A triangle is a geometric shape with three sides and three angles that always add up to 180. A triangle is also the smallest stable unit of human relationship in Bowen Family Systems Theory.
Say what? Aren’t human relationships made in pairs?
Well, yes and no. According to Bowen Theory, humans start in paired relationships. As anxiety increases, one member of the pair will inevitably bring in a third person. A third person creates stability in the relationship. Think of the image of a two-legged stool. A two-legged stool cannot stand until it has a third leg. The third leg brings stability and balance.
Triangling is instinctive, especially in conflict. Children often triangle in conflict. Say little Taylor and Tanaya want to play with the same toy. They can’t work out an agreement so Taylor goes to a parent or a teacher or another authority figure to resolve the situation. Tanaya also might go to a third person to relieve anxiety over her disagreement with Taylor.
We may think that triangling is a childish behavior and adults grow out of the tendency to triangle. Not so. Adults create emotional triangles, too. Have you complained to your boss about your co-worker? Have you complained to your co-worker about your boss? Have you complained about one co-worker to another co-worker? Have you complained to your spouse/partner about “the company”?
So what are we to do with emotional triangles? We can de-triangle. There are several ways to de-triangle, remembering that we always need to be mindful of safety, especially when children, youth, and vulnerable adults are involved.
- I can listen to your issues with another person to maintain connection with you. I am not to go to the other person on your behalf. If I go to the other person on your behalf, I have allowed myself to be drawn in to the triangle. I am also preventing you from addressing the situation yourself.
- I can go WITH YOU to the other person. My role is to be a neutral non-anxious presence as we open up the triangle. My presence as a third, objective person may also help ensure safety in the encounter.
- I can listen to your issues and then say, “Gosh, that sounds serious. What are you going to do about it?”
- I can use paradox and playfulness to reduce the anxiety.
Resisting triangling and learning to de-triangle can be challenging. Be encouraged: awareness of triangling is half the battle. When we become aware of triangling, we begin to see them everywhere and we can gain new perspectives on challenging situations.