bring your painful feelings about the relationship to that individual, you’re not talking openly about the problem with your partner. While we might feel better for a short time, the painful feelings will return unless you can find a way to talk about them in a constructive way with your partner. If the problem isn’t addressed directly, with time the emotional triangle may develop into an emotional or sexual affair, causing considerable harm to the relationship.
Before moving on, an important note: The third party in any emotional triangle could be a something instead of a someone. Alcohol, work, porn, shopping, gambling, substances, you name it. If you’re using it to park your pain and leave it there, it’s an emotional triangle. (By the way, a third-party someone may also be the child in a distressed marriage: Mom or dad may start talking to the child about the marriage or paying more attention to the child to avoid the relationship’s problems.)
Emotional Triangles Can Be a Good Thing
Not all emotional triangles are created equally. Emotional triangles can be beneficial when the third party helps us process our feelings so that one partner can talk about their emotional experiences in the relationship in a new way. Most of us, I would venture to guess, do this quite often. We use others as a “sounding board” and afterward to talk to our partners about our feelings in the relationship.
Therapy can function this way too. Sometimes I tell my clients that my relationship with them is a laboratory of sorts, a place where they can experiment with new ways of feeling, doing, and being that they can then take to other relationships in their lives. Quite often, emotional triangles thrive when people feel that they can’t say what they’re feeling to those closest to them. They’re too ashamed, too afraid of rejection or of not being heard or understood. In counseling, clients frequently “try on” being open and genuine with me so that they can risk being vulnerable with others.
In an Emotional Triangle? Here’s What to Do
1) Recognize your participation in the triangle. Maybe you’re in a relationship and have sought out someone else to commiserate with about your pain, or maybe you’re the third party who is unknowingly colluding with one partner in perpetuating their relationship problems. If you’re in a relationship and have been leaning on someone else, ask yourself if you’ve been sharing openly with your partner too. Or if you’re the one being leaned upon, encourage your friend in a relationship to speak with their partner. “Have you talked to him about that?”
2) Talk about what’s going on with your partner. You don’t necessarily have to stop talking completely with your third-party compatriot. However, it’s probably a good idea to watch your boundaries with this person and make some very intentional decisions about how you relate to him or her and your partner as well.
If you’re using a something instead of a someone to deal with painful feelings, reflect on what you’re trying to avoid in yourself by doing so. If you’ve been avoiding conflict in your relationship, you may be afraid to bring up important thoughts and feelings. If you need help, talking a with a counselor might be a good way to give yourself the support you need.
3) Don’t jeopardize your safety. In abusive, domestic violence situations, physical safety is an obvious concern, and creating and maintaining an emotional triangle with a trusted professional is actually pivotal to making the relationship as safe as possible until the abused partner is ready to leave the relationship.
If you’re in a physically or emotionally abusive relationship, emotional triangles with trusted friends, family members, and possibly a therapist may be providing you with much-needed emotional support as well as helping you stay safe. In such relationships, sharing your emotional experiences with your partner could hasten the next episode of abuse or neglect, so avoid doing anything that would increase danger.