Stuck in the Swirl Part II: How to Get Unstuck from Emotional & Relational Triangles in Marriages
This is part 2 of my Stuck in the Swirl blog. If you have not read part 1, "Stuck in the Swirl: How to Get Unstuck from Emotional & Relational Triangles in Your Marriage", I highly recommend doing so.
In marriage counseling or couples therapy, "the swirl" is something that comes up often. In fact, this is something families also experience. For this reason, "the swirl" and how to exit the swirl is a common topic in, couples therapy, marriage counseling, and family therapy.
Getting out of the swirl of emotional triangles is incredibly difficult. Yet, with some understanding of what they are and how they operate, it is possible.
Getting Out of the Swirl of Emotional Triangles: Detriangling
The process of removing oneself from an emotional triangle is called detriangling. This process is difficult to teach because it is the result of a way of thinking more than a technique.
For that reason, this article will begin with necessary principles on how to detriangle effectively. This will be followed by some practical techniques to give an idea of what it looks like.
Timing is Everything
The first principle in detriangling is timing. It is best to attempt detriangling during times of low or medium tension. This makes detriangling easier for you and it makes it more likely that the other members of the triangle will be able to “hear” and react constructively to your efforts.
It is important to choose an opportunity to detriangle in which the other person can “hear” what you are conveying. This means that they will actually take in what you say and think about it.
When tension is high, it is difficult for thinking to occur. For this reason, a detriangling move is often not successful in these situations.
Instead, it is best to focus on managing your anxiety and trying not to act on your anxious reactivity. In these situations, using humor and banter to decrease the emotional tension could be helpful.
Emotional Neutrality: It Can Be Done & Is an Important Principle
The second principal of detriangling is emotional neutrality. Emotional neutrality involves not being emotionally reactive to your own or other’s beliefs.
A person who is emotionally neutral is able to be objective about their beliefs. They are also able to receive evidence or objections to these beliefs without being influenced by their own emotions.
This does not mean being indecisive or flipflopping on matters of importance. It simply means that one is able to think objectively about their own beliefs.
A person who is emotionally neutral also does not become emotionally stuck trying to change the beliefs of others.
Lack of emotional neutrality is indicated by:
Trying to fix others
Bailing others out/ Rescuing
Emotional neutrality is indicated by:
Not taking sides
Not thinking in terms of what “should” be
Not making demands
Not being defensive
Remain Connected to the Other Person: Communicate in a Way That Invites Connection
Emotional neutrality alone will not achieve detriangling. It is also necessary to remain in connection with the other members of the triangle and communicate your emotional neutrality effectively.
One thing that helps achieve this is to speak and act in a way that motivates others to interact directly with the person they have a problem with. This often “feels” wrong because our natural reaction tends to be to keep people apart when there is tension in the relationship.
However, it is often the case that when one takes a step back from the emotional intensity of the relationship it is found that this instinctive avoidance only maintains the problem and your position in the middle of it.
At its most basic level, detriangling is resisting the emotional pressure to pull or be pulled into relational conflict. This is done through understanding the emotional process in an objective manner.
Once this is achieved, a stance of emotional neutrality can be taken and communicated to others. When this happens we are able to decrease our own reactivity and create positive change in our lives.
Sometimes the process of detriangleing also reduces tension in the broader family. Yet, detriangling will fail if this is the main goal because trying to change others is not emotionally neutral.
Practical Techniques in Detriangling from Emotional & Relational Triangles
Once tension is at a moderate to low level detriangling is more successful. Some practical techniques that could achieve this are:
Relate to Each Person in the Triangle About the Issue
As mentioned earlier, taking sides shows a lack of emotional neutrality. Relating to each person helps to not take sides.
Focus on Principles & Objectivity - Not Taking Sides
Focusing on what you believe in instead of what others should or should not believe in helps maintain emotional neutrality and prevents taking sides.
Acknowledge Emotion Without Agreeing With It
Emotions are not facts, but this does not mean that to detriangle must be a robot. Emotions will naturally be felt and there is nothing wrong with this!
