She: „Honey, have you taken out the trash yet?”

He: “No, but I’ll do it later, stop being so pushy!”

She: “How am I pushy?! I just don’t enjoy a stinking kitchen and I don’t see, why it’s me again having to take care of that!”

He: “What do you mean by ‘again’? Don’t you see what I’m carrying for us all the time? I hate you bitching about things all the time!”

She: “Then look for another idiot who’s willing to take care of a beautiful home next to all the other things that I take care of. I don’t need this.”

He: “So typical, you don’t get me at all! I bust my ass around this place and that’s what I get for it?!”

She: “You’re free to leave, if you don’t like it! In any case, you’ll sleep on the couch tonight.”

Hmmm, that escalated quickly. It is reasonable to think that the two of them did not have that fight for the first time and there seems to be quite some background. But what did actually happen here? And what might be a healthy way of dealing with it?

In pondering the question, what a healthy relationship is built upon, the term “triangulation” has become important to me. It describes a skill and a developmental challenge, that every human being is existentially confronted with at some point or another. Without some kind of mastering this skill, I deem fulfilling relationships impossible. Not to be able to triangulate means to be imprisoned between submission and demand and to have a very limited tolerance for differences. In many cases, it means to prefer staying alone to risking to lose oneself in a relationship. It can also mean to feel lonely within a relationship, because acknowledging the existence of someone, who is truly different, can be so threatening that we either stop perceiving ourselves or the other person fully or accurately. Without triangulation, growing beyond egocentricity is blocked and real closeness without giving up one’s identity and differences is impossible.

There is a lot of literature about this term within the field of psychoanalysis, but unfortunately for the most part, I find it difficult to understand and digest. Most of the time a satisfying reference to everyday observations and feelings is missing. The origin of the term “triangulation” goes back to Sigmund Freud’s ideas of the Oedipus-complex and later, among others, to Hans W. Loewald, Margaret Mahler and Ernst Abelin’s Organizer- and Triangulation model, which also describes developmental stages before the oedipal stage. At this point I do not want to go into the details of these models, but elaborate on what I myself see in the term. But I make reference to what is called “the early triangulation”, not the oedipal one. I also want to differentiate the term from the dysfunctional triangulation within the framework of systemic family-therapy. I thereby hope to enlighten a phenomenon that is both complex and often unconscious, despite its everyday occurrence.


Following the roots of the term, triangulation points to a triad, which is formed by a “third party” joining a dyad, i.e. a relationship of two. This third party is necessary to create a mediating balance between two different poles. Without this mediation, the differences in a relationship can be grounds for a power struggle, which leaves only space for one position: mine or yours. And even if I “win”, the result will not be entirely satisfying, because the relationship will suffer: the “we” loses. And the part in me that wants belonging, connection and closeness, loses as well. But how do I take care of the “we” without neglecting the “me”?

I assume it is safe to say that this question is overwhelming for many people. Not primarily, because it can already be mentally complex, but because the feelings going along with this question can be overwhelming and scare us to death. And the more important the relationship is, the more intense those feelings can become. If you have ever been in a situation that I have outlined above, you know the intensity behind what has been said. To think clearly while anger, hurt and fear are raging within you, is impossible. The nervous system is hijacked and on a rollercoaster ride without seatbelts. Instead of calm discourse or constructive interchange, only fight, flight or freeze are possible. When our focus is limited to the current situation, we might wonder, how this is possible: “Didn’t they just talk about the trash?” And yes, without understanding relevant experiences from the early stages of life (the consequences of which reach far into adulthood), it is impossible to realize, how situations like this can be so intense.

Close to the abyss

Since a relative stability is essential for learning and growth as a child, a substantial amount of uncovering (e.g. in psychotherapeutic settings) is necessary to realize, how precarious the childhood of a human being actually is – especially from the child’s point of view. We are maximally dependent on our parents and caregivers in seeing us and taking care of us, because nobody else would do it. And even in our relatively stable social situation, where child protective services might step in, in case of violence or neglect and make sure, we are adopted by the best foster parents of the world – how would a child know about that? When the imagination stops regarding where we sleep tonight, whether we get something to eat or have a warm place, where we are treated with care, we hit a limit very quickly. And it is even quicker in the earliest stages of life, when we have not yet developed the capacity for imagination. I believe we rarely develop an idea of death, but in most cases, there is something like a “fog of dread”, where images grow fuzzy and vague. And when we get too close to this fog for too long, we feel panic.

