Triangles: A Study In Three Parts


Triangles have always been significant. In Christianity there is the holy trinity, the father-son-and-holy ghost. In politics we find the Roman triumvirate - a three person system of ruling. More recently the framers of the U.S. Constitution created the tripart checks and balances system of the executive, legislative and judicial branches. In medieval European music, three beats to the measure (3/4 time) was called perfect time (whereas 4/4 was called common time). In psychology, Freud's id-ego-superego construct revolutionized the way the individual was conceptualized. Today, the field of family therapy uses the triangle as one of its conceptual bases. One of the purposes of this paper is to review the extent to which the concept of triangles (in their various permutations) is being researched and if there is any empirical support for the concept.

Robert Aylmer (1986), notes that Murray Bowen began developing the concept of triangles in family therapy in 1955 (p. 108). As influential as his work has become, it did not change the field of family therapy over night. In his 1969 article, "Triadic based family therapy," Zuk (1981) suggests that family therapy is mainly dyadic-based because of the influence of psychoanalytic theory (p. 32). Even the three person family is seen in terms of dyads; three two-person units, mother-child, father-child, and mother-father. This view encourages therapists to concentrate on dyads, which is problematic because a two person system under stress forms itself into a triangle (Bowen, 1978, p. 478). In order to understand the emotional dynamics, the therapist must examine the triangle. Bowen (1978), states that "the triangle, a three-person emotional configuration, is the...basic building block of any emotional system, whether it is in the family or any other group" (p. 373).

Bowen's theories provide the basis for the study of triangles in family therapy. These concepts will be briefly reviewed. All emotional systems can be understood through triangles (Bowen, 1978, 478). When tension arises between two people and a third is engaged to relieve the tension it is called triangulation . When tension is greater than what the three person system can handle, a series of interlocking triangles is created. For example, three people create one triangle, four people create four interlocking triangles and five people create nine interlocking triangles etc. Each triangle has two positive sides and one negative side.

Bowen (1978) identifies two variables important in determining why triangles occur in relationships. (p. 307). The first is the level of differentiation . This refers to the degree to which individuality is maintained in a system. The second variable is the level of anxiety . This refers to the amount of emotional tension in a system. A low level of differentiation, or a higher level of anxiety produce more triangling.

Family therapists needs to know how to manipulate these variables in order avoid being triangulated. Bowen (1978) suggests that therapists should control their reactions by "getting outside" of themselves (1978, p. 480). If the therapist remains neutral, the emotional problem will automatically resolve (1978, p. 250). As difficult as this is, neutrality is one of the most powerful therapeutic inputs (Bowen, 1971 cited in Aylmer, 1986, p. 124). One of Bowen's most successful strategies is to work with the family until he learns their triangular strategies . Then he works with the parents, anticipating and diffusing the triangulating maneuvers. This forces the parents to focus on the problem (1978, p. 376). Other successful strategies in remaining de-triangled are seriousness and humor.

In contrast to Bowen's belief in the importance of neutrality, another influential family therapist, Zuk (1981) discusses practical applications of working with triangles in family therapy. Zuk (1981) terms his triadic-based technique go-between process because it relies on the therapists "taking and trading roles... of the mediator and side-taker" (p. 36). The mediator is one person mediating between at least two others (p. 32). The side-taker joins one person in coalition against another.

Zuk (1981) outlines three steps involved in the go-between process (p. 38). In step 1, the therapist works on initiating conflict. In step 2, the therapists moves into the role of the go-between. In step 3, the therapist assumes the role of side-taker. In all three steps it is important to keep the interactions focused on the present. Past events preclude the therapist's involvement in mediating or side-taking (p. 39). Because triangles constantly move around, the current permutation might be different from the past. The goal of the therapist is to change the pathogenic relating around into a more productive way of relating (p. 44).

After thirty years there is still much to be learned about triangles. This paper will look at nine empirical studies and conceptual reviews of triangles. The majority discuss issues in family and couples therapy1. One article argues for a triangle-based approach to attachment theory. The articles are roughly grouped into empirical studies and conceptual reviews. There is no discussion or interpretation until the final section. The discussion section looks at major themes from the articles, criticisms, considerations for future study and applications for social work.


