G. Scott Sparrow, EdD, LPC, LMFT

Counseling and Mentoring Services

The Power of
Triangular Relationships
by G. Scott Sparrow, Ed.D.

    I met my first spiritual mentor, Hugh Lynn Cayce, in a dream. He walked up to me, looking very much like the person I eventually came to know, and asked me if I would  join him in a passion play. Not knowing much about such things, I agreed, nonetheless. Before I could think twice about his offer, I was laying on the ground on top of a cross, and men were preparing to drive real nails through my hands. Needless to say, I wondered what I’d gotten myself into.
    Months later, I met him at a camp where he often spoke.  Sitting alone on the edge of the porch that first afternoon, I watched a man strolling casually through the meadow, heading in my general direction. He walked up to the porch, looked me in the eye, and lifted his hand in greeting. “Hi, I’m Hugh Lynn Cayce,” he said. As if I didn’t know.
    A few months later, I had the occasion to return to Virginia where he lived.  So I called ahead to make an appointment with Hugh Lynn.  When I entered his office for the first time, I was surprised to see him sitting beside an open window. It was winter, after all; but soon I learned that he often sat by that open window when visiting with friends. I can’t remember everything we talked about, but most of it revolved around our experiences with Jesus. 
    As we talked, we seemed to enter a timeless realm where we’d known each other forever, and had always loved and served the Master. Somewhere in the middle of our conversation, my heart opened, and Jesus entered. I didn’t see him, mind you, but I felt his presence just as though he were sitting there with us. For three days afterward, he was with me in every waking moment. While I had experienced his presence previously, this experience of communion was the true beginning of my own path of discipleship.
    Looking back, I realize that Hugh Lynn served as a catalyst, or mediator, for me. In the Hindu tradition, he might have been considered my shaktipat guru, that is, a teacher capable of catalyzing no less than the “descent of the Spirit,” which the word shaktipat means. The force of his presence and the depth of his devotion to Christ effectively kindled my own capacity to know the Master, and my own inner radiance, more directly.
    Whenever we accept the influence of such a teacher, we enter into what might be called a “progressive triangle.” Yearning for the experience of God, but unable to chart our own course, we turn to someone who can assist us in drawing near to the Beloved, either by wisely guiding our efforts, or -- more directly -- by precipitating a dramatic awakening in consciousness.

Triangles in the Christian Tradition

    Before Jesus came, the Old Testament God was so removed from the human realm that the most we could hope for was to enter into a covenant through which he would bless us in exchange for our service. We were fundamentally different and set apart from God, and no one stood in the space between.  Prophets delivered God’s pronouncements, but they were only the messenger, not the Being itself.  However, by living and dying such an unparalleled life of love and service, Jesus became a “third” force that heretofore had never existed in our consciousness. In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, he says, “When the one becomes two, what will you do?” With an economy of words, Jesus prompts us to consider the possibility that he can resolve the problem of our perceived estrangement. Describing himself in the traditional Gospels as “the way, the truth and the life,” and asserting that “no man comes to the father except through me,” he did an unprecedented thing: He invited us into a triangular relationship in which he serves as the mediating force between ourselves and God.     
    Through his life and his teachings, Jesus shattered once and for all the idea that we had to settle for a long-distance relationship with God. Serving as the first mediator of God’s grace in our tradition, he pointed to the radical possibility of a direct, intimate relationship with the Father -- something previously unheard of. But he did not want us to cling to Him. When he knew that he would soon be leaving us, he referred us to another who would serve in his place.
    “But the comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I said unto you.”(John 14:26)
One mediator was lost to us, but another was given. From thereafter, the mediator was a spirit, not a single individual. Indeed, by declaring the Comforter a “ghost” of his own essence, Jesus freed us to find his mediating spirit again and again, in all times and all places, in various forms.
    Of course, we know that it didn’t take the early Christians long to elevate Jesus to the status of God himself, thus removing the Son of Man from the role of principal mediator. The space that Jesus intended to fill for us  was made less available to us by his elevation by the early Church to unreachable heights. The Holy Spirit was supposed to be his stand-in, but the impersonality of that concept left us yearning for a more personal touch. Not suprisingly, Mary the mother of Jesus entered the picture.  Extrapolating from the exchange between the adult Jesus and his mother at the wedding at Cana, the early Church fashioned a role for Mary that answered to our need for a mediator of God’s grace. Mary, by convincing Jesus to turn water into wine, demonstrated a unique and intimate knowledge of her son, and revealed her sensitivity to our needs. Soon, she became known as the Mediatrix, because of her unique capacity to know the will of her Son, and to plead for his clemency and grace on our behalf. Out of this emerged a new triangle between ourselves, the Holy Mother, and Jesus Christ -- who had become as distant as God himself.
    In thinking about Jesus' ultimate nature, the Early Church fathers finally settled on the notion that he was God himself. But how could God be born of a woman, afflicted with original sin? The problem was resolved by elevating Mary, too. According to Church doctrine, Christ removed the blight of sin from His Mother, leaving her uniquely pure among us. This elevation in status  by association with her son paved the way for conferring upon Mary an even greater role than Mediatrix: Indeed, the Church eventually came to regard her as no less than Co-redeemer. With the twin doctrines of the Immaculate Conception -- declaring Mary free of original sin -- and the Bodily Assumption of Mary into Heaven, the Catholic Church virtually deified the woman who had once simply said “yes” to a very ambiguous request. Suffering the same fate as her son at the hands of the theologians, Mary, too, has drifted farther and farther from the human condition, making it that much harder to turn to as the mediator between heaven and earth. But as one priest once said, “People don’t want theology, they want love.” Fortunately, the heart has a way of putting doctrine aside, and finding a human bridge to span the great divide.

