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Navigating Emotional Triangles

By Guest Contributor June 9, 2014

By Joel Mayward

Ever been sidelined by a conversation in which one person tells you how much another person is upset with you? Perhaps two people you care about—volunteers on your team, co-workers, siblings—are fighting and both want your advice on how to approach the other. Maybe a board member heard from a mother how much her student dislikes a small group leader, leaving you totally unsure about whom to speak to first. Or a co-worker shares with you his mistrust of another ministry leader with the disclaimer that he’s “just venting” or “it’s not a big deal.”

You’ve been triangled.

Each of these situations is an encounter with emotional triangles. In his book A Failure of Nerve, author Edwin Friedman defines an emotional triangle as “any three members of any relationship system, or any two members plus an issue or symptom.” He even suggests, “There may be no such thing as a two-person relationship.” Emotional triangles are inherent in any organization and require systems thinking to navigate with wisdom and humility.

There are some common principles for how emotional triangles operate. Emotional triangles…

…form out of discomfort and conflict between people.

…function to preserve themselves and oppose all intentions to change them.

…make it difficult for people to change their thinking or behavior.

…transmit a relational system’s stress to its most responsible or focused member.

This final rule is key for ministry leaders to grasp. Emotional triangles suck leaders in, regardless of the leader’s emotional capacity or desire to jump into a conflict. Getting caught in the grip of an emotional triangle (or multiple emotional triangles) is a common source for leader burnout and failure. In fact, Friedman goes so far to say that burnout doesn’t come from overworking, but from getting enmeshed in other people’s issues.

Here’s how getting triangled works: Person A (the leader) gets entangled in the emotionally-draining relationship between persons B and C, either due to a sense of responsibility for them or because they’ve placed their unhealthy emotional focus on A. Unfortunately, A has no direct control over the relationship between B and C. Yet A is still emotionally affixed to their relationship. Person A can’t “fix” B and C, but feels responsible for saving them, nonetheless.

It can feel empowering, even flattering, to be asked to help with these emotional conflicts. Maybe Matthew 18:15–17 comes to mind—aren’t I just restoring a brother or sister in Christ? But this isn’t Matthew 18 in practice; it’s simply emotionally-draining relational dysfunction.

So what can ministry leaders do to handle emotional triangles? Here’s Friedman again:

The way out is to make the two persons responsible for their own relationship, or the other person responsible for his or her problem, while all still remain connected. It is that last phrase which differentiates de-triangling from simply quitting, resigning, or abdicating. Staying in a triangle without getting triangled oneself gives one far more power than never entering the triangle in the first place.

In other words, stay in the triangle without becoming a “third wheel.” Easier said than done, right? Here are three practical tools for addressing unhealthy emotional triangles:

1. Notice the symptoms. Sometimes the clearest symptoms of getting stuck in triangulation are physical—stress headaches and stomachaches, repeated illnesses, lack of sleep, or perpetual exhaustion. Underlying anxiety often manifests itself in physical ways, so evaluate your physical health. What emotional triangles might be causing you to feel burdened and overwhelmed? Emotional triangles also bring overt temptations to sin. Lust, gossip, pride, dishonesty, thoughts of jealousy or anger, and becoming judgmental are all fruits of becoming enmeshed in unhealthy ways with other persons.

2. Maintain a sense of self. This is called “self differentiation,” or having a sense of where your identity and self-responsibility begins and ends. People without a clear sense of self are the primary people who triangulate others. Their lack of self prompts them to unburden themselves on another, usually someone who has a clearer sense of self. Setting up healthy boundaries and creating core values will help maintain this sense of self.

3. Focus on your responsibilities. You’re only responsible for relationships in which you’re directly involved. As person A, getting caught between B and C only causes stress and anxiety. Focus on your relationship with Christ before moving your attention to the A–B and A–C relationships. If you can maintain a healthy sense of self and a humble confidence in your identity in Christ, you will inspire those around you to take responsibility for themselves. Often, you can prompt people who lack a sense of identity to begin the journey of discipleship towards a healthier self in Christ.

Emotional triangles aren’t inherently bad or sinful. They simply are. Take steps to recognize them and find a clear identity in Christ so you can maintain a healthy leadership posture and not burn out from triangulation. The ultimate relational triangle—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—will give us the power to overcome and endure as faithful servants in ministry.

Take a personal inventory of the relationships in your life: your family, your friends, your co-workers, your volunteer team, and the students in your ministry context. Where are emotional triangles present? What behaviors or assumptions need to change for each triangle to become healthier?


About the Author

Guest Contributor

The LeaderTreks Blog is proud to share the hard-earned wisdom of student ministry leaders from many different backgrounds and professions. From time to time, we will feature guest blog posts from writers other than our regular contributors. We include these posts to provide additional perspectives and insight that we’re sure will help develop you and your ministry…  Read More