1. Mann, B.J., Bourdin, C.M., Henggeler, S.W., and Blaske, D.M. (1990). An investigation of systemic conceptualizations of parent-child coalitions and symptom change.

The authors introduce the study by stating that fundamental assumptions of family therapy have rarely been evaluated. The present study examine two important theoretical assumptions of family therapy. One fundamental assumption which lacks evaluative studies is that cross-generational coalitions (i.e. mother-father-child triangles) are associated with child behavior problems. Specifically the authors looked at adolescent antisocial behavior, evaluating differences in dyadic interaction between families with a delinquent child and families with a well adjusted child.

A number of hypotheses were generated. The first is that mother-adolescent dyads were expected to show more verbal activity, and both father-adolescent and father-mother dyads were expected to show less supportiveness and more conflict hostility. Within families of delinquent adolescents, it was expected that mother-adolescent dyads would show more verbal activity and show high supportiveness and low conflict hostility in comparison with father-adolescent and father-mother dyads. These patterns would support a mother-adolescent alliance. In contrast, a mother-father alliance was expected within the families of well-adjusted adolescents.

The second fundamental assumption is that strengthening the parental dyad would weaken the cross-generational coalition and ameliorate the symptomatic behavior. However, the authors point out that there is little empirical evidence to support the assumption that changing family coalitions changes individual behavior. To support a link would require demonstrating that family therapy was effective in changing family coalitions and individual symptomology. The authors used a therapeutic approach called multisystemic therapy (MST). Their therapeutic approach encouraged treatment not only of the family, but other dysfunctional systems as needed. MST was in line with the goals of their family therapy: disengagement of the mother-adolescent coalition, strengthening the parental dyad through the resolution of marital problems, and promoting more positive father-adolescent relations.

There were 61 family triads (mother, father, and a 13 to 17 year old son or daughter). Forty-five families included a delinquent adolescent, and 16 included a well adjusted adolescent. Of the 45 families, 27 received MST and 18 received individual therapy. Each family member in the treatment groups completed the Symptom Checklist-90-Revised (SCLR-90-R), and the Unrevealed Differences Questionnaire-Revised (DRDR) to measure family relations.

There were two sets of results. The results for dyadic interactions were examined in two groups. The between group looked at the results of the delinquent vs. well-adjusted. The within-group looked at mother-adolescent vs. father-adolescent vs. father-mother. The results supported four of five between-group predictions and four of nine within-group predictions. The second results looked at the effect of therapy on the family interaction and individual symptomology. It was indicated that MST was effective in promoting change.

In the discussion, the authors noted that many predictions were supported and many were not. Delinquents were more aligned with their mothers and more disengaged from their fathers than were the well-adjusted adolescents. Parents of delinquents had more discordant relations than the parents of well-adjusted adolescents. Within families of well-adjusted adolescents, the parents were more supportive of each other than the adolescent. This would suggest that a stronger marital relationship is important in adolescent psychological health. There were several predictions regarding mother-adolescent coalitions that were not supported.

The authors conclude that the findings are noteworthy for several reasons. First, they provide some support for fundamental assumptions in family therapy. Secondly they demonstrate the need to look beyond dyads in understanding family relations and behavior problems. Thirdly, the findings suggest that the importance of the mother-father-child triangle has significant treatment implications. In other words, it is possible that the inclusion of both the parents and the adolescent in therapy would improve results. Finally, the hypotheses not supported indicate that previous assumptions about the supportiveness and verbal activity in dyads in families with a delinquent adolescent might be more illusory than real. That is, low levels of conflict between M-A dyads might promote the illusion of a more supportive relationship that the F-A dyad. The authors conclude by pointing out limitations, such as subject size, the fact that these results are in relation to delinquency, and that external factors were important in the changes. They also say that the findings are more provocative than conclusive.