Since we are dependent on our primary relationship (most often to the mother) for security, emotional safety and stability, this panic can also come up, whenever we want something else than the mother. This difference can pose a threat to the relationship. Depending on the age we are speaking of, the possibilities of the child are varying of course. But let us assume we are talking about an 18-months old girl wanting to self-determine what to eat and how much. If the mother is either incapable or unwilling to meet the girl in her preferences, the situation can become quite dangerous to the girl: either she affirms what she wants and risks the relationship, or she gives up her will in order to calm the relationship and soothe her nervous system. As long as this is a power struggle between mother and child, the latter choice is more likely. After all, we can survive without expressing ourselves, but without a basis for survival, we have no chance for enjoying our self-expression. The price for this is, that we need to deny, forget and repress parts or ourselves so that we do not experience this self-relinquishment as unbearable. If we do not manage to do so, fight or flight impulses become so forceful, that we are not able to resist them. If you can imagine what a 3-year old must feel, who wants to flee out into the world, unable to hold all the pain and anger, you might be able to understand, how threatening these feelings can be.

However, in order to develop a healthy sense of ourserlves, we need a situation, in which we do not have to decide between self-expression and maintaining the relationship. And this situation only comes about by way of triangulation. Traditionally the “third element” is the father. And for purposes of illustration, I will talk about the father and his ideal effect on the situation. On a meta level, triangulation points to a mediating element in general that can bridge any kind of differences. Further below I will talk about what kind of other forms this mediating element can take, which can have a similar effect.

The ideal situation

Assuming mother and child can have different ideas and feelings about what and how much to eat, there can be a power struggle between them. In case the father joins them and he has a loving bond towards mother and child, he can mediate. Possibly he sees something else in the behavior of the little girl, e.g. the human need to choose for herself and feel the effect, that she can have on others. When he empathizes with that, he can name it and stand in for her. Doing that he becomes her “attorney”: he protects her and stands by her side. In this moment, the little girl can start to relax, because the threat from the mother is decreasing.

However, the relationship is only safe again, when the father is not only the girl’s attorney, but also a mediator. And he only can be that, when he is able to understand the needs of the mother’s as well, e.g. her worry about “doing it right”, her exhaustion and her needs for empathy and rest. The father’s presence and consciousness can create a space, in which mediation is possible. The little girl can experience her feelings and needs consciously, as well as the mother, without increasing the tension. At this point the question is not anymore, how much to eat, but what the underlying feelings and needs are: the exhaustion and discouragement of the mother, who needs space for herself and her inner life – and the understandable need of the girl to determine for herself, what she wants to eat. Given this space, a third way can emerge that works both for mother and child and serves their relationship. How exactly this might look like is not as important anymore, because the connection is re-established on the heart level. Maybe the girl is satisfied, maybe there are other ideas what she could eat, maybe the mother needs half an hour for herself and the father takes over.

I am aware of the fact, that I am describing an ideal situation, which many people would have wished for, but actually might have experienced rarely. In doing this, I want to create a conscious metric for how it might work – on the basis of which we might better understand, what was missing in many cases and why it was not possible under these circumstances. And what would be required today, if we want to grow beyond the power struggle.

Different paths with the same intention

As I have said before, the father is an ideal example. This constellation derives its power from the fact, that the child’s bond to the mother is usually the strongest and the need, to be able to balance autonomy with connection is nowhere greater but here. In a less potent version, the roles can be reversed: the conflict can be between father and child, while the mother mediates. Every other close adult with the respective consciousness can have the mediating role. The mediating element can also consist in the mother’s awareness of her legitimate needs and boundaries, while also sensing what the child needs. In that case, the mediation happens within her awareness and she creates a space, in which she first empathizes with herself and then opens up to understand the child better.

