Three-part disharmony

Triangles are the most stable natural configuration, I’m told, and Harriet Lerner in The Dance Of Anger (and The Dance of Intimacy too) talks about how we form relationship triangles.  I’m paraphrasing, but a relationship triangle is what happens when two individuals form their relationship at the expense of a third party.

For example, you have a sister who is a real trouble-maker. Mom calls you every other day to tell you what your sister has done wrong this time.  You gripe at Mom.  Mom gripes back at you.  You give Mom suggestions. She ignores those suggestions or implements them half-heartedly.

Meanwhile, Sister and Mom butt heads constantly and Sister calls you to gripe about Mom while you try to smooth things over between Sister and Mom.

That’s a relationship triangle, and if you nodded when I described that, you’ve either been in one or have witnessed one.  According to Lerner, relationship triangles are stable because they take the negative energy from one relationship and transfer it into a different relationship, enabling all parties to continue for decades in this pattern.

It’s unhealthy, by the way, despite being stable, and if you find yourself in one, you need to withdraw.  Just say, “No, Mom, I don’t want to hear about Sister any longer. She’s an adult and can make her own choices.”  And similarly, “Sorry, Sis, but I don’t want to hear about your argument with Mom. How’s your job going?”

While listening to the Prodigal Son reading this past Sunday, I realized the older son reacts with anger at the younger son’s return; that the older son reacts exactly as if he’s involved in a triangle.

The outrage he expresses is unexpected, and when the father comes out to him, he baits his father to be angry with the younger son, listing the younger one’s crimes and making them personal to the father.

I always tangle with the prodigal son story, and I’ve even done so before on this blog. But today it struck me that the older son appears to be calling on a long-standing pattern of “Yeah, Younger Son really behaved like a jerk.” “I can’t believe he did that.” “What an awful thing.” “He’ll be sorry someday.”

And when it comes right down to it, the father tries to call on his relationship with the older son and the older son, it turns out, tries to relate to his father by saying, in effect, “Don’t we both hate him together? Didn’t he waste YOUR money?” (Instead of, “Didn’t he blow all his own money?”) And then, “You never celebrated having me. It was always all about him.”

Triangles: two people having a relationship at the expense of a third party. But that’s not really a relationship at all, is it?


  1. Camilla

    I can see that definition of a triangle relationship, but it does seem to only be the negative manifestation of a three way relationship. A triangle could also be three people inter-related and stronger because of their interaction.

    I remember seeing a psychological study in which individuals were deliberately treated as if they had the wrong answer when in fact they were correct. When one or even two people were treated as being consistently wrong, they eventually crumbeled and gave the “party-line” but when three people stood together, they were essentially unshakable…Ecc 4:12, “…A cord of three strands is not easily broken” Perhaps a cord is not exactly the same thing as a triangle, but a three way relationship does have the potential to be strengthening and healthy.

    1. Philangelus

      A trio can certainly have strengthening qualities,but then it’s not a relationship triangle:then it’s a community.

  2. cricketB

    “Relationship” is a multi-use word. Sometimes it means something close, other times it just means they relate to each other — there are connections, with no mention whether they’re good or bad. “How are the lines related? They’re parallel.” Other times you’re in a good or bad relationship.

    1. Ivy

      Exactly. Any decent dba knows to define the relationships between the tables in a database in a data dictionary.

      Examples of a three-member relationship:

      Batman – Robin – Batgirl
      Moe – Larry – Curly
      Father – Son – Holy Ghost
      Charlie’s Angels

      I’d argue the last three aren’t really community because they have no room to grow. Someone can’t walk in and join the Three Stooges in the way they can walk in and join a book club.

      Lerner has a variety of healthy variants on trios in her work.

  3. Ken Rolph

    I was so sad to hear about you sister. I have two myself, and know what a nuisance they can be!

    1. philangelus

      Actually, I grew up the only girl in a household of three boys. I used “sister” because that way no one in my immediate family would wonder if I was ratting out a relative. 🙂

  4. Ken Rolph

    No need to pretend with us. You are among friends here. And what’s a blog for if not for confessions? I’m adding this to my stock of knowledge. Jane has a difficult sister. It must be true, I read it on the Internet.

    Can’t tally for more sympathy. I must be on to skim through more blogs. So much knowledge is being added to the human stock by the minute that it’s hard to keep up. But I do try.

    1. philangelus

      How do you know this wasn’t guest-written by my brother, who would say he has a difficult sister? Hmm? 😉

      And I agree with you: if somebody said it, it must be true.

  5. sunmumy

    Its always struck me that this story is really a parable about cradles and converts among other things…..what should it be to us if God can love the Pauls of the world as much as the baptists….

Comments are closed.