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Triangulation is most commonly used to express a situation in which one family member will not communicate directly with another family member, but will communicate with a third family member, which can lead to the third family member becoming part of the triangle. The concept originated in the study of dysfunctional family systems, but can describe behaviors in other systems as well, including work.
Triangulation can also be used as a label for a form of "splitting" in which one person plays the third family member against one that he or she is upset about. This is playing the two people against each other, but usually the person doing the splitting, will also engage in character assassination, only with both parties.
In the field of psychology, triangulations are necessary steps in the child's development when a two-party relationship is opened up by a third party into a new form of relationship. So the child gains new mental abilities. The concept was introduced in 1971, by the Swiss psychiatrist Dr. Ernest L. Abelin, especially as early triangulation, to describe the transitions in psychoanalytic object relations theory and parent-child relationship in the age of 18 months. In this presentation, the mother is the early caregiver with a nearly "symbiotic" relationship to the child, and the father lures the child away to the outside world, resulting in the father being the third party. Abelin later developed an organizer- and triangulation-model, in which he based the whole human mental and psychic development on several steps of triangulation.
Some earlier related work, published in a 1951 paper, had been done by the German psychoanalyst Hans Loewald in the area of pre-Oedipal behavior and dynamics. In a 1978 paper, the child psychoanalyst Dr. Selma Kramer wrote that Loewald postulated the role of the father as a positive supporting force for the pre-Oedipal child against the threat of reengulfment by the mother which leads to an early identification with the father, preceding that of the classical Oedipus complex. This was also related to the work in Separation-Individuation theory of child development by the psychoanalyst Margaret Mahler.
In family therapy, the term triangulation is most closely associated with the work of Murray Bowen. Bowen theorized that a two-person emotional system is unstable in that it forms itself into a three-person system or triangle under stress.
In the family triangulation system the third person can either be used as a substitute for the direct communication, or can be used as a messenger to carry the communication to the main party. Usually this communication is an expressed dissatisfaction with the main party. For example, in a dysfunctional family in which there is alcoholism present, the non-drinking parent will go to a child and express dissatisfaction with the drinking parent. This includes the child in the discussion of how to solve the problem of the afflicted parent. Sometimes the child can engage in the relationship with the parent, filling the role of the third party, and thereby being "triangulated" into the relationship. Or, the child may then go to the alcoholic parent, relaying what they were told. In instances when this occurs, the child may be forced into a role of a "surrogate spouse" The reason that this occurs is that both parties are dysfunctional. Rather than communicating directly with each other, they utilize a third party. Sometimes, this is because it is unsafe to go directly to the person and discuss the concerns, particularly if they are alcoholic and/or abusive.