Progressive Triangles
     The need for a progressive triangle eventually arises in the course of one’s spiritual development, regardless of the tradition. Few, if any of us, can “bootstrap our way to God,” no matter how hard we may try. Eventually, we turn to someone who can help us find our way.        
    Consider, for instance the story of the great Tibetan guru Milarepa. The young spiritual prodigy went to study under Marpa the Translator only after using his psychic powers to kill his aunt and uncle in revenge for stealing his family’s wealth. We can imagine that in Marpa’s wisdom, he immediately recognized Milarepa as his successor, but that he also knew about Milarepa’s misuse of power. So, it is not surprising that the story has Marpa setting about to frustrate his disciple, by making him do things, and undo things, that made no sense to the young aspirant. Marpa would appear drunk or deranged, and was constantly changing his mind, and contradicting things that he’d told Milarepa to do. Meanwhile, Marpa refused to admit his student into his inner circle. Indeed, he would dismiss him harshly -- even to the point of beating him -- whenever Milarepa tried to attend the initiation ceremonies. Unknown to Milarepa, his teacher would return to his quarters and weep over the role that he had to play.
    In a state of suicidal despondency, Milarepa turned to Marpa’s wife for help and solace, who then pleaded with her husband -- as Mary had pleaded with Jesus at the wedding at Cana --  on Milarepa’s behalf. Even though Marpa was initially unrelenting, his wife’s compassion for the young disciple provided the support Milarepa desperately needed to persist in his efforts to win his master’s approval.  Finally, Marpa knew that Milarepa’s refinement was complete.  Exhibiting an apparent sudden change of heart, he bestowed upon his disciple the full measure of his love and his teachings.

When Progressive Triangles Become Stagnant

    Once we find someone to assist us in our spiritual  journey, we depend on him or her to lead us closer to the goal, without becoming a substitute for that which we seek. However, a progressive triangle can turn stagnant, either because the seeker becomes too dependent on the teacher, or the teacher begins to usurp the position of the true goal. It has been said, “When the master points at the moon, the fool looks at his finger.” This pithy saying conveys the classic error of the disciple, who fails to look beyond the teacher toward his own fulfillment. Indeed, it is commonplace for spiritual seekers to begin to consider the teacher as a unique embodiment of God, rather than an example of what we, too, can become. True spiritual teachers will always frustrate their followers’ inclinations to worship them instead of the Being who dwells in every one of us.  Even Jesus admonished his disciples by saying, “Do not call me good,” knowing that they were already beginning to miss the point.  Similarly, the founder of Siddha Yoga, Swami Muktananda was once asked a trivial question by one of his more dependent devotees. He responded, “Do I have to peel your banana and eat it, too?”
    Not all teachers can resist the temptation to foster their followers’ dependency. A spiritual teacher can fail in his mission by expecting the disciple to accept his finger as a sufficient substitute for the moon! Indeed, a progressive triangle can turn stagnant if either party loses sight of the true goal.

