Anxiety, Differentiation and Triangles, Oh My!

Anxiety, Differentiation and Triangles, Oh My!

There is no differentiation without connection

“The development of self occurs
… in and through networks of relationships
with other members of the family system.”
— Murray Bowen, MD

We all struggle to repeat the past differently, but without Glinda or the Ruby Slippers, we might end up with the Wicked Witch of the West. Or crushed under a house like her older sister. In order to know where we’re going we have to first investigate where we’ve been. This can be best accomplished by working on differentiation of self in one’s original family.

Dr. Richard B. McCune offered Bowen Theory on Three Sheets. I’m going to double down and offer a beginner’s solution in three not so easy steps. First, three fundamental interlocking concepts:

  1. Chronic anxiety – Anxiety is one’s response to a real or imagined threat. Chronic anxiety, as distinct from acute anxiety, is influenced by many things, predominantly the degree of an individual’s sensitivity to real or perceived changes/disturbances in the balance of their relationship systems.
  2. Basic/functional level of differentiation of self – The ability to develop a unique, personal, authentic relationship with each member of your family while avoiding the landmines of emotional entrapment.
  3. Triangles – two person systems are inherently unstable. Their emotional volatility inevitably produces triangles. Guerin & Fogarty wrote, “From this perspective, we can see life not so much as a series of paths to be chosen, but as a maze of triangular shoals and reefs to be navigated around.”

Ronald B. Cohen of discusses working on differentiation of self in one’s original family.Bowen Family Systems Coaching is “beyond blaming” as it provides a process for growth and development that is independent of, and cannot be sabotaged by, anything or anyone.

The first three steps of the journey are:

  1. Reduction of anxiety – The research project of learning about one’s extended family history helps to neutralize the level of chronic anxiety. It only takes one motivated family member who can maintain self in the face of predictable family reactions to differentiation to begin to calm the system.
  2. Increase in basic/functional level of “solid self” – Learning to speak for one’s self and take an “I” position, thereby partially freeing oneself from the emotional entrapment of one’s family of origin. This then provides space for developing a personal, authentic, one-to-one relationship with each and every member of your family.
  3. Resolution of multiple interlocking triangles – Bowen suggested that the therapist’s efforts be directed towards maintaining meaningful one-to-one contact with each and every member of the family while avoiding being drawn into the family emotional process.

Families in which the focus is on the differentiation of self in their families of origin automatically make as much or more progress in working out the relationship system with spouses and children as families seen in formal family therapy in which there is a principle focus on the interdependence in the marriage. [Bowen 1978a, p. 545]

Planful work to develop and maintain an “I” position, learning to manage anxiety by consciously responding and not emotionally reacting, and developing a unique one-to-one relationship with each and every extended and historical family member. If all else fails, consultation with a well-trained Bowen Family Systems Theory Coach can help you get to Oz.

Best of luck on your unfolding journey of a lifetime.

Please share your thoughts and experiences concerning the anxiety of self-differentiation, or not, 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, PC Ronald B. Cohen, MD
Bowen Family Systems Coach
1 Barstow Road, Suite P-10
Great Neck, NY 11021
(516) 466-7530

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  1. Lauren Anzaldo on December 23, 2014 at 3:45 am said:

    Thanks, Ronald, for your continued explorations and insights into differentiation and the family system. I have been on my own journey to develop “a unique one-to-one relationship with each and every extended and historical family member,” and I find your writings most helpful. Additionally, I encourage clients to develop their own relationships with extended family rather than have parents, siblings or other family members act as a go-between.

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on December 28, 2014 at 8:29 pm said:

      Hi Lauren,

      Thank you for helping to keep the conversation alive. “Go-between[s]” create triangles, which help to calm anxiety but also guarantee that the issues will never be resolved. Troubles with triangles include:

      1. Triangles promote the development of symptoms in the individual.
      2. Triangles support the chronicity of symptoms in individuals and of conflict in a relationship.
      3. Triangles work against the resolution of toxic or conflicted issues in an individual or a relationship.
      4. Triangles block the functional evolution of a relationship over time.
      5. Triangles can create or support the therapeutic impasse.
      6. Triangles get people “caught” depriving them of options.

      Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST) Coaching teaches the possibility of dealing with differences without losing connection, guiding people through a process of changing their own participation in unsatisfying family relationship patterns. By attending to our own “stuff” we always have the opportunity to make things better. A change in any one family member’s behavior creates change in the entire family’s relationships. The process consists of the following three steps: (1) Change yourself and you change the relationship, (2) Be prepared for your family’s reaction. They may not welcome the new you, and (3) Respond to your family’s reaction with new, unexpected, more differentiated behavior. It is a conscientiously thought through approach to establishing a unique one-to-one relationship with each every individual in the family system.


      — Ron

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