Collapsing Relational Triangles (Part I)

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By Rev. Jay Fowler

Many Christians struggle with how to deal with conflict. They may have been taught that conflict is bad or evil.

They tell themselves that a good Christian never gets angry at anyone. So, when they do have conflict, they tend to deal with it by denying it is there. But the conflict continues, and if they are unwilling to deal directly with the person with whom they are in conflict, they may be tempted to go tell another person about their bad feelings and all of the details of the conflict in which they are involved. This usually results in gossip, more hurt feelings, and division in the church.

Conflict is a normal part of the church. In the New Testament, we see Paul and Barnabas in a conflict in Acts 15:36-39. Even Jesus’ own disciples, James and John, ended up in conflict with the rest of the disciples in Mark 11:35-41.

One common, but unhelpful way of dealing with conflict, is to create relational triangles. Suppose we have two people, person A and person B. A does something to offend person B. Now there is a conflict between A and B. Jesus said if we have a conflict with another person, we are to go directly to that person and talk with them about it. (Matthew 18:15) The goal is to keep the conflict just between the two people so they can work at reconciliation. But often instead of going to the person that offended us, we go to a third person, person C. When we do this we have created a relational triangle.

There are three basic kinds of relational triangles.

1. Tell a Secret

In this triangle, person B goes to person C and tells them why they are angry at person A. They discuss all the ways in which person A wronged them. And then they tell C that they can never mention this to person A. Person C is expected to keep the secret they have been told by person B.

After telling the secret, person B may feel a lot better. So much better, that they may never have any desire to go to person A and actually resolve the problem. The bad news is, that person C now has bad feelings towards person A. They are caught holding a secret and are unable to resolve the negative feelings they are developing toward person A.

2. Send a Message

In this triangle, person B tells person C to take a message to person A. In families it might sound like this, “You tell your father how mad I am at him for not picking you up after school!”  In the church it might sound like this, “Tell that youth pastor that my family and I did not appreciate the off-color language he used when telling that story to the students.”

Try as he or she might, it is very difficult for person C to get the message exactly right. Sometimes person A begins to grill person C about details of the message. Often person C really cannot answer the questions because they do not know the details. It might sound like this: Person A says, “What exactly did person B mean by ___?“ Why are they feeling this way?”  At this point, person C is left with trying to make up answers or pleading ignorance. This can lead to an escalation of the conflict rather than a resolution. In the end, person C often feels like a failure and feels the tension of being caught in the middle.

3. Send a Covert Message

The third kind of triangulation is similar to the second. This is when person B wants to send a message to person A through person C. But this time, person B wants to remain hidden and anonymous. When person C goes to person A, it could sounds like this:  “Hello pastor A. I just wanted to tell you that someone really hated your sermon last Sunday. They asked me to tell you, but they did not want me to tell you their name. They just wanted you to know how bad your sermon was.”

Obviously, this kind of triangle causes many problems. First of all, it will make person A feel paranoid. Since they don’t know which specific person is upset with them, they will imagine that everyone is upset with them!  Once again, person C can feel caught in the middle, not wanting to divulge the name of person B, but possibly feeling bad for person A.

In a worst-case scenario, person C can feel like they have a lot of power over person A. Some people delight to be person C in this scenario. They enjoy sending messages that hurt others, without having to take any personal responsibility, since, technically, the message belongs to someone else who is hidden.

How to Collapse Triangles

The most important thing to remember is, that there is a reason Jesus tells us to go to our brother in private to work out our relational problems.  It is because reconciliation can only happen face-to-face, between the two parties who are involved. When God had a problem with humanity, He showed up face-to-face in Jesus Christ to reconcile it. Since that is His way, He commands those who love and follow him to do the same. As Paul says to the Corinthians

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. - 2 Corinthians 5:18-19 (NIV)

No one can apologize on behalf of another person. No one can confess sins that another person committed.  Confession, apology, showing remorse, forgiving and reconciling, are personal acts that must be done between the two parties who have hurt each other.

The Rev. Jay Fowler is the Executive Director of the Midwest Region of PastorServe.

Come back next month for part two when Jay gives us strategies for collapsing these relational triangles.



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