A few years ago, I was in a dysfunctional situation with a couple of other people — one was my boss, the other was my coworker. And like most dysfunctional relationships, it didn’t happen overnight. Things just built up over time.
Conflicts went unresolved, offenses went unforgiven and nobody was trying to resolve the conflict in a healthy way. Our boss was genuinely being annoying, which made it easy for me to get together with my coworker and bemoan our plight. In retrospect, we were basically gossiping in the name of “venting” and “working through the issues.” It was the glue that held our relationship and our conversations together. We had once related to each other based on common interests, but our common interest became shared annoyance with an unpredictable supervisor.
At some point, I got exhausted by all the drama and ranting, and I disengaged. I starting changing the subject, leaving the negative emails unanswered and stopped initiating the conversations. Gradually, our friendship died on the vine. Our frustrations were the only thing that was keeping it alive, and with that gone, we had nothing left.
This sort of broken link happens all the time in churches, schools, workplaces, friendships and families. You would think such an obvious and toxic dynamic is easy to recognize and avoid, but it’s a lot harder than you think.
In his book, “Failure of Nerve,” Edwin Friedman warns against emotional triangulation. Emotional triangles may involve individuals (my friend, his annoying ex-wife and me), an issue (my dad, his chronic health problems and me), or groups (my sibling, our extended family and me). But the common denominator in all these relationships is there’s some negative third pillar that keeps the relationship together — without it, we would have no relationship.
Here are a few real examples I’ve seen:
- A woman feels anxious about her dysfunctional church, and that’s the only thing she talks about with her friend. Her friend gets tired of hearing about it all the time and stops answering the phone when her friend calls.
- Two siblings are angry with their aunts and uncles. When one sibling reconciles with the family members, the other one gets angry and withdraws from his sibling.
- A mother is concerned for her drug addicted son and expends lots of energy trying to help him get healthy. When he finally turns his life around, she doesn’t know how to relate to him anymore.
- A guy goes to his friend to work through porn addiction, which is pretty much the only thing they talk about. When the addict either decides to give into his addiction or gets better, he doesn’t need his friend anymore and drifts away.
If you want to avoid triangulation, you’ve got to practice resisting triangles when people try to recruit you for them. For example, you can politely decline to listen to gossip about someone else by saying, “Why don’t we just go ahead and pray about this?” instead of letting the person vent their “prayer request” to you. Or you can encourage the person to deal with his issue directly (believe me, he will stop bringing it up if you do that). In doing so, you’re essentially asking people to take responsibility for their own anxieties. They probably won’t appreciate it and may even cut off the relationship, but let them do it. Then ask God to show you how to make Him the healthy third pillar that was missing in your unhealthy friendship all along.
If you’re the one triangulating, you’ve got to do the hard work of learning how to make and keep friends without propping up the relationship on a negative third pillar. Eventually, people are going to get tired of being around the stench of your perpetual frustrations. Suzanne Gosselin nicely summed up the reasons in “Venting Is Bad for You and Others” and included this classic quote from psychologist Jeffrey Lohr: Venting is “similar to emotional farting in a closed area. It sounds like a good idea, but it’s dead wrong.”
There’s nothing wrong with being transparent about your struggles when you talk with friends, but you just need to make sure it’s not the only thing you’re talking about. Instead, spend time talking about “whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy — meditate on these things” (Philippians 4:8, NKJV). You may be surprised at the friendships you may lose, or, more importantly, the ones you’ll improve.