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Don’t Pull a Third Person Into Your Mess!

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By Jennifer DuBos MA LPC

Odd man out. Third wheel. Three’s a crowd.
All these sayings have one thing in common: they are communicating the awkward nature of a relationship between three people.

We all know that groups of three rarely work well because someone is always ganged up on or left out. Human beings naturally form didactic relationships and we actually prefer one-on-one interaction. But we will resort to the addition of a third party when the integrity of the dyad is threatened. There are two specific didactic relationships I encounter in counseling that consistently try to rope me in as the third point in their triangle: mother-daughter dyads and married couples in distress.

The incorporation of a third party in a two-person relationship is not always destructive or ill-fated. As long as this move is: 1) intentional, 2.) embraced by both people, 3.) temporary, and 4.) the role of the third party is clearly defined, the scenario can result in assisting to stabilize the dyad through a difficult time.

But if any of these features is missing; if a third person is just carelessly drawn in, if only one person wants to add a third party, if the role of the third party is not clearly defined, or if the third party is maintained chronically in the dyad, the pattern becomes triangulation and is no longer healthy.

Think of a relationship between two people as a motorcycle. When the motorcycle loses momentum, hits a curb, or is struck by another vehicle, it becomes unstable and in danger of crashing. When two-person relationships get to a point where there is a threat of disintegration, the “motorcycle” will seek out a sidecar. The sidecar is intended to add stability but it is really, in the end, unnecessary and both members of the dyad know this. Therefore, because it is dispensable, the sidecar can really only play one of two roles. Either it serves to save the relationship from crashing and is therefore the hero, the faithful little add-on that we take out for a spin now and then, or it fails to add enough stability to prevent a crash and becomes the villain- a useless hunk of junk that probably ultimately caused the crash in the first place. Bottom line: if you are the sidecar, things are never going to end with you being a permanent, equal, and beloved fixture in the midst of the original didactic relationship.

Triangles are very destructive, but people create them out of fear or desperation in hopes that adding an outsider to the drama will provide dispersal of tension and fresh perspective. If you are the sidecar, you may play the role of conflict mediator, interpreter, peace maker, go-between, confidant, ally, or defender. If your role is not clearly defined, or if only one of the members of the dyad is incorporating you, you will certainly feel torn between two sides, caught in the middle, overwhelmed by someone else’s problems, and incredibly frustrated over trying to solve complex issues you are not directly involved in.

If you feel you are being sucked into a triangle, avoid it like the plague.
Unless you are being paid for one of the above mentioned roles and have a specific contract that delineates your specific and temporary purpose for entering into a troubled dyad relationship, do not allow yourself to be used in this way. If you are an adult, and you feel you tend to gravitate to relationship situations like this, you likely have a set of issues of your own to address. People who often find themselves the third wheel in a troubled relationship can have trouble relating to people in non-crisis scenarios. They only feel useful in relationship if they are being utilized for some purpose- which is a nice way of saying you prefer to be used as a tool rather than enjoyed as an equal relational partner. Take heart, though, this dynamic can be assessed and remedied with a little insight about relationship patterns and some counseling on how to change.

If you are a child and one of your parents comes to talk to you about your other parent, remind them that it is not your role to be their go-between; you are a child.

If your children attempt to put you in the middle of their issues, inform them that they need to learn to resolve conflict together on their own (unless there is grave physical danger).

If you find both the husband and wife of a married couple are coming to you to complain about the other, inform them at once of your discomfort with this scenario.

And if your best friends Molly and Beatrice are having a fight and both decide to come and tell you about it, stop them immediately and tell them they need to speak to each other, not you. Essentially, triangulation is gossip. It has no place in any healthy relationship and it only serves to do everyone harm.

If you read this article and realize you are in the habit of creating triangles out of a sense of insecurity, consider your other alternatives.
The best policy for most conflict resolution is usually a considerate combination of honesty and straightforwardness.

If you’re thinking “but I just need someone to vent to about so-and-so” or “talking to someone else about Landon helps me organize my thoughts” or “Agnes has always been able to help me and her father sort out our issues,” stop trying to rationalize an unhealthy pattern. If you are indeed an external processor and you find you really do need a mediator to help you and your friend or spouse navigate delicate topics, pay a counselor to be your objective resource.

Do not jeopardize your relationships with mutual friends or children by assigning them the role of savior or sacrificial lamb.