Go ahead and acknowledge the emotion with the understanding that it may not be a fact. Dismissing how someone else feels is a sure way to stay stuck in the triangle.
Ask How the Other People in the Triangle May Solve Their Problem
By having others take responsibility for their own issues you are able to maintain emotional neutrality and continue remaining connected yet still a separate person.
Comfortable With Familiarity: Even if It's Unpleasant Familiarity
The art of understanding triangles and detriangling from them is incredibly difficult. This is why we get “stuck in the swirl” in the first place.
Changing a way of thinking takes time and there will be much trial and error. This is made more difficult by the fact that detriangling from emotionally charged situations may result in intense emotional reactions.
Even if we do not like the patterns we are stuck in, they are familiar and someone not “playing their part” in the family dance is uncomfortable. In order to get you to revert back to your old “role”, the other may attempt to push your buttons by:
4. Being cutoff or distant from you
When detriangling is done with true emotional objectivity, these reactions are often short lived. It is when we try detriangling prematurely that we run into trouble.
If the situation has a low or moderate emotional charge it is probable that no major harm will be done and you can learn from the experience. However, a failed attempt at detriangling in a situation that is emotionally intense can make the problem worse.
Lean on the Experts for Support: Marriage Counseling, Couples Therapy, or Family Therapy
For this reason, marriage counseling, couples therapy, or family therapy can be very helpful. Having a trained and experienced couples therapist or family therapist can help detangle the complexity.
They can act as a coach to help you avoid the common pitfalls involved in the complex task of detriangling. They can also act as an objective third party to help you see the emotional process you are stuck in.
And the good news is that marriage counseling, couples therapy, and family therapy often take less time to be successful that traditional, one-on-one counseling.
If You'd Like to Learn More
If you would like to learn more about the ideas and principles behind emotional and relational triangles, below are the reference used for this blog post. These are marriage counseling, couples therapy, and family therapy leaders in the world of therapy.
Bowen, M. (1985). Family therapy in clinical practice. J. Aronson : Distributed by Scribner Book Companies.
Kerr, M. E., & Bowen, M. (1988). Family evaluation: An approach based on Bowen theory (1st ed). Norton.
Titelman, P. (2014). Clinical Applications of Bowen Family Systems Theory (0 ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315809717
Triangles. (n.d.). The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. Retrieved January 16, 2023, from https://www.thebowencenter.org/triangles
Katy Teen & Family Counseling: Couples Therapy & Marriage Counseling Katy, TX & Houston
At Katy Teen & Family Counseling, our talented couples therapists and marriage counselors can help you navigate the complex emotional and relational triangles we sometimes find ourselves in.
Couples therapy and marriage counseling helps by allowing an objective third person to help untangle what can be hard to see when we're in the midst of the triangle.
If you are ready to start marriage counseling or couples therapy at our Katy, Tx location of Katy Teen & Family Counseling, all you need to do is follow these three simple steps:
Contact Katy Teen & Family Counseling
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Other Therapy and Counseling Services Offered at Katy Teen & Family Counseling
At Katy Teen & Family Counseling, we provide a variety of therapy approaches that are supported by research and shown to be effective. Some of the teen therapy, young adult counseling, & family counseling services we offer are:
Board Certified Neurofeedback Therapy
Peak performance (optimal academic brain performance)
Peak performance (optimal athletic brain performance)
Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART)
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR Therapy)
Group Therapy for Teens
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
About the Author
Through his education and experience, Justin Perry, LMFT-A specializes in couples therapy, marriage counseling, & family therapy.
Justin also specializes in teen counseling & young adult therapy. Justin understands the important role that the family plays in each teenager's long-term success.
Justin helps teens, young adults, and families who are struggling with behavioral challenges such as depression, anxiety, social anxiety, panic attacks, trauma, PTSD, gifted and talented teens, and more.
Justin views teen counseling and young adult therapy through the lens of the family system. Here he draws on his education and experience as a marriage and family therapist to help teens, families, and couples meet their goals in therapy.