Listening, Hearing, Communicating

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How the concept of triangulated communication can be used to better understand family conflict and substance use disorder in therapy

We have often explored the important roles that family systems and family relationships play in therapeutic and treatment practices for substance use disorder and other mental health conditions. There is a great deal of evidence supporting the fact that conflicts within families, and the complex emotional and social dynamics among members of a family, have a significant impact on individual mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders (ED), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or substance use disorder (SUD). Armed with this knowledge, how can we begin to explore the dynamics of the family system in order to treat these conditions and the trauma that lies at their core?

Unpacking family system dynamics to understand how communication flows – or is impeded from flowing – is an important element in unlocking the recovery process and working towards lasting treatment. This week we’ll explore one of the fundamental concepts within family systems theory and family therapy: triangulation and, more specifically, triangulated communication. This term is also central to research on substance use disorder and treatment and helps us grasp some of the nuances of how family systems influence therapeutic measures toward recovery. 

What is Triangulation?

Triangulation is the way in which individuals avoid communicating directly, often by bringing in another person to carry messages or translate them to the intended recipient. This could take the form of a mother asking her son to tell her daughter that she needs to get her grades up.  In this case, to avoid conflict, the mother brings in a third family member to make a triangle. 

Or, it could look like a young man who, in discussions with a therapist about his substance use disorder, wants to talk about the problems his husband is experiencing at work. In this instance, the triangle is being formed to avoid talking openly and directly about the problem at hand: substance use. 

Often, families make patterns of these triangulations. It can easily become a habit for a parent to complain about their partner to a child rather than talk directly to the partner, for example. Over time, this becomes a problem that can have significant effects on the entire family system. Nichols and Schwartz, psychologists who have researched the concept of triangulation, suggest that, “whenever therapy isn’t progressing as one expects, one should look for triangles.” [1] 

Triangulated Communication 

This form of triangulation changes the nature of the communication within a family. Rather than directly addressing the family member who is being perceived as a threat, problem, or as creating conflict, the person on the receiving end of that threat, problem, or conflict attempts to use the third party to avoid risking the integrity of the relationship. Thus, family members begin to use triangulated communication in order to address problems. [2]

The major problem with this lies in the negative patterns of triangulation which begin to develop within the family system. For example, in her work, Janet Woititz emphasizes the importance of communication and inclusion to the development of self-esteem and notes that these factors are often lacking in a relationship between a parent with a substance use disorder and their child. This is because the parent, when sober, wants to make up for neglecting their child during periods of heavy substance use but does not want to bring up that neglect with the child directly, out of guilt, sadness, or fear. Instead, such parents will praise the child to other people – family members or friends. They will attempt to address their own behavior toward the child through another person rather than communicating with the child themselves. In this way, the parent is using triangulated communication to fix a relationship with a child that has been damaged by substance use. [3]

Robert Subby also links triangulated communication to codependency in unhealthy or dysfunctional family relationships. In his work, Subby emphasizes how relying on the presence or support of another family member often emerges as a compulsive behavior pattern for managing emotional and psychological pain. As he writes, “co-dependents would rather talk about almost anything but themselves – the kids, the relatives.” In this case, triangulated communication is used to shift attention away from the self-esteem and self-worth issues at the foundation of a great deal of family conflict. [4] 

Communicating in Recovery and Treatment

Understanding how triangulated communication is a destructive tool to avoid dealing with underlying trauma or pain is critical when engaging in recovery and treatment for families. Individuals within a family get caught up in their own and others’ behaviors and intentions; people often use triangulated communication to avoid having direct conflict with those whom they love or to avoid pressing too deeply at a family sore spot and hurting another. [5] But, when triangulated communication is at play in a family system, people aren’t having face-to-face conversations. Information, therefore, gets lost in the process.

What’s more, triangulated communication often sets up patterns of conflict. For example, over time one person may routinely fall into the role of victim, another their persecutor, and a third the rescuer. This can easily be envisioned as a father who is routinely hard on his son and a mother who comes to the rescue. It soon becomes the role of the mother to communicate what the father “really” meant to the son so that rather than address each other directly, the son and the father fall further and further into their roles of disappointment and tyrant, regardless of how they truly feel about the situation.

Breaking apart these triangles helps examine the actual feelings and desires of each of the individuals in a family system. This can help us return to direct communication in order to clearly discuss and explore the issues at the root of the problem rather than relying on triangulation.

Sources

[1] Gale, & Muruthi, B. A. (2019). Triangles and Triangulation in Family Systems Theory. In Encyclopedia of Couple and Family Therapy (pp. 3069–3071). Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-49425-8_758

[2] Schwartz, A. (N.D) On the Family as a System and the Problem of Triangulation. MentalHelp.net. American Addiction Centres. https://www.mentalhelp.net/blogs/on-the-family-as-a-system-and-the-problem-of-triangulation/

[3] Woititz, J. (1990) Adult Children of Alcoholics. Health Communications Inc. 

[4] Subby, R. (1987) Lost in the Shuffle: The Co-Dependent Reality. Health Communications Inc. 

[5] Dallos, R. and Vetere, A. (2012) Systems Theory, Family Attachments and Processes of Triangulation: Does the Concept of Triangulation Offer a Useful Bridge? Journal of Family Therapy. 34(2) May. DOI:10.1111/j.1467-6427.2011.00554.x

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