On Triangles

On Triangles

When does one plus one equal three?

“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.”

— Guerin & Fogarty

Life is lived in relationship, and relationships evolve in association with, and in response to, other relationships. Two-person relationships almost never exist in isolation. Their emotional instability inevitably produces triangles, which are three-person interconnected relationship systems. And triangles, almost just as inevitably, prove unable to contain the full range of emotional reactivity, and produce interlocking triangles.

When emotional tension threatens a dyadic relationship (think marital discord, parent-child conflict, in-law distress, grandparental meddling) a third person is sought to help calm the anxiety. Bowen wrote, “A triangle in a state of calm consists of a comfortable twosome and an outsider.” Unlike a body at rest however, a triangle often does not maintain equilibrium. When sufficient pressure is placed on the structure and function of a triangle, ever expanding mazes of interlocking triangles are created.

While such structures initially serve to stabilize family function, they guarantee that fundamental relationship problems will never be resolved. Even worse, triangles often exacerbate emotional discomfort by:

  1. Promoting the development of symptoms in an individual – the negative side of the triangle is merely a symptomatic expression of a total family problem.
  2. Maintaining relationship conflicts
  3. Impeding or preventing resolution of toxic or conflicted issues
  4. Blocking functional evolution of a relationship over time
  5. Creating and perpetuating therapeutic impasses
  6. Depriving families of problem-solving options

Ronald B. Cohen of familyfocusedsolutions.com discusses triangles in terms of relationships.The fundamental therapeutic intervention of “de-triangulating” involves staying in an emotion-filled relationship with each and every person while avoiding being drawn into the family processes. Our job then becomes to create space for more mature, less reactive thinking and behavior via the,

“…ability to be in emotional contact with a difficult, emotionally charged problem and not feel compelled to preach about what others should do, not rush in to fix the problem and not pretend to be detached by emotionally insulating oneself” —- (Kerr and Bowen, 1988: 108).

The positive results of this conscious responding include:

  • Reducing interpersonal distress
  • Resolving conflicted interactions
  • Improving communication
  • Strengthening relationships
  • Reducing chronic stress and anxiety
  • Creating a nurturing atmosphere in which to promote active problem solving, healing and emotional well-being

In order to accomplish the task Kerr and Bowen have set out for us, we as clinicians need to work on self-differentiation in our own families of origin. Learning as much as we can about our nuclear and multi-generational family processes helps us get a clearer picture of who we are, what the family influences, both immediate and multi-generational have been and continue to be, and how we became who we are. This then frees us from unnecessary encumbrances, allowing more productive listening, questioning and research directing in the “coaching” process.

Best of luck on your unfolding journey of a lifetime.

Please share your thoughts and experiences about “thinking in threes” 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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  1. j on January 22, 2015 at 11:40 pm said:

    And may I hear the message clearly and thereby act accordingly: “… not feel compelled to preach about what others should do, not rush in to fix the problem and not pretend to be detached by emotionally insulating oneself…” Kerr & Bowen

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on January 26, 2015 at 6:56 pm said:

      Hi Hyacinth,

      Maintaining emotional equanimity in the face of predictable, initially negative, family reactions to work on self-differentiation is the essence of detriangulating. The process consists of being connected while maintain emotional self-sufficiency.

      For those of us who consider it important enough to invest the time and energy, and choose to engage with the goal of becoming an authentic adult, the process requires constant vigilance to the pull of fusion, cut-offs and triangles. Self-differentiation is about setting appropriate limits and boundaries, staying connected to one’s extended family of origin while maintaining emotional independence and self-sufficiency. Tasks include redeveloping personal relationships with key family members, repairing cutoffs, detriangulating from conflicts, and changing the part one plays in emotionally charged vicious cycles.

      It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. The life we live creates the legacy we leave.


      — Ron

  2. j on January 27, 2015 at 7:23 pm said:

    Thank you, Ron.

  3. Lauren Anzaldo on February 13, 2015 at 7:00 pm said:

    I appreciate that this post begins by explaining the function and utility of family triangles: to help calm the anxiety and emotional tension that develop in dyads.

    While initiated to stabilize the family, the continued existence of the triangle produces issues of its own, as you related in the post.

    This balanced presentation of family triangles is useful in helping us to grasp the function of the triangle and the harm that arises when the triangle is overused. As always, thanks.

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on February 18, 2015 at 12:46 am said:

      Hi Lauren,

      Right you are, the formation of triangles is more often than not short-term gain for long-term pain. In addition to function, it is helpful to think of triangles as having a structure and process, which I will expand on in a future blog post.


      — Ron

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