Power Dynamics and Management of Thirds: Avoiding Triangulation in Therapy

Couple therapy is challenging, and some clinicians find it too intimidating to attempt. They worry, for example, that a misattuned observation could alienate not just one but both partners. There are also potential issues involving tact, timing of interventions, and poor management of session structure. Enter PACT.

What is PACT?

The Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy® (PACT) draws on research from developmental neuroscience, attachment theory, and arousal regulation to address relational conflict. Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT along with his wife, Tracey Boldemann-Tatkin, PhD, founded the PACT Institute in 2008. I have found that PACT is most effective in treating challenging couples and their accompanying relational stressors.

In therapy the greater challenge lies not in working with what is known but rather in what often underlies why couples seek therapy: their inability to tolerate and regulate individual and dyadic stress. PACT addresses the early development of partners’ attachment experiences with their primary caregivers, explores any intrusions in the couple bond and helps to assess the partners’ capacities for co-regulation (the ability to manage their emotions, as well as know when and how to soothe or excite each other).

Intrusions into a relationship might be due to children, work, family, or other life stressors and are a normal part of life. Secure-functioning couples tolerate these interruptions and maintain co-regulation, even if the intrusions stress their ability to preserve their couple bond. However, some partners are unable to tolerate this and turn to a “safe third” outside the relationship—such as a person, place, or thing. This is called triangulation. Individuals who experienced insecure attachment by caregivers are more likely to use triangulation in adult romantic relationships. This can create betrayal and abandonment if one or both partners focus prolonged attention on a safe third, to the exclusion of the other.

A PACT therapist will address triangulation using a technique we call management of thirds. This intervention helps the couple shift toward secure functioning and co-regulation.

Kristin and Leo came to couple therapy several years ago to resolve their endless arguing. She shared that they often included their son in their arguments, and now they were on the brink of separation.

Kristin was an only child, and her parents divorced when she was young. Her childhood was fraught with tension and hostility due to her parents competing for her attention. She remembers feeling lonely and invisible when her parents argued about her, which is similar to how she feels when she and Leo argue.

Leo’s mother was a stay-at-home mom, and his father worked at the family business. Leo’s father had several affairs, which led to violent arguments in the home. To make matters worse, Leo’s mother vented her anger about the affairs to Leo, and he felt caught in the middle.

Early in our work, Kristin and Leo arrived at a session in the throes of an argument about the previous evening. They took their place in the office and continued the fight. 

Leo: [to therapist] She does this to me every time. She makes me out to be the heavy. Do you see what I have to put up with? Maybe you can talk some sense into her.

Kristin: [to therapist] And he’s worried about my behavior! Why can’t he see what he does? It was when he decided to get involved that our son couldn’t take it and stormed off and locked himself in his room.

Leo: [to therapist] Wise kid, right? He’s learning early.

Therapist: I’m curious. Most if not all of your arguments focus on your son, correct?

Leo: [to therapist] I’m telling you. She doesn’t see what she does, but our son certainly does. He’s smart to run from her.

Therapist: From what I can tell, he runs from both of you.

Leo and Kristin: What do you mean?

Therapist: You’re both trying to win my approval in this session and not trying to communicate with one another. I’m not surprised your son runs for cover. I suspect you use your son just like you are using me—for his approval.

Leo: That sounds like a lot of pressure for him to have to deal with.

Kristin: I feel awful.

Therapist: You both use me much like you were used by your parents. Kristin, you felt lonely and invisible. Leo, your mother vented her anger to you about your father. Maybe it’s time you speak directly to each other and begin to recognize and honor each other. You don’t need your son’s approval, but he needs you to learn how to handle your own problems. Let’s begin with what you need from each other.

After this session, Kristin and Leo started the tough but valuable work of caretaking their relationship. Their childhoods had not taught them about healthy dyadic communication or emotional regulation. I helped them see that they used their son much in the same way their parents used them. Moreover, their triangulation included using me, their therapist, as a safe third. When they turned to address me, I redirected them into the care of their partner, where their focus needed to be. The PACT technique of management of thirds interrupted their triangulation by helping them co-regulate and operate as a securely functioning two-person system.

Being in a relationship can be stressful and made more difficult if a couple does not have the skills to manage their own and their partner’s emotions. Learning how to successfully regulate the inter-personal dynamics goes a long way to creating a successful partnership.

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