Sunday, February 20, 2011

Triangulation works better in trigonometry class

People love to gossip (heck, it's possible that all primates or even all mammals like to gossip). It's fun to feel that you're in on a secret. Gossip can be socially advantageous. You can elevate your status in your circle of friends, family and rivals by passing on scuttlebutt that others don't know. If you're cautious, gossip can help you find out who your allies and your enemies are. You can use that information to get a promotion at work, or drop a toxic "friend," or find a significant other. But you can also seriously trash your close relationships, and end up feeling as if you're caught in a very large and sticky spiderweb.

In the social sphere, triangulation is a cousin of gossip, but is usually less casually engaged in, because (other than in the workplace) we almost always triangulate amongst good friends or family members - people we care about. Say you have an issue with your partner ("Person A"). If you're prone to triangulating, instead of sitting down with Person A and dealing with the issue face to face, you tell your troubles to Person B, who knows both you and Person A.  Person B now has the choice of validating you by siding with you in your conflict with Person A, trying to stay neutral (good luck with that, Person B!), or risking her or his relationship with you by telling you that s/he doesn't want to get pulled into what is essentially none of her/his business (this third scenario almost NEVER happens, in case you hadn't guessed).  

Modern technology - Facebook and texting and tweeting and the mobile electronic devices we keep flesh-welded to our hands - make triangulation and its fallout much worse. Who can resist immediately gratifying the temptation to vent frustration without a moment's forethought by posting something snarky on FB for all the world to see? Or calling your BFF to bitch about how Person A didn't do such-and-such, or how Person A's friend, Person X, dissed you by defending Person A's actions, and so forth. It can be emotionally satisfying to tell others how misused and misunderstood you feel, especially when those whom you tell, though they can't do anything whatsoever to repair the situation, will sympathize with you and help cast you in the role of the poor little wronged victim.

1) You are not a poor little wronged victim; you are an adult. Unless you are  being physically, sexually or emotionally abused, running to a third party who knows you and the other party so you can get your side of the story told first and get a big hug is a childish response, not suited to adult relationships.

2) If Person A, with whom you have the issue, finds out from someone else that you have gone to Person B with this private matter, you have now damaged your trust with Person A, which makes it even more challenging to resolve the original issue between you.

3) Once you experience the ease of dumping your issues on someone who likely will be sympathetic to you without raising any uncomfortable questions, rather than directly facing the person with whom you have a conflict, it becomes that much more tempting to avoid doing the more difficult thing, which is to confront the issue with the person who could actually help resolve it. Triangulation can become an ingrained habit. That's good fodder for sitcom scripts, but not for engaging in thriving relationships.

4) Triangulation tends to self-propagate and go viral. Person B, to whom you first complained about Person A, goes to her friend, Person C, to complain about your inability to solve your own problems, or her inability to figure out how to help you. You all know each other, and it's all too easy to start constructing a drama and NOT talk face to face with the people involved. Then you've got a colossal entanglement, and after a while it's a wonder your heads don't explode from guessing what everyone else is thinking/feeling. You really could use your energy for more productive (and more pleasant) activities.

You're in a fine mess now, aren't you? What to do?

First, start reframing your relationship struggles as private matters. It's hard to realize, in this tell-all culture, that you really don't have to share everything with everybody, all the time. If you need a hug from a friend, just ask for a hug. You don't owe her a play-by-play in order to get some friendly comfort. 

Conversely, avoiding triangulation doesn't mean you can't talk to ANYBODY about your problems - even a friend or your mom. But before you start blabbing things that can't be taken back, go through two processes: first, make sure you know what your own motivation is for revealing your troubles - do you want comfort for your pain, advice about where to go from here, compassion because you acted like an idiot and can't face saying you're sorry yet, or validation that it's all the other person's fault and no one understands you? If you're looking for an excuse to blame someone else, or an excuse not to examine your own behavior, then it's best not to take that very wiggly can of worms to a close friend or relative. That's why God made therapists and unbiased third parties. 

The second thing you need to do, IF you decide to take your problems to Person B, with whom you are close, is to be honest with Person B about your motivations. You have to be able to express what you need from them, and you have to be able to ask if they can be "on your side" without siding against Person A. You also need be able to trust in their honest response about whether they can do that, since not six people in a thousand are capable of that level of impartiality. Make sure you've asked the right person to listen to you.

And when you ARE ready to address your conflict with Person A - and sooner is better than later - for heaven's sake, don't try to do it with texts and emails, or even with phone calls (though phone calls will do if you have no choice because of geographical distance). About ninety-seven per cent of human communication is non-verbal, through body language, facial expression, vocal inflection and other cues. Don't cheat yourself of the opportunity to understand what's going on BENEATH the words, because that's where you'll find a place to heal the hurts, mend fences and understand one another a little better. Underneath the words is where you find love.

Leave triangulation to trigonometry, where it's actually a useful tool.

1 comment:

gary.parks said...

Great analysis and even better advice. Speech is a relatively new development for we humans, one kind of social primate. We are heavily influenced by our evolution to express ourselves indirectly. That worked well when we lived in close physical contact with all possible "person A's". When we developed speech as a mode of self expression along with the expanded capabilities of our much larger cerebrum, we also became responsible to use those higher powers to overcome the more destructive extincts that remained etched in the operation of our reptile brain, lymbic system and hippocampus. For modern humans, then, the issue becomes one of purposefully using our higher cognitive abilities to control and direct the energy and raw power of our emotions and feelings. What we do not have are teachers of that practice whom we recognize as such. Fortunately for those around you, you are one such teacher and I am very grateful for all that I learn in this way.