On Triangles with Dead People

On Triangles with Dead People

“Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship,
which struggles on in the survivor’s mind
toward some resolution which it may never find.”
― Robert Anderson

In a previous blog, The Structure, Function and Emotional Process of Triangles, I wrote “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.” A highly regarded, well-respected colleague who has, with great equanimity, integrity and compassion, withstood all of Hal’s attempts to befuddle and confuse, wondered, “What if they’re Dead?”, most specifically in regards to the primary parental triangle we all struggle to resolve.

How does one repair cut-offs without feedback from the other side? How does one de-triangle if there’s nobody to physically relate to and respond? Bowen noted, “There is not a serious problem when parents are dead if there are other surviving relatives.” (1978, p.319)

While definitely more difficult, and perhaps less satisfying, the process of differentiation of self is still very much doable. Techniques for this workaround include:

The task is to learn about your family in a different way, to take a larger, systemic, multi-generational perspective.

The first step to achieving this more differentiated, less reactive, perspective is to become very curious about all family members and learn how to ask questions. In her book, “You Can Go Home Again – Reconnecting With Your Family” Monica McGoldrick explains:

“If you want to understand your mother as more than the dragon lady whose domineering intrusiveness overwhelms you even at the age of 40, you need to get a picture of her as a daughter, a niece, a sister, a friend, a co-worker, a granddaughter, a lover and a cousin. Then you will also want to learn about your mother’s mother in the same kind of way. 

You might want to ask, “Mom, how did our father react when his father stopped talking to him? How did Uncle Al take it? What about Aunt Martha? Who was actually there when the fight occurred and how did they handle holidays and family gatherings after that?”

Close family friends, neighbors, co-workers and in-laws are other potential sources of important information as they are less likely to be constrained by The Invisible Psychological Contracts We Make with Our Families. Of course, they will each have their own unresolved emotional attachments with their families of origin, so remember their reality may not be true.

In “Family Ties that Bind,” Ronald Richardson lists seven steps in the process:

  1. The Begats
  2. Contacting Family Members
  3. Developing a History
  4. Researching
  5. Family Visits
  6. Differentiating
  7. Repeat

He concludes, “We are all capable of doing this.” For those who feel daunted and overwhelmed, consultation with a well-trained Bowen Family Systems Theory Relationship Consultant and “Coach” can help initiate valuable conversations with those who are no longer here to participate.

Best of luck on your unfolding journey of a lifetime.

Please share your thoughts and experiences about theory and its application to practice in the “Leave a Reply” box below. To request more information and/or schedule an initial consultation, click here. If you found this post helpful, please don’t keep it a secret. You are encouraged to click on the buttons at the bottom of the page and share this article with your own networks. Looking forward to continuing the conversation.

Ronald B Cohen, MD, PC www.familyfocusedsolutions.com 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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