Regressive Triangles

    While the impulse to “triangulate” may spring from a deep appreciation of how such relationships can lead us closer to our goal, some triangular relationships are regressive from the moment of conception. Instead of serving as a way to get closer to God or to one’s loved ones through the agency of a third person, a regressive or “dysfunctional” triangle leads in the opposite direction, lessening the chances that honest communication will ever take place.
    The concept of dysfunctional triangles originally grew out of studies of families. One of the early pioneers in family therapy, Murray Bowen, is credited with discovering that family members under stress will, instead of communicating directly with each other, confide in another person. A husband, who cannot find the courage to express his feelings to his wife, may take his eldest child into his confidence, thus burdening his child and leaving his wife out of the loop. A man who is afraid committing himself to a new relationship may suddenly have a need to contact his old girlfriend to “get some closure,” effectively sabotaging his new relationship. A “good wife and mother” may abruptly develop an attraction for a coworker, after having suppressed her needs for so many years. Or well-meaning adults may engage in gossip, as if talking disparagingly about a mutual friend can ever make things better. All of these triangular relationships arise from a single impulse -- fear of what will happen if we express ourselves honestly, and expose ourselves more fully to the ones we love.
     Like the geometric shape for which they are named, regressive or “dysfunctional” triangles are rigid and resistant to change: They provide comfort at the expense of honesty and real growth.  But dysfunctional triangles can be resolved, in part, by a progressive triangle in which a therapist or mentor serves as the mediator. For instance, in my work as a therapist, I frequently have the privilege of serving in this capacity with couples and families. Faced with their inability to communicate directly and honestly with each other, they will enlist me as their coach and translator until they have learned to communicate more directly and honestly with each other.  My singular goal is to restore the relationships, not to bolster the individuals at the expense of the greater goal. Once my clients discover that their relationships can withstand honesty and directness, the trust and the intimacy generated by their disclosures is usually enough to carry them forward without my further assistance.

Dysfunctional Triangles in Spiritual Communities
    We are all susceptible to the destructive effects of dysfunctional triangles, even if we uphold the highest spiritual ideals.  Spiritual seekers have their own characteristic ways of justifying them. Operating from the”spiritual” assumption that honesty is hurtful, and that hurting people is unspiritual, we may hide our feelings and complain, instead, to our friends and confidants. Or, we may conclude that our differences with certain “unenlightened” people are so great that there is no use in trying to initiate a dialogue. Laboring under these untested assumptions, we may even go so far as to form subgroups, in which a few members of our community may join together in order to share similar negative views. By nursing our grievances in private, we participate in an activity that can, in time, destroy our community. And we may wonder, looking back, what happened to the Work and to the friends that we once cherished.
    Of course, it is always important to consider the impact of “de-triangulating.”  Having become accustomed to our silence, or subversion, the people who have been kept in the dark may feel shocked and betrayed upon learning of our true feelings. To guard against causing unnecessary pain, we might ask ourselves, Is it timely, does it serve the greater good, and is it necessary? If it meets these criteria, then we can be virtually assured that our disclosures will eventually bear fruit, even if the initial effects on others might indicate otherwise. When in doubt, it is always a good idea to consult  an objective mediator, whose commitment to your growth will keep the process headed in the right direction.
    A triangular relationship can be beneficial or destructive. We need people, and we will naturally turn to others for solace and support when we feel estranged from God, or from our loved ones. If we wish to avoid intimacy and growth, a regressive triangle can serve as a substitute for the real work we need to do.  But with the right mediator and the right intentions, a triangular relationship can lead to deeper communion with God, our greater selves, and with those whom we love. Indeed, a progressive triangle can become the bow that finally sends the arrow to its mark.


Avoiding Triangulation with Friends and Family

    It is natural for friends or family members to support each other when they have conflicts with other people, but it can easily away from honesty and growth. If you become the “sounding board” for someone, it’s a good to know what you can do to avoid participating in a dysfunctional triangle.
    It’s easy to see it coming. Any time that someone begins to talk to you  about someone with whom he or she has a problem, then you are being triangulated. 
    The thing to avoid at all costs is taking sides. If, instead, you can advocate for the relationship, you will have done your friend a great service. This involves supporting your friend in communicating his or her needs directly with the other party. By assuming a nonjudgmental stance,  you can effectively convert a potentially dysfunctional triangle into a progressive, or therapeutic one.
    Of course, it may take your friend some time to muster the courage to speak the truth, but short of that, the process should focus on what he or she needs to do, not the other person’s response to them.
    Maintaining a healthy stance may involve some or all of the following:
        1) reframing (that is, using words to signify the positive aspect of the problem) the conflict as an opportunity for your friend to “find his voice,” and “speak his truth,” as never before.
        2)  reframing the other party as a “teacher” or “taskmaster” who is well suited for the job of providing an important opportunity for growth.
        3) focusing on what your friend has not done, and can do,  to make things better.
        4) encouraging direct, personal communication with the other person.
        5) role playing such communications in order to prepare your friend to enact them in real life.
    While serving as a mediator can be helpful, it is important to stay involved only so long as the triangle continues to be move forward in a healthy way. Hugh Lynn once said that he was always willing to listen to a person’s complaints --- but only once. I think this is good policy for all of us. If you find yourself repeatedly serving as a “dumping ground,” you will need to refer your friend to someone who will be able to confront him or her without fear of losing a friendship in the process -- such as a therapist or mentor. While you might be afraid of hurting your friend’s feelings, your honesty will protect your friendship from becoming a casualty of triangulation.