When Natalie received her first check the first thing she did was buy a sofa. She’d never bought anything brand new before so in her excitement she told her family. The delivery truck was unloading it when her phone rang. It was her sister informing her that their parents were talking because they thought Natalie should wait before buying a sofa.
Natalie called her parents to inform them it was her money and her life and asked why they were talking about her to the rest of the family. Her parents denied it. Puzzled, she hung up only to hear the phone ring again. The same sister delivered a new message; “Mom just called back and asked why I told you what they said. I told her I didn’t say anything. I don’t want to get into the middle of this so leave me out in the future –thank you!” Shocked, Natalie hung up again. So everyone else knew they were lying, she knew they were lying, but no one was willing to admit it.
Natalie was experiencing a common pattern in dysfunctional families called triangulation. That’s where people talk to a third party about the first. In triangulation no one speaks to the person they have a problem with because it is easier to talk about people behind their backs. It’s also easier to lie behind people’s backs. And sometimes even make up stuff behind people’s backs. Talking face to face might shatter the story they wish to spread, so the story stretches on and on and in the re-telling it often gets bigger and bigger.
Almost everyone I know who came from a dysfunctional family tells me they had to deal with family members talking about them behind their backs. It’s often a parent or grandparent who leads the pack on triangulation. If you have never heard of this think of a triangle. In triangulation two people in the triangle will talk about the third without them even knowing what’s being said about them. There is a saying “Three’s a crowd.” That’s because triangulation always leaves someone out.
Triangulation might seem like a fancy word for gossip, but it’s actually a complicated game. Triangulation is more than slamming someone behind their back, it carries the pretense of networking. When two ends of the triangle meet up, they imagine they are solving a problem. Let’s say A tells B she would like C to loan her money. When B goes to C and gives the message, then C will wonder why A didn’t just come and ask for herself. Well there is a reason for this. A might not like to ask C or she might know C will say no so she hopes B can be more convincing than she was when she asked last week. Or maybe A realizes the only way to get C to do what she wants is to put social pressure her. When both A and B ask C, then C might feel even more pressure to comply.
This scenario goes way beyond borrowing money. It can cover any sort of conflict between family members. Parents do this all the time by talking about some of their children to the other ones. Those who listen and those who get the message second hand all get a memo which reads, “if Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” Then they scramble to comply.
Triangulators like to call it venting, but if you’re upset with someone, the best person to talk to is the person you are having the conflict with. Triangulating doesn’t fix anything because it keeps the two parties who are having the disagreement from solving their problem. And venting to a third party, only makes the situation worse when they find out about it.
Call it triangulation, gossip or talking about someone, whatever the name, it is the oldest form of war. Most Christians have heard of a war in heaven. I’ve seen Christians try to portray this war with hand grenades and light sabers. I doubt either was used in this war because none of the angels have died yet. Jesus is the Truth and he always speaks the truth. This is what Jesus says about those who lie–
You belong to your father, the devil,
and you want to carry out your father’s desires.
He was a murderer from the beginning,
not holding to the truth,
for there is no truth in him.
When he lies,
he speaks his native language,
for he is a liar and the father of lies.
-John 8:44, NIV
If you have family that is constantly spreading gossip and lies to you or about you, it’s time to disengage. Let them know you’re glad to see them if they choose to walk in the light, but you’re not hanging around to tear down other people.
There are six things the Lord hates,
seven that are detestable to him:
a lying tongue,
hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked schemes,
feet that are quick to rush into evil,
a false witness who pours out lies
and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.