A middle-aged couple once brought their teenage son "Roy" in for an initial counseling session. Before the session, his mother met privately with me to explain that Roy had become a handful -- he was not pulling straight A's in school and was even discovered cheating on a test. Distraught, the couple brought their son into my office to be "set straight." In our session, I discovered that this young man was a bright, articulate, over-achiever; his only "problem" was that he wanted to spend more time with his father.
A week later, I met with the entire family and offered my impressions of Roy. I then turned to Roy's mother and asked, "So how's your marriage going?" Her eyes immediately filled with tears; she explained that she felt unappreciated and distant from her husband. She added, "I've wanted to share this for twenty years."
Every chaplain is familiar with the story. Psychiatrist Murray Bowen advanced "Triangulation" as a model to describe a fundamental characteristic of human relationships. According to Bowen, two-person relationships are inherently unstable and -- under stress -- will introduce a third person or entity into the relationship to reduce anxiety.
To be an effective counselor, chaplains need to be aware of potential triangles -- when we fail to identify them, we will inevitably overlook real issues. In the example above, it was far easier for the couple to imagine that there was something wrong with Roy than to address the genuine, unnamed problem -- their failing marriage. Once the triangle was correctly identified, we were able to address the real issue and, ultimately, solve it.
We also see triangles in the workplace; triangles allow one person to express their thoughts or feelings about someone else through a third party. For example, if a man is angry at his coworker he might spread a rumor about her to a mutual friend in their office. Rather than speaking to her directly, he has triangulated a third person in order to express his discontent. Likewise, chaplains should notice when they are being drawn into a similar triangle. A couple may seek marriage counseling from you -- but their counseling session turns into an hour-long series of complaints. Both are attempting to place you in a triangle: they both hope to win you as an ally against their spouse.
Although triangulation is inevitable in marriage counseling (by attending sessions the couple invites the counselor into their marriage), triangulation can also be advantageous. If the chaplain remains unbiased he or she forms a harmonious, respectful relationship with both spouses. This, in turn, compels the couple to focus their attention on one another -- the only remaining aspect of the triangle. To remain unbiased, chaplains should be aware of their predispositions and continuously monitor their fair treatment of both spouses. If the chaplain favors one spouse over another, the counseling triangle shifts and the less favored spouse will feel attacked.
It's also worth noting that triangles don't always involve three persons. One husband recently complained that his wife did not earn enough income; although he could not identify any faults in his wife's character, he resented her and contemplated divorce. After a few sessions he located his real issue -- he was dissatisfied with his own career and his inability to achieve his own life goals. It was easier for this man to complain about his wife's income than to admit failure at his occupation. Once he realized that his career was the true target of his dissatisfaction, marriage counseling and reconciliation became much easier.
Finally, chaplains can offer the unique perspective that all relationships are intended to include three persons. God is the third party in all human interactions: we love our neighbors as ourselves because God first loved us, we forgive others because God has forgiven us, and our marital relationship reflects the relationship we have with our Creator. Triangles are divinely inspired by God, but in our humanity we inflict damage upon them. When chaplains restore healthy triangles we help bring people closer to God.