2. West, J.D., Zarski, J.J., and Harvill, R. (1986). The influence of the family triangle on intimacy.

The authors begin by defining the family triangle as a family systems construct used to describe family communication patterns in which a dyad cannot cope with demands for intimacy or conflict resolution. In their model, triangles occur to reduce tension between two people, but a problematic because they do not provide solutions. The authors review three family triangles (the triangulation pattern, the detouring pattern and the cross-generational coalition pattern). Triangulation occurs when a parent demands that a child side with her or him against the other parent. Detouring occurs when spouses ignore the issues in their own relationship and focus on the child's issues. The cross-generational coalition exists when one parent sides with a child against another parent. This differs from triangulation because it is the parent who initiates the coalition and the attachment between the parent and the child exceeds that between the parents. All three family triangles are considered to have negative developmental effects on the child. They create a false sense of attachment and security and do not give the child the opportunity to develop a healthy separate identity. For this reason the study considers the "impact of cross-generational coalitions on interpersonal intimacy and view intimacy as a developmental task relevant to young adults" (p. 168).

The study was conducted in a university with 107 undergraduates ages 17-21 (mean age 19.56 years). There were 66 female, and 41 male subjects. Students were administered the Madanes Family Hierarchy Test (MFHT) which was a series of diagrams; three stick figures arranged vertically, horizontally, two people over one person, and one person over two people. They first had to point out which of four diagrams best represented who was in charge in their family. Next they had to label the stick figures and finally indicate how close or distant each member was. Next the students were administered the Personal Assessment of Intimacy in Relationship (PAIR). The students were asked to reflect on a current, or most recently intimate relationship. Those who had no intimate relationship did not respond to the PAIR. PAIR students were first asked to describe the relationship as it actually was and then asked to describe it as they would like it to be. Students who scored more than one standard deviation on PAIR were eliminated, leaving 66 subjects.

The results were that 9 students reported having authority over a parent, 42 indicated a cross-generational attachment and 24 did not. Those with a cross-generational attachment had larger intellectual-intimacy, emotional-intimacy and sexual-intimacy discrepancy scores.

The data supported the hypothesis that cross-generational coalitions affected the ability to successfully negotiate psycho-social developmental tasks. There are many implications for these findings. Even while away from home, students are still affected by the family triangle. Counselors need to take this into consideration in therapy. The authors cite Bowen (1978) and suggest that "detriangulating" would be important in resolving intimacy issues. Detriangulating involves: a) not talking with one parent about the other parent, b) teaching the client about triangulation patterns, c) the client becoming more objective and less emotional with his or her parents.

3. Gaul, R., Simon, L., Friedlander, M.L., Cutler, C., and Heatherington, L. (1991). Correspondence of family therapists' perceptions with FRCCCS coding rules for triadic interactions.

Family therapists agree that attending to and intervening in interactions between three or more family members is very important. The authors look at three communication patterns (intercept, indirect message, and disconfirmation) as reflecting important information about boundaries, coalitions and power dynamics in the family. The ability to recognize these patterns is continually ranked as "extremely important" by family therapists. The authors contend that the study of these patterns is very important for clinical practice, supervision, as well as for research.

Until recently, these patterns were difficult to study due to a lack of appropriate instruments. The Family Relational Communication Control Coding System (FRCCCS) "is an observational coding system of the naturally occurring communication process among two or more people." (p. 380) The code measures the degree of relative control taken by people in social interactions. The FRCCCS differs from other coding systems in that it takes into account the therapist as well. The FRCCCS was created to focus on triadic exchanges; "verbal messages in which one speaker communicates simultaneously with two or more `targets' directly or indirectly" (p. 380).

The purpose of the study was to test the validity of the FRCCCS rules for defining specific kinds of triadic messages as direct and indirect attempts to gain or relinquish control of the definition of the relationship ...Only the triadic features of the FRCCCS -- indirect messages, disconfirmations and intercepts -- were of interest. (p. 383)

The FRCCCS codes each message along three dimensions: participants, format and response mode. Participants refers to identifying the speaker and the direct target (the person being addressed) and indirect target (the person being referred to). Format is the structure or grammatical format of a message: intercept , assertion, closed and open questions, successful and unsuccessful talk overs and noncompletes. Response mode refers to the function of the message: disconfirmations , support, nonsupport, extension, topic shift, instruction, answers to closed and open questions etc. Each message has only one format code, but the direct and indirect targets are given a response mode. Finally, control codes are examined to identify reciprocity , which is when A speaks to B and B responds immediately.

