Triangles in Relationships

As a relationship counsellor, it is common for me to see client(s) who are caught into triangles. A triangle is a three-person relationship system. It is considered the building block or “molecule” of larger emotional systems because a triangle is the smallest stable relationship system. A two-person system is unstable because it tolerates little tension before involving a third person. A triangle can contain much more tension without involving another person because the tension can shift around three relationships. If the tension is too high for one triangle to contain, it spreads to a series of “interlocking” triangles. (The Bowen Centre Website)

These triangles can render people impotent in being able to change their own patterns of behaviour, thinking, and emotions because the triangle is seductive to their emotionality and the ability to think clearly, and the ability to make decisions that are self-empowering goes out the window. This is more pronounced when the pattern has been going on for years and years. One of the initial reactions to get free of this triangle, is to withdraw emotionally, sometimes physically and geographically, however this only works for a short period of time, and usually the pattern is set up interiorly and movement away won’t change the internal pattern.

An example of this recently I saw in couple work was the wife’s parents were quite chaotic and dysfunctional and both parents would play her off between them and she would constantly feel caught in the middle to the point that it was affecting her own relationship with her husband. Another couple I saw years ago were in business together and rather than face the reality of their relationship (they were both conflict avoiders) they would both triangle in issues to do with the business rather than face one another about how their relationship was not working for them.

So what do we do, to break the impact of emotional triangles. I think the person who has summed this up the best is Edwin Friedman in a book he wrote called Generation to Generation:

“We can only change the relationships to which we belong. Therefore the way to bring change to the relationship of two others is to try to maintain a well-defined relationship; with each, and to avoid taking responsibility for their relationship with one another. To the extent we can maintain a self-defined, non-anxious presence that is able to maintain contact yet resist the pressure from the other two then the others relationship has the potential from within to change. The most triangled position in any set of relationships is always the most vulnerable; when the laws of emotional triangles are understood, however, it tends to become the most powerful”.

I would summarise Friedman as follows; 1. Self-define 2. Stay in Touch 3. Resist the Sabotage. We need to be clear about who we are, what we want and don’t want. We need to be “in relationship” to change relationship, and the others in the triangle will always attempt to bring us back into their pattern.

For more understanding on this I would recommend “The Dance of Anger” by Harriet Lerner.

And I am also available for consultation.






Leave a Reply