The third party in triangulation: "I feel like the spare wheel"

Triangulation is a concept that was coined by Dr Murray Bowen and is used widely in therapy. It is the “process whereby a two-party relationship that is experiencing conflict or intensity will naturally involve a third party to reduce anxiety.” (Bobes & Rothman, 2002).


What is triangulation?

Instead of focusing on the conflict that the two individuals face, the attention and energy are shifted to a third party. This third party doesn’t have to be another person, it can also be an issue like the next holiday destination, or a substance e.g. alcohol. Basically, it can be anything really that shifts the focus away from the relationship and thus reduces the tension.

Couples using the triangle technique allow it to serve as protection, “against excessive intimacy by removing opportunities for one-on-one encounters,” (Solomon, 1992) because intimacy brings up anxieties around abandonment versus autonomy.

Depending on attachment style and narcissistic injuries, human beings are more or less comfortable in close relationships. Triangulation can also serve as a way to bring back excitement into a relationship. It is common that when people have affairs, they are looking for the excitement that has left their current relationship. A typical example would be a relationship in which the mother of one of the partners is constantly present, either in person or on the phone, and thus drawn into the couple’s life, heightening frustration and eliminating excitement.

The triangle would often draw in the most vulnerable 'other person' available in the environment. “Many couples are aware of the discomfort triangular situations may cause their relationship, but are uncertain as to what, if anything, can be done.” (Crowe & Ridley 2000). Some of the problems triangulation can cause are loss of sleep, appetite, concentration and the sense of self-worth (particularly when the other partner is having an affair), jealousy, guilt, depression, rivalry and the urge for revenge.


Detriangulation can be addressed in transpersonal therapy to facilitate differentiation. Initially, the therapist might be welcomed as the third point of the triangle and their job is to raise awareness of the process and explain the function of the triangulation to the partners. By encouraging both clients to approach their presenting issue from the “I” perspective (e.g. I feel left out when... or I feel hurt when...) rather than blaming (“you always...or...your mother always...) individuals can be provided with “experiences of self-worth, clarity and compassion, personal responsibility and unity consciousness” (Andrande, 1988).

Another intervention might be to draw clearer boundaries around the couple’s relationship. This can be supported by exploring what the two members of the couple have in common and what drew them together at the beginning of their relationship. Once the couple has explored what their relationship used to be based on, they can continue to look at the changes that have occurred over time and what it now might be lacking.

When the focus has been brought back to the relationship it might be possible to explore the positive function of the triangle e.g. how the triangle might be protecting the couple from facing difficult feelings. This can lead to an exploration of how the positive elements can be brought back into the couple’s relationship e.g. how the support one partner gets from his mother might be substituted by support from the partner.

If the triangle can’t or won’t be given up, the partners can explore in the safety of the therapeutic relationship what needs to change in the relationship to enable distance to the third party and find an agreement suitable for both parties.

It might be necessary for the therapist to facilitate a grieving process if the change of the triangle is experienced as a loss e.g. giving up an affair or losing the wife to the newborn baby. In this therapeutic work, it is very important that the therapist is aware of their own values in order to be able to facilitate the couple to focus on the needs of the relationship rather than putting the blame on each other or claiming moral superiority.


  • Andrade, P.Y. (1988). Family of origin: A land of opportunity for Transpersonal Therapy, [Online]. Psychosynthesis Resources. Available from [Accessed: 6 May 2010].
  • Bobes, T. and Rothman, B. (2002). Doing couple therapy. W.E. Norton & Company, New York, London.
  • Crowe, M. and Ridley, J. (2000). Therapy with couples. 2nd ed. Blackwell Science: Oxford.
  • Solomon, M.F. (1992). Narcissism and intimacy. W.W. Norton & Co, Inc., New York

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend
Woking, Surrey, GU22
Written by Carmen Von Haenisch, BA (Hons) Counselling , MBACP (Snr.Accred) Supervisor
Woking, Surrey, GU22

Carmen von Haenisch is an experienced Psychotherapist and Coach and has been involved in developing and delivering trainings and workshops over the last 10 years. She works in private practice face to face and online and wants to deliver more high quality, interactive workshops with a group of young professionals in Germany and the UK.


Find a therapist dealing with Relationship problems

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals