Triangulation in Family Systems
By: Ashlee Wong, MA
Murray Bowen was a psychiatrist during the 1950’s and the 1960’s who came up with a theory to understand the family as a unit in treatment. Bowen believed that individuals and their problems do not exist in a vacuum as all members of a family have specific roles to play in the emotional system. Therefore, in an ideal execution of Bowen’s ideas there is no one person who bears the brunt of the responsibility in a dysfunctional situation.
Bowen believed that triangles are the smallest stable unit in an emotional system. They are inescapable and we are often unaware of how many triangles we are actively engaged in at any given moment. Bowen made it clear that triangles have no value as good or bad but that they are a phenomenon that naturally occurs due to our ways of connecting with others. The point of a triangle is to solve the anxiety that exists between two people by bringing in a third to mediate, offer perspective, or pick a side. Often, the third person is drawn into the middle of the twosome’s argument because our need to be included is hard to resist. However, being able to remain objective is most ideal because it allows the third person, the point of the triangle, to observe the patterns being used in the disagreement.
A common example I see in my office is a couple coming in and asking me to determine who is “wrong” in a myriad of situations. Partner A and Partner B both feel their points of view are the “correct” point of view. Neither is willing to compromise their beliefs even for the sake of harmony in the household. I am the point of the triangle in this situation. It would be easy for me to become drawn in to the situation and offer my advice based on a reactionary perspective. This would effectively solve their anxiety of being in conflict but it does not teach the couple to problem solve together in future situations and thereby repeats the natural process of triangulation in nature.
Bowen’s answer to the inevitability of triangulation is to teach the triangled person to spread his or her calmness to the two in conflict rather than continuing to perpetuate the anxiety. This is done through a variety of techniques but will typically involve some form of coaching. We hope to help the twosome to a more reasonable conclusion by consistently engaging with both sides of the triangle equally. Equal attention to both perspectives and feelings prevents any siding which could threaten my (or your) ability to provide the vital calmness to the twosome. Similarly, it is helpful to use inclusive, positive language to reinforce to the twosome that they are a team. For those of us for whom neutrality is not a natural state of being, it is helpful to practice skills that will allow us to remain calm in the face of tension. In the moment, I find that taking a deep breath, pausing to collect my thoughts, and remembering that I am supposed to be looking at the situation from a bird’s eye view are some of the most helpful ways of keeping objectivity. Outside of the moment, making sure I have time to engage in activities that bring me joy replenishes the sense of calmness I have within myself so I can continue to be a healthy point in triangled relationships.
Written by: ASHLEE WONG, MA, Registered Associate Marriage and Family Therapist 103135. Supervised by Dr. Joselyn Josephine Ayala-Encalada Psy.D., Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist 96987