Triangles, Relationships and Anxiety

Murray Bowen is probably known as one of the key parental figures in the field of marriage and family therapy.  His emphasis on systemic thinking helps any therapist interested in relationships understand situations not as linear, “A” causes “B” activities, but as wholistic realities where it takes two to tango (or three or four or ten).

Edwin Friedman has done much to further Bowen’s work in such concepts as individuation, enmeshment, disengagement, anxiety, and triangles through two of his seminal works, Generation to Generation and Failure of Nerve as well as his consulting work applying Bowenian concepts to whole organizations and leadership.

I plan on talking more about individuation, enmeshment, and disengagement as well as the role anxiety plays in these relational dynamics in a later post, but for now I want to focus on what I have found to be one of the most helpful of Bowen’s concepts: triangles.

Bowen’s concept of triangles is a relational idea for understanding how individuals respond under pressure…or moments of anxiety.  I am going to use a fairly benign and common situation to illustrate how triangles work.

Let’s say you have a sixteen-year old girl named Mary.  She has a HUGE project due tomorrow at school that is worth about half of her final grade.  She has waited until the last minute and she is completely stressed out because she realizes that there is hardly any way she can finish this assignment by tomorrow.

The initial relationship here is between Mary and her teacher.

Mary <——————–>teacher

Note that the teacher has no idea that Mary is experiencing this much anxiety.  That is not a requirement for a triangle to take place.

However, ALL relationships experience tension at some point…some sort of conflict.  So, here the conflict or tension is between Mary and her teacher.

Mary </\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\> teacher

Next, Mary does something that is a perfectly healthy thing to do.  She goes to talk to her mom.

Mom really has three options here.

Mom A (Disengagement)

Mom says: “Tough luck.  Deal with it.”

Well, this sounds like she is really going to make Mary learn her lesson…I guess.  Maybe this is a good option.  Let’s see.

Mom B (Enmeshment)

Mom is overwhelmed by Mary’s tears.  She can hardly stand to hear Mary cry.  What mom enjoys hearing their child cry, right?  So, Mom writes a note to the teacher: “Please excuse Mary from this assignment and give her some extra time.  She has been very ill.”  And, let’s be honest…Mary ISN’T feeling well after crying for so long.

Sure, teacher is annoyed, but she gives Mary some extra time.  Mom gets what she wants…Mary stops crying and she gets to play the hero. This option can be ESPECIALLY appealing if Mary and Mom haven’t been getting along.  It can also be an easy option if Mom and Mary are both accustomed to the habit of Mom saving the day.

However, what has Mary learned?  That she can wait to the last minute.

More importantly, perhaps, what has Mary NOT learned?   Mom has literally stolen so many growth opportunities for Mary.  She stole the opportunity for Mary to learn how to calm herself down under stress (a very important part of adolescent development).  She stole the opportunity for Mary to learn how to communicate in the midst of tension and conflict (with teacher).  Mom also stole the opportunity for Mary to learn to work under pressure and problem solve.

So, this is probably not the best option.  Is there a third way?

Mom C (Differentiation or Individuation)

Mom listens to Mary.  She doesn’t say “Tough luck.”  She is caring and compassionate.  She knows everyone makes these mistakes sometimes.  Starting to sound like Mom B until Mom says: “Wow, Mary, this has to be so hard.  What do YOU want to do about this?”

Mom stays with her.  She might even help her brainstorm options Mary has.  She might practice with Mary what she could say to her teacher.

The key difference is that it is up to Mary.  Not Mom.

And, Mom doesn’t leave her.  Mom is able to calm her OWN anxiety down enough to be able to stay PRESENT with Mary even when Mary is upset.

Mom A SOUNDS tough…but, this is the mom with the real strength.  It takes real strength to be able to be with someone when they are anxious without, in some way, whether it is emotionally, relationally, or physically, taking over.

Mom C will require even more strength if Mary isn’t accustomed to Mom being differentiated.  Mary might even get angry with Mom and want her to DO SOMETHING. Mom will have to be very “differentiated” from Mary’s anxiety (because remember….anxiety is catching!) to stay present without succumbing to either ditching Mary or taking over and stealing a growth opportunity from her daughter.

Triangles happen every day.  When my clients come in to talk to me they talk to me about other people.  I, too, have to be able to be ok with my clients not being ok long enough to stay present with them and not abandon them or try to take over in some unethical way.  I have to be able to sit with them and their pain for us to work together.  I can’t call their parents or their spouses or their friends and make people change.  We can only work with who is sitting in that office…them.

Gossip is a great example of how triangles can work every day.  You experience tension with a friend or with someone you know and what do you do?  You call someone else to “vent”.  Talking to someone you trust is not necessarily a bad thing just like it isn’t a bad thing for Mary to talk to her mom.  What is significant is WHY you talk to them. Is it to avoid managing the conflict with your other friend or family member?  Is it because you are trying to get someone on “your side”?  Is it because you are trying to leverage some power in the situation to make you feel less anxious and more in control?

One person talks to another and so on and then you have a whole landscape of triangles.  And, what does a whole bunch of triangles look like? That’s right…a spider web.

Oh, what a web we weave…

You can triangle more than just people.  You might be experiencing anxiety in a relationship or at work and so instead of “telling mom” you turn to alcohol or work or golf or shopping or the TV or your iPhone…or even unhealthy spirituality…anything that helps you manage that anxiety you have a difficult time managing on your own.

Of course there are healthy things to use to help you cope with anxiety.  Healthy options like going on a walk or praying…you will know they are healthy if they help you calm down your anxiety in order to face the conflict rather than avoid it.

One of the tricky aspects of differentiation, enmeshment, and disengagement is that it is quite relative to the position that is comfortable for you.  Someone who is usually disengaged will see someone who is actually quite differentiated and perceive them to be enmeshed.  However, someone who functions mostly in enmeshment will see someone who is differentiated and perceive them to be disengaged.

The spectrum might look like this…


Disengagement and enmeshment are really just flip sides of the same coin…as opposite as they appear.  Both are reactions to anxiety and the inability to self-soothe.  You either hit the road…or take over.

So, for what it’s worth…I encourage you to be aware of what you use to avoid conflict and manage your anxiety.

OR, if you are prone to being in triangles…maybe you like being the savior…the fixer…the one who saved the day…the martyr…I bet you are exhausted, prone to getting angry and bitter…I encourage you to examine what it is that keeps you from standing your ground.  Why is it hard for you to be with someone without taking over?

I also highly recommend this short youtube video (6 minutes) that goes over some of these concepts.