Airing relationship problems with outsiders are not always helpful!!! Read on to know what research says.
KEY POINTS: A person “triangulates” during periods of tension by reaching outside the relationship and drawing another individual in. Studies demonstrate that sharing information with friends in some cases may harm the relationship. When a relationship problem arises, going to the source and talking about it with a partner may be the best way to navigate it.
Family systems theory, as enunciated by Murray Bowen, has a systemic focus. Two main touchstones of his theory are the degree of anxiety experienced and the integration of the self (Bowen, 1976). Bowen posits that while people are often capable of handling anxiety, sustained or chronic anxiety can become problematic. Specifically, it can interfere with the person’s ability to differentiate, or the ability to be less reactive to other family members’ emotional states (Bowen, 1976).
Triangulation may occur in response to the experience of anxiety. A person “triangulates” during periods of tension, by reaching outside of the relationship and drawing another individual in. According to Bowen, this third party stabilizes the relationship. If more than three people are involved, interconnecting triangles will form. While these triangles may seem beneficial, as the anxiety is reduced, the underlying problem that caused the need to triangulate is never resolved (Nichols & Schwartz, 1998).
There is little empirical research examining triangulation in romantic relationships. However, there are studies that investigate how sharing information with others can impact a person’s relationship.
Jensen, Fish, Blocker, Collins, Brown, and Kose (2018) conducted a study with 71 couples and found that discussing romantic problems was associated with elevated stress. In addition, people were more stressed when speaking with friends compared to speaking with their partners. Therefore, bringing an outsider in can have a physiological impact.
Helms, Crouter, and McHale (2003) examined “marriage work,” which involves the disclosure of romantic problems. They found that husbands tend to engage in more marriage work with their spouses compared to their friends. Wives, however, engage in similar levels of marriage work with spouses and friends.
It was also shown that for women who rarely share with their husbands, turning towards their friends was negatively related to feelings of marital love and positively related to ineffective arguing. Therefore, it is important for them to turn toward the relationship to share with their partners.
In a similar study, Jensen and Rauer (2013) examined “relationship work,” which involves the discussion of romantic problems with both partners and friends. A total of 106 participants between the ages of 19 and 30 years filled out questionnaires about themselves, their romantic relationship, and interactions with their best friends.
Results demonstrated that the participants engaged in more relationship work with partners than with friends, which was linked to better romantic functioning. Additionally, happiness was greater for those who turned more frequently to their partners than their friends.
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The researchers suggest that engaging both a partner and friend may lead to optimal relationship functioning, especially when it comes to men. Jensen and Rauer found that “men who turned frequently to both a partner and a friend reported the greatest levels of relationship happiness. These males possibly benefited from being more expressive as they appeared to discuss their relationship frequently with others” (p. 463).
While these studies didn’t specifically focus on triangulating, they demonstrate that sharing information with friends in some cases may harm the relationship. Therefore, when you have a problem, it is best to go to the source and discuss it with your partner/spouse.
References: Bowen, M. (1976). Theory in the practice of psychotherapy. Family Therapy: Theory and Practice, 4(1), 2-90. Helms, H. M., Crouter, A. C., & McHale, S. M. (2003). Marital quality and spouses’ marriage work with close friends and each other. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65(4), 953-962. Jensen, J. F., Fish, M., Blocker, D., Collins, M., Brown, B., & Kose, O. (2018). Psychophysiological arousal while discussing romantic challenges with partners and friends. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 46(3), 213-226. Jensen, J. F., & Rauer, A. J. (2014). Turning inward versus outward: Relationship work in young adults and romantic functioning. Personal Relationships, 21(3), 451-467. Nichols, M., & Schwartz, R. (1988). Family therapy: Concepts and methods (4th ed). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Written by: Marisa T. Cohen Originally appeared on: Psychology Today For more information about Dr. Marisa T. Cohen and her work, please visit her website: www.marisatcohen.com Republished with permission