Emotional Triangles

General Stanley McChrystal was ousted as the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan this past Wednesday. By now most of us know that he was removed because of derisive comments he made about civilian administrative leadership for a Rolling Stone magazine article. This weekly column is about wellness and so while this is not the place to analyze this incident from a political or military perspective, it is a great opportunity to reflect on this incident to highlight what we can all learn from it, as it relates to our personal and family wellness. The concept of emotional triangles is helpful for understanding what we can learn from the General Stanley McChrystal situation. An emotional triangle always involves three separate individuals, or groups, which we will refer to as A, B and C. In an emotional triangle A is upset with B (and quite likely the feeling may be mutual), but instead of talking to B directly about their unhappiness, A instead talks with C about how unhappy they are with B. General McChrystal (“A”) was extremely unhappy with some of the civilian leaders (“B”), but instead of talking directly to them about it, he talked to a reporter from Rolling Stone magazine (“C”). The reason General McChrystal was let go was not because he had critical feelings about the administration. Instead, it was because he broke the trust of the administration by talking to a third party about issues that should have only been discussed between the general and the administration.

Emotional triangles destroy trust and erode relationships. In one’s personal life, emotional triangles can take many forms: you are angry at a colleague, but instead of talking directly to your colleague, you talk to others at work about what a “jerk” your colleague is; a wife is angry with or has been hurt by her husband, but vents to her friends about this instead of talking and working things through with her husband (this is often how the bad feelings that lead to affairs start); a teen is furious with his mother, and finds out that Dad will listen to him complain about his mother (his wife), but neither father or child ever talk to the mother/wife (this also can “flow” the other way where a parent is unloading their frustration at their spouse to one of their children); a parishioner is furious at recent decisions that the pastor has made and chooses to express her frustration to numerous other church members, but never to the pastor directly.

It is easy to see how destructive emotional triangles can be, and at the same time it is easy to see why they are so common. Most of us are “conflict averse” and we find it so much easier to discharge our feelings with a third party than taking the time, energy and risk to address the conflict directly with the party involved. By now we know though, that being intentional about our personal and family wellness rarely ever involves taking the easy way! We must be willing to risk moving out of our comfort zone to grow.

One more very important thing to be learned from the General McChrystal incident. Trust and integrity take years to gain, but can be lost in seconds. General McChrystal was no doubt aware of the World War II advice given to soldiers to never disclose any military information in their letters home. This advice was summarized in the phrase, “loose lips sink ships.” May we also remember when it comes to our personal and family wellness, that loose lips sink trust and integrity, and greatly compromise our well-being and the well-being of our most important relationships.