In other cases, external situations or states within the body can have a mediating effect. As a child, most people experienced extra care when they were sick. If the illness is not severe, there can even be a yearning for being sick, because it sent a powerful signal to the mother: “My needs are important.” That is how the so-called “secondary gain” for sickness comes about, which at its core can be the relief, that our needs have a place within the relationship, without us having to give up on the relationship. Another way, children can try to effect the early triangulation, is by way of one’s sex and sexuality – a topic about which I want to write in a future article.

I am sure that there are even more ways for little children to try to escape the distress and impossibility of this power struggle, but in essence I want to point out the quality of connection in mediation and why it is important. Seeing how few people will have experienced such an ideal situation, the question might emerge, how this piece of wisdom could be useful. Obviously, we have no way of changing the past. But we can start to examine it in such a way, that we can have more complete images and more comprehensive understanding of where we stand internally and what we have to feel and understand, before we are able to triangulate successfully.

Mediating internally

One way to describe the “goal” of psychotherapy is “to become the mother and father to ourselves, that we did not have.” This addresses the fact, that consciousness in itself can be the mediating element necessary for triangulation. When I uncover, feel and become able to name what is happening within me, I take a witnessing position towards myself. From this position, I can mediate – either between me and an important person in the external world, or between different positions within myself, like e.g. when I want to be autonomous while also wanting to be close to someone. Without this awareness, I might experience my needs as internal pressure, that I have to submit to as quickly as possible, if I do not wish to experience unfathomable tension. And when doing so leads to a conflict with a significant other… well, a night on the couch can follow. Or a couple of nights.

To raise consciousness on feelings and needs there are a couple of approaches that I find helpful. Next to classical psychotherapy I appreciate Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg the most. However, the most difficult aspect in developing triangulation is not on the level of mental understanding, but is rooted deeper, emotionally and physically in the body. As I have said above, the overwhelm usually consists in not being able to contain the intensity of feelings that might arise in conflict with close people. Among them I count disappointment, anger, hurt and fear. Sometimes it is even the “beautiful” feelings that can trigger a panic, because they remind us of our vulnerability and the possible pain associated with them.

Being able to consciously hold those feelings requires long time inner work and internal examination in most cases. For without it, those feelings might come up as pure panic, feelings of dissolution, deep despair, fear of death and other, much more mysterious symptoms, which can sometimes be so extremely remote to one’s consciousness, that they only arise physically in the body. Migraine and stomach-ache are among the usual suspects. And the less awareness we have of our personal history and the present-day connections to it, the more mysterious and scary those states of consciousness can be to us, leading us to do all sorts of things to avoid them. Among them can be addictions, self-images and beliefs, on to which we hold fiercely, despite clear facts indicating something else. But also attempts to keep a beloved person at a distance or put pressure on him or her to keep unconscious deals and submit to our wishes, can be attempts to avoid those kinds of feelings.

However understandable those defenses are, avoiding these states consistently might get in the way of taking them into account adequately in current conflict situations. Sometimes people need to have dire crises, before they are ready to deal with feelings that they avoided and defended against all there life. Before people are willing to face it, external circumstances sometimes have to become so unbearable, that the internal pain becomes more acceptable by comparison. Since this can in turn become overwhelming, these processes may take a long time. Thereby, step for step, layer for layer, the feelings associated with the early drama of the power struggle, rebellion and submission can come into awareness.

When this path has been walked upon for a good deal, the adult consciousness can recognize, touch and hold the early distress, just like the ideal parent would have done it in the past. We can then become our own attorney and mediator. This enables us to feel real and deep compassion for the child that we once were and whose feelings and experiences influence who we are to this day. And with this kind of compassion I can mediate – be it between different parts of myself or between me and a beloved person, with whom I have differences. Apart from this, I gain the inner freedom to maintain boundaries within a relationship and create distance at times, when I need space for internal mediation. Should I come to the conclusion, that my counterpart does not meet the requirements that I have for a relationship, I can decide to end it – and thanks to the internal mediation I can hold and process the feelings triggered by this loss, that would have been unbearable as a child.

