Principle 5 of Family Systems: Emotional Triangle

One frustrating situation in leadership is getting caught in the middle of a conflict. People involved in a dispute have expected me to be the judge or at least “straighten out” the other person. Many elders, preachers, parents, and other human beings find themselves in this predicament.

Edwin Friedman describes this dilemma:

An emotional triangle is formed by any three persons or issues…

The basic law of emotional triangles is that when any two parts of a system become uncomfortable with one another, they will “triangle in” or focus upon a third person, or issue, as a way of stabilizing their own relationship with one another. A person may be said to be “triangled” if he or she gets caught in the middle as the focus of such an unresolved issue. When individuals try to change the relationship of two others (two people, or a person and his or her symptom or belief), they “triangle” themselves into that relationship (and often stabilize the very situation they are trying to change) (Generation to Generation: family process in church and synagogue, pages 35, 36, © 1985 The Guilford Press).

He continues by listing and explaining the seven laws of an emotional triangle. I’m only giving the list here. He expands on each of these in his book. (This is one of the most helpful books I’ve read [four times], devoured, discussed. Two of four times I read it was in staff meetings. We took twenty-two months to read it the first time and seventeen months the second time, reading about three or four pages a week.)

  1. The relationship of any two members of an emotional triangle is kept in balance by the way a third party relates to each of them or to their relationship.
  2. If one is the third party in an emotional triangle it is generally not possible to bring change (for more than a week) to the relationship of the other two parts by trying to change their relationships directly.
  3. Attempts to change the relationship of the other two sides of an emotional triangle not only are generally ineffective, but also, homeostatic forces often convert these efforts to their opposite intent.
  4. To the extent a third party to an emotional triangle tries unsuccessfully to change the relationship of the other two, the more likely it is that the third party will wind up with the stress of the other two.
  5. The various triangles in an emotional system interlock so that efforts to bring change to any one of them is often resisted by homeostatic forces in the others or in the system itself.
  6. One side of an emotional triangle tends to be more conflicted than the others.
  7. We can only change a relationship to which we belong (Generation to Generation, pages 35-39).

Peter Steinke expands on this concept in his book, Healthy Congregations: a systems approach, Copyright © 1996 The Alban Institute, Inc.):

“When elephants fight,” a Swahili proverb states, “it’s the grass that get crushed.” Triangulation is a natural way of handling anxiety. If anxiety in one relationship is not resolved, it will be played out in another relationship. A person feels relief from tension when anxiety is shifted to a third party, yet the anxiety in the original relationship is unchanged. It has merely relocated.

You know a triangle exists when you experience the following:

  • The reactivity being expressed toward you is excessive, strong, and far beyond what might be normal.
  • Someone is overfocused on you.
  • You look for a sympathetic third person who will share your irritation with an adversary.
  • You turn to a second party to talk about a third party.
  • You become allied with a friend against your friend’s opponent.
  • You need to rescue, care for your friend when he or she is anxious.
  • You pin your anxiety on someone to relieve tension that belongs to another relationship (page 62).

God has given instructions and warnings about this in the Bible:

The first one to plead his cause seems right,
Until his neighbor comes and examines him (Proverbs 18:17).

You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people; nor shall you take a stand against the life of your neighbor: I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:16).

          Jesus taught “straight talk” on the part of everyone in a conflicted relationship.

Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Matthew 5:23, 24).

Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector (Matthew 18:15-17).

The following paragraphs are from the Full-Time Minister Relationships and Responsibilities, Anytown Church of Christ, a congregation where I served as an interim, incorporated in the preacher’s contract and job description:

Conflict Resolution

In any case of conflict at all times, it is expected that the minister practice guidelines Jesus gave in Matthew 18:15-17.

The minister will be expected to refer members that bring a complaint concerning one elder or the eldership in general to Matthew 18 and encourage them to bring the concern to the elder if it involves one, or to the eldership if it involves the entire eldership.

By the same token, if an elder or the eldership has a complaint brought to them concerning the minister, the same action will be taken. The eldership will not entertain complaints unless the member practices Biblical conflict resolution first.

What if we added another paragraph as a family rule at Anytown Church of Christ?:

If any member has a complaint brought to them concerning any other Christian in this congregation, it is expected that the Christian practice guidelines Jesus gave in Matthew 18:15-17. No member will entertain complaints against another brother or sister unless the one making the criticism practices Biblical conflict resolution first including talking to the person alone, then talking again with one or two other people present to help restore the good, loving, and kind relationship.

Following His teaching would eliminate the harmful triangle. The most common response I hear is, “I’m not comfortable doing this.” I need to remember that crucifixion is uncomfortable. A follower of Jesus volunteers to carry a cross daily (Luke 9:23).

What have you done to mind your own business and stay out of the middle of problems that belong to others?
Please comment below:

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Jerrie Barber
Disciple of Jesus, husband, grandfather, preacher, barefoot runner, ventriloquist

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