“Hey Jon, what’s happening? Yeah I’m alright, I know you’re good friends with my sister Gwyneth but can I tell you something? She is really bugging me! Every time she calls, all she does is talk about herself. And most of the time it’s negative. She carries on about how her boyfriend’s a jerk and her landlord keeps harassing her about the rent and how she can’t figure out why she doesn’t have any friends. Blah blah blah. I just get tired of listening you know.”
Ever listen to a rant like this? Or some version of this conversation in which the other person is unloading a grievance that they have with someone that you both know? And it always feels a little awkward and like maybe you shouldn’t be listening and you are simultaneously torn about whether to stick up for the other person (that you are also a friend/relative of) you are hearing about or keep listening to the person talking. Maybe you’ve dished a rant like this? Yeah, me too.
Let’s skip back to 4th grade mathematics real quick, geometry specifically. I know, its an ice age ago. Quiz time: least stable structure? (Quick!) A straight line. One of the most stable structures? A triangle. This stability or lack thereof gets played out in relationships as well. When someone does something you do not like or do not approve of, it’s hard to talk to them about it. You know the kind of complaints I’m talking about, dishes left in the sink, them smoking in your car, their misbehaving dog, whatever. Coming directly to someone with this issue you have with them creates a fairly unstable structure (a line) as represented by the anxiety and reluctance you feel about having the conversation, or your shaky voice and sweaty palms when and if and I mean IF you have the conversation.
It’s a more stable structure to create a triangle and talk to someone else-who also knows the person who’s the hot topic-about the issue. Voila, triangulation is born. Maybe you’ve heard those therapist type folks talk about it. So we end up in lots of conversations about someone that’s not actually present. Sure, sometimes it’s pretty subtle-often so subtle we don’t even notice it happening-like a passing comment to a coworker: “Steve sure seems to be slacking on the project, huh?” or a roommate: “Why does Margi never take the trash out??” Sometimes we toss subtlety and it’s an all out dishfest like the one Jon endured a few paragraphs ago.
Yeah I hear this kind of thing all the time, hell I do it all the time, wtbfd? A few things that ultimately contribute to your happiness and relationships or the opposite, ready, set, shabam:
1. It poisons the well. Not the band, I don’t like them either. It gives whoever you are unloading to a shitanked impression of the person who’s not there. They dish, you believe it and no one’s there to tell otherwise. So when you see Margi again, somewhere in the back of your mind, consciously or not, you are thinking about what a twitsqueeze she is for not taking out the trash occasionally.
2. Triangulating acts as a pressure release valve for the triangulator (the one doing the complaining) so that they are less likely to go to the actual person that they have the beef with and try to work things out. The anxiety/frustration/annoyance/whatever they were feeling about the wrong that they felt was committed has been decreased by getting to vent about it, but the actual substance of the beef hasn’t been addressed. So yeah, you guessed it, those negative feelings continue to linger in the back of our minds aka poison the well part deux.
3. Is probably the most important. You don’t get to work on your confrontation skills. And hey give yourself a break, what class was that taught in? It wasn’t. And how important a skill in life is it/how often do conflicts arise among human beings? Super important/all the time. When triangulation occurs we miss another rich opportunity to practice a good confront (check out techniques in my last blog) and deepen the relationship. For reals. Think about that time you did have a conversation with someone important, survived, and how you felt about them after. Closer right?
So here’s your challenge for the week: Notice when someone is talking negatively about someone that’s not there to defend themselves. Notice how you feel, how you think about the person who’s being talked about, how you feel about them next time you see them.
If you are ready for the Uber-challenge, try noticing yourself doing it. And share your challenges, successes and insights in the comments below, or I’d love to hear about it directly.
Jeremi McManus is a Relationship Coach, Psychotherapist, and Couples Therapist who works with people who want more fulfilling and satisfying relationships. His own ups and downs in dating and relating were instrumental in leading him into this field. If you feel like you could use some perspective, he looks forward to hearing from you. Jeremi is a Licensed Psychotherapist and delighted to call San Francisco home.