An alternative

Against the background of what I have discussed so far, I would like to pick up the dialogue from the beginning. But this time with the difference, that the man is able to start with triangulating between parts within himself and his partner, before she joins him. By that I want to demonstrate what kind of space is possible thanks to triangulation, in which conflict, differences but also connection have a place to be.

She: „Honey, have you taken out the trash yet?”

He: “No, but I’ll do it later, stop being so pushy!”

She: “How am I pushy?! I just don’t enjoy a stinking kitchen and I don’t see, why it’s me again having to take care of that!”

He: “Hang on… let’s slow this down and check… something’s going out of hand here…”

Despite being tense and angry, she stays still and allows him to take space and feel. He closes his eyes and notices, how tense he is. He realizes his fear, he might not be able to meet his professional goals in time and lose money that he would have wanted available for him and his partner. On a deeper level, he can feel the despair, which he already felt as a little boy, when he did not have words for how he was feeling. And how he would have wished for his mother to sense it and understand him. That had not been the case in many instances and his father had not been there as well to take care of the understanding. It had taken him a long time to be able to cope with the deep pain and powerlessness, instead of telling himself that he did not need this or would be able to effect it himself at some point in the future. On one level, he so would have loved to be understood by his partner right now. He breathes into the pain of not being able to change that and gives it space. After a couple of breaths he can switch and see her own internal pressure, although he does not yet know, where it is coming from. He takes a deep breath before opening his eyes and saying: “You know, honey, I notice that there seems to be a lot of pressure you’re under. Would you like to tell me, what’s going on for you?”

His calm and friendly tone touches her and calms her down to a considerable degree already. She says: “Darling, yes… that’s right. Sorry that I snapped at you. I have heard now for a couple of times that you wanted to do stuff later and then they weren’t done. This totally stresses me out, because I then begin to doubt, that you really hear me and take me seriously.”

He takes that in and is relieved to be able to sense her heart in her message. Because he knows her well, he can hear on a deeper level how this seems to touch a childhood issue of hers. Her needs had often been in question when they were different than what her mother wanted or deemed important. Because they had talked about that many a time, he answers: “That hits you at that old spot, doesn’t it?”

She: “Yes… thank you for seeing that right now.” She sighs and tears are welling up. She’s touched that he sees her. At the same time, she can feel, how deep this pain is and how hard it is sometimes to bear this pain consciously. Let alone to hold it and have compassion with it. Instead she often feels the impulse, to put herself under pressure and to angrily pass on the pressure to someone outside. Sometimes the pressure can lead her to dissociate and collapse, feeling nothing, just like how it was when she was little and unable to do anything without her mother’s help. She feels the distress like an incredibly heavy load on her chest, that almost takes her breath away. She remembers, how lonely she used to be as a little girl, when she did not get the attention and understanding by her mother that she needed, while her father was also missing and unable to mediate. She too sometimes wishes her partner could understand her, without her having to say anything – after all, would not that be enough, to not having to experience this despair at all? At the same time, she is aware enough to understand the price he would have to pay, if he tried to prevent that. He would have to pay way more attention to her than to him – and that would hurt the relationship and eventually her as well. After a lot of attempts in the past, she knows, that this is a price, she does not want to pay.

To him she says: “You know, I know you can’t relieve me from having to tell you, when I’m scared that I’m not taken seriously. Although I really wish you would do that, sometimes. And I can see that you are under pressure and household chores are not your top priority right now…” She stops herself, breathes deeply and says: “I notice now, I can start to relax again… the intense stress is gone. I can see my doubt and my despair from the past. And I also notice that you are taking me seriously.”

He feels relief, is touched and invites her to a deep, tender embrace. After her accepting it, he says gently into her ear: “What do think of me taking out the trash? And after that we could cuddle on the couch together.”

She: “I would like that very much… I’ll prepare the snacks then.”

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