Triangles and Family Systems

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“Triangle” is a term out of Bowen Family Systems theory used to describe a phenomenon in family systems whereby a third entity (not always a person) is used to stabilize conflict and distress in a relationship between two people.  Triangles are generally thought of as undesirable because it is a communication avoidance strategy or pattern that resolves the distress surrounding an issue without resolving the issue.  Triangles involve shifting alliances among three entities; these alliances always leave one of the three on the “outside”.

Triangles exist because the relationship between two individuals in a family system is regarded as the most unstable. If a significant issue between two individuals doesn’t get resolved a consistent thread of distress in the relationship that bleeds into the day to day life of the relationship can develop. This may bring some hefty long term consequences to the table (lack of intimacy, lack of communication, avoidance, infidelity etc.)

One classic triangle involves the person struggling with addiction, the rescuer and the substance. This is a useful example because the relationship between these three is usually in a consistent state of distress during the latter part of the addiction and it is during these times that triangles become more noticeable.

During times when consequences of the use or addiction is contained to the family system (work is going okay, no legal issues, etc.) the person with the addiction and the substance form the inside relationship.  The rescuer typically utilizes nagging and other use control behaviors to try to prevent the person who is using from using.  These behaviors are typically ineffective and create more distress in the relationship. In some ways it can, in the addict’s mind, justify increased use as a means of “dealing with it”.  This places the rescuer in the role of “outsider”.

Eventually the person with the addiction is going to face an external consequence for their behaviors (bank notes as finances deteriorate, employment issues, legal troubles). Each of these consequences presents as a threat to the inside relationship the addict has to the substance; he/she cannot use if they are in jail or do not have the means of supporting the addiction.  As a result of the distress created by the anticipated negative consequences, the person with the addiction may increase proximity to the rescuer to engage their help in avoiding the consequence (bailing them out, calling work with excuses, etc.).  Sometimes, the rescuer doesn’t wait to be asked; seeing that the person with the addiction is about to face a damaging consequence they may decide to step in to solve the problem.

This process acts to lock the triangle as the rescuer prevents the person with the addiction from facing the natural consequences that may act as a catalyst for treatment and sobriety – the long term changes that may be needed in order for the real problem to be solved.

Another thing to keep in mind is that one triangle usually creates more triangles, it can be lonely being the outsider and eventually folks will need to figure out some way of dealing with the distress of the issue driving the triangle.  Typically, if there is one entrenched triangle in a family there are probably several others.

Sort of like cockroaches.

Gross.

Some of the most devastating triangles are those that involve children as the go between two parents who have severed communication. Children acting as messengers or negotiators between two parents can be harmful even if efforts are made not talk “bad” about the other parent; as the inability of one parent to speak to another can carry with it certain meaning to the child and places an added level of distress the child has in their communication with each parent.

All that being said, every family triangulates sometimes and sometimes it can produce very good results.  The key is to make sure that the patterns of triangulation aren’t entrenched; that direct communication is typically how a family deals with problems – triangles should really be an exception to the rule.

Because triangles are difficult to identify and family relationships are typically our most proximate and comfortable, getting caught up in them isn’t too hard.  A general rule of thumb in avoiding triangles is to be mindful of problem ownership.  If you don’t own at least part of the problem then there isn’t much you can do about it. You can be supportive but getting directly involved provides an easy entry point into bad dynamic. If you’re going to someone else about an issue and they weren’t involved to begin with, be clear as to whether their involvement is appropriate and tame your expectations with regard to what you feel they should and can do about it.

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