“Three’s A Crowd”

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“Two’s company, three’s a crowd.” The popular idiom implies that two people, usually a couple, want to spend time together; just the two of them. If an uninvited third person joins the couple, the presence of the third person is unwanted and often resented. While sometimes true in popular usage, it means something quite different in psychological usage; in fact, quite the opposite. Psychologically speaking, when relationship tension and anxiety increase beyond a certain level of tolerance, a third person (or, object) is often, unconsciously, “triangled in” to act as a buffer in the relationship, thereby reducing the tension. In other words, while a third person’s presence is sometimes resented by two people in popular usage, a third person’s presence is often solicited by two people in psychological usage.

In a previous blog, I wrote about and recommended the perennial bestseller by psychologist Harriett Lerner, PhD, The Dance of Anger (1985; 2005). In this blog, I specifically recommend the reading of her eighth chapter entitled “Thinking in Threes; Stepping Out of Family Triangles.” She writes:

“Recently I visited my parents in Phoenix. I made this particular trip because my father – who prides himself on having made it to age seventy-five without even a sniffle – suddenly had a heart attack. It was a wonderful visit, but after I returned, I found myself feeling intense surges of anger toward my children. During the next few days, Matthew began waking up with headaches, Ben became increasingly rambunctious, and  the boys fought constantly with each other. My two children became the prime target for my free-floating anger.

As I talked my situation over with my friend Kay Kent, a sensitive expert on families, I began to make the connection between my anger toward my children and my visit home to my parents. The good time that I had had with my parents was a reminder, not only of the geographical distance between us, but also of how much I would miss them when they were no longer around. On this particular visit, I could no longer deny their age….Kay suggested that I address this new awareness directly with my children and parents, and so I did.

At the dinner table the following night, I apologized to my  whole family for being such a grouch and grump and I explained to Matt and Ben that I was really feeling sad following my Phoenix trip because Grandma and Grandpa were getting old and Grandpa’s heart attack was a reminder to me that they would not be around forever and that one of them might die soon. ‘That,’ I explained, is why I’ve been so angry.’ I also wrote a letter to my folks telling them how much I had enjoyed my visit and how, after my return home, I had come in touch with my concerns about their aging and my sadness about my eventual future without them.

What followed was quite dramatic: Both boys relaxed considerably and the fighting diminished. Each asked questions about death and dying and inquired for the first time about the specifics of their grandfather’s heart attack….I stopped feeling angry and things returned to normal….

Underground issues from one relationship or context invariably fuel our fires in another. When  we are aware of this process, we can pay our apologies to the misplaced target of our anger and get back on course: ‘I’m sorry I snapped at you, but I had a terrible day with my supervisor at work.’ ‘I’m scared about my health and I guess that’s why I blew up at you.’ ‘I’ve been angry at everybody all day and then I remembered today is the anniversary of my brother’s death.’ Sometimes, however, we are not aware that we are detouring strong feeling of anger from one person to another – or that underground anxiety from one situation is popping up as anger somewhere else.

It is not simply that we displace a feeling from one person to another, rather, we reduce anxiety in one relationship by focusing on a third party, who we unconsciously pull into the situation to lower the emotional intensity in the original pair. For example, if I had continued to direct my anger toward my misbehaving boys (who, in response, would have misbehaved more), I would have felt less directly anxious about the life-cycle issue with my aging parents . In all likelihood, I would not have identified and spoken to the real emotional issue at all.

This pattern is called a ‘triangle,’  and triangles can take many forms. On a transient basis triangles operate automatically and unconsciously in all human contexts including our family, or work setting, and our friendship networks. But triangles can also become rigidly entrenched, blocking the growth of the individuals  in them and keeping us from identifying the actual sources of conflict in our relationships” (pp. 154-156). The chapter proceeds to give examples of triangulation both in the home and at work.

“Understanding triangles requires that we keep an eye on two things: First, what unresolved and unaddressed issues with an important other (not infrequently someone from an earlier generation) are getting played out in our current relationships? Intense anger at someone close to us can signal that we are carrying around strong, unacknowledged emotions from another important relationship. Second, what is our part in maintaining triangular patterns that keep us stuck? To find out, we must begin the complex task of observing our three-person patterns” (p. 162).

The subject of triangles is important to me for two reasons: one is professional, the other intensely personal. Professionally, I recognize its presence in my clients. Triangulation is brought to therapy in spades. Personally, “triangulation” was the narrative behind my family-of-origin. I especially resonate with Dr. Lerner’s statement: “It is not simply that we displace a feeling from one person to another, rather, we reduce anxiety in one relationship by focusing on a third party, who we unconsciously pull into the situation to lower the emotional intensity in the original pair.” Guess who that “third party” was in my first family?

So, is “three a crowd”? Not always. “Three” is also a “consolation,” or a “camouflage” for displaced emotions in hurting relationships. The sooner we recognize its potential for damage and deal with it, the better.

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs, CO

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