Systemic Thinking in a Linear World

Systemic Thinking in a Linear World

Seeing the Forest, Not the Trees

“I think in circles,
not in straight lines”
— Padma Desai, LPC, NCC

Life is lived in relationship to others. The interaction between any two people is inevitably embedded in a three-person structure, restricting problem solving and psychological change. The emotional processes and interactions are circular and reciprocal. The presentation may be a parenting problem, marital discord or a poorly functioning spouse but the solution lies in understanding all three individuals’ mutual influence. Anxiety is transmitted from one pairing to another, and the most vulnerable individual will present with symptoms.

Tension in a marriage will often present as a child’s acting out behavior, and a child’s misbehavior will stress the marital relationship. Regardless, the problem is neither in the marriage, nor the child, nor the parenting. It is in the family system as a whole. If the functioning of the relationship system improves, individual clinical problems will respond and resolve.

Many factors interact, but NONE are causal. Reciprocal influence is always present. Causality is not linear, nor is there a one-to-one correlation between stressors and symptoms. Awareness of the emotional process in the family, and the ability to not be engulfed by it, are keys to resolution of life’s difficulties.

We live in a social and cultural context, determined to a large extent, by the rules and regulations of our extended family of origin. Strength, resilience and vulnerability are shaped by historical family experiences, but current problems are precipitated by concurrent disturbances in the force field.

Based on the idea that a change in any part of the system will cause adjustments in the rest of the system, a systematic exploration of the life of a single individual can unlock the family history, and both the internal and external family stressors.

Ronald B. Cohen of Family Focused Solutions discusses the importance of detriangulating in family systems therapy.Two-person relationships almost never exist in isolation. Their emotional instability inevitably produces triangles which are three-person interconnected relationship systems. Consequently not only is no man an island, but no relationship is either.

“From this perspective,” as Guerin & Fogarty wrote in their work on Relationship Triangles, “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.” Troubles with triangles come in six flavors and varieties as delineated below:

  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.

Detriangulating 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.

Each of us has the ability to improve and better ourselves to be more thoughtful, loving, and considerate. Change comes from within. Coaching with a therapist well trained in Bowen Family Systems Theory can help one get unstuck and move his/her life forward in a more productive way.

Please share your thoughts and experiences concerning 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 in the second to the right hand column 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 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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