The Structure, Function and Emotional Process of Triangles

The Structure, Function and Emotional Process of Triangles

What Kind of Company Always Creates a Crowd?

“One’s company,
two’s a crowd,
and three’s a party.”
— Andy Warhol

Life rarely happens in ones or twos, but almost always in threes or more; and more specifically and theoretically exactingly, in groups of interlocking threes. From the Bowen Center Web site:

“It [a triangle] is considered the building block or “molecule” of larger emotional systems because a triangle is the smallest stable relationship system. A two-person system is unstable because it tolerates little tension before involving a third person. A triangle can contain much more tension without involving another person because the tension can shift around three relationships. If the tension is too high for one triangle to contain, it spreads to a series of “interlocking” triangles.”

Spreading the Tension Can Stabilize a System, but Nothing Gets Resolved.

Two-person relationships almost never exist in isolation. Their emotional instability inevitably produces triangles. And triangles, almost just as inevitably, prove unable to contain the full range of emotional reactivity, and produce interlocking triangles.

Consequently, not only is no man an island, but no relationship is either.

It is helpful to think of interpersonal triangles as having a relationship structure, a function and an emotional process.

  • The structure of a relationship triangle consists of two on the inside, who are fused and overly close, and one on the outside who is emotionally distant and detached.
  • The function of a relationship triangle is to: (1) help stabilize the system by (2) creating an external focus around which the twosome can organize their conflict, thereby (3) diluting the tension between them without effecting any significant change.
  • The emotional process of a relationship triangle consists of the movement of the system’s chronic anxiety as alliances shift and change over time.

In Systemic Thinking in a Linear World I incorrectly wrote, “De-triangulating is probably the most important technique in family systems therapy. The task starts with taking an ‘I-position’, a clear statement asserting one’s own thoughts and feelings without attacking, defending, or withdrawing.” Unfortunately my terminology was incorrect. My coach and mentor Jenny Brown subsequently educated me that;

“Some people use the term ‘triangulation’,…
but Bowen always spoke of ‘triangling‘.”

The theoretically correct terminology is therefore, “De-triangling occurs when strategically someone comes into a polarized situation and makes an effort to not take sides, and to relate well to each person.”

Eric Linn Mental Health Care Professional wondered “… how a Bowen coach learns to stay de-triangulated (sic) in the session. Are there specific techniques that one can employ to achieve this.”

Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST) oriented coach learns to stay de-triangled by working on his/her differentiation of self in his/her own family of origin. It is not about technique, but about having a strong theoretical basis upon which to make decisions. Essential to gaining competence and expertise in BFST “coaching” is planful work on self-differentiation. One cannot fully appreciate Bowen Family Systems Theory without the experience of “doing.”

Losing sight of one’s part in the therapeutic system of interactions leads to the creation of a “therapist’s triangle.” To help avoid this non-productive outcome, BFST gives a high priority to understanding and making changes within the therapist’s own family of origin. Carter and McGoldrick advise us all to remember “if you haven’t worked on differentiation yourself in your own family, you will probably be prone to misjudge the intensity of systemic reaction to your client’s moves.”

The central intervention in Bowen’s model is de-triangling, both the therapist and all family members, from their primary parental and all subsequent interlocking triangles.

“The critical issue is

… the ability of the therapist to keep self relatively de-triangled”
(Bowen, Theory in the Practice of Psychotherapy)

While it takes two to tango, it only takes one to change the music and the dance. We all have the power to change ourselves and our relationships regardless of whether or not the HCP, IP, alcoholic, borderline, histrionic, etc. wants to change or even consents to being part of the process.

So “if it’s somethin’ weird an’ it don’t look good, who ya gonna call?” And if you don’t have a Proton Pack for bustin’, consider consultation with a well-trained Bowen Family Systems Theory “coach” and relationship consultant who “ain’t afraid o’ no [family] ghost.”

Best of Luck on Your Unfolding Journey of a Lifetime.

Please share your thoughts about, and experiences concerning the relationship triangles in your life in the “Leave a Reply” box below. To request more information or contact me directly for any reason, please click here. If you found this post helpful, please don’t keep it a secret. You are encouraged to click on the buttons below and share this article with your own networks. Looking forward to continuing the conversation.

Ronald B. Cohen, MD
Bowen Family Systems Coach
1 Barstow Road, Suite P-10
Great Neck, NY 11021
(516) 466-7530
[email protected]