The subjects were 35 experienced family therapists. They observed two videotaped family therapy interactions (approx. 5 minutes each). In order to maximize the number of verbal exchanges with specific message codes within a brief time span, the video tape was a role play by doctoral students. The script included multiple examples of each message code to avoid a sampling bias.

The results compare percentage of agreement between the FRCCCS control code and the subjects responses. Disconfirmation, 77%; intercept, 74%; intercept, 68%; indirect, 91%; indirect, 64%; indirect, 61%. The results indicate that the FRCCCS is a valid system to study relational control in group interactions.

The authors discuss a number of factors involved in the study. The first is that this was a validity study. As such there was a trade off between experimental control and ecological validity. The present study examined interactions from an objective rather than phenomenological view. Further research would be important in establishing the degree to which the FRCCCS could be used as a general coding tool. To do this, the authors suggest using transcripts of actual family sessions. Another point, more relevant to the topic of this paper is that for triadic messages, those which sought relational control were more apparent to observers than those that sought to relinquish control. This might result from a bias in the literature towards identifying controlling members of a triad vs. members who relinquish control. Another use of this system would be in understanding triadic process. The coding system could be used as a means of becoming familiar with relative control communication patterns. Specifically, it could be useful if it was determined that the therapist engaged in a predictable intervention in certain situations. Finally, the authors recommend that as support studies continue on the FRCCCS more theoretically driven validation tests should be undertaken.

4. Vogel, E.F. and Bell, N.W. (1968). The Emotionally Disturbed Child as the Family Scapegoat.

When parents experience crises for which they have no adequate coping mechanisms, they look for ways to discharge some of the tension. One of the most common methods is to involve a third person. When the third person is their child, parents often project their problems on to the child. They focus their attentions on the problems of the child so they can avoid the pain of admitting their own problems. This is what Vogel and Bell call "scapegoating". The authors note that at the time of the article (1968), very little literature considered the family unit as playing a central role in child development. The purpose of their study was to learn more about how "the emotionally disturbed child [is] used as a scapegoat for the conflicts between parents and what the functions and dysfunctions of this scapegoating are for the family." (p. 412)

The data was taken from a study of 18 families. Half of the families had an emotionally disturbed child and half had a well-adjusted child. Within each group there were three Irish-American families, three Italian-American families and three Old-American families. The families were seen by a team of psychiatrists, social workers, psychologists and social scientists. The families with disturbed children were seen weekly "in the offices of a psychiatric clinic and in their homes over periods ranging from one to four years." (p. 412)

The study found that there were two main sources of tension in the married dyad. The first was conflict in cultural value orientations, such as individual performance. The second was tension between the family and the larger community. This might arise from leaving the ethnic community in an attempt to assimilate in the larger American community.

There were many reasons why the child was selected as the scapegoat. First, the child was relatively powerless to leave the family nor to counter the parents triangulation. The child's personality is very flexible and adopts quickly to the assigned role of scapegoat. The child has few task which are vital in the maintenance of the family. "The cost in dysfunction of the child is low relative to the functional gains for the whole family." (p. 416.) Often, the chosen child would best symbolize the parental conflicts. For example, if the conflict was over achievement, the child who stood out most (for either over- or under-achieving) would be targeted. Children were also picked because they possessed the undesirable traits (either physically, behaviorally or emotionally) as the parent. The study also found that the scapegoated child had a considerably lower IQ than the other children. Many had physical abnormalities. All of the parents reported having had tensions since early in the marriage.

Once the child is selected she or he must carry out the role of the problem child. The authors found that the problem behavior was reinforced through inconsistent parenting. The dysfunction would be both supported and criticized. In some cases, parents would encourage opposing types of behavior. In other instances parents promoted different norms. This set up a self-perpetuating cycle which "normalized" the child's problems. The dysfunction became part of the family.

The families used rationalizations to maintain the equilibrium attained when the child took on the parents' problems. One rationalization was that the parents, rather than the children, were the victims. Another was to emphasize how fortunate the child was, because their life was better than the parents. The parents felt justified in depriving the children of things they wanted and then used the complaints to reinforce the scapegoating. Another common belief was that the child could behave if she or he wanted to. This rationalized sever punishment.

The authors point out that there are both functions and dysfunctions of scapegoating. For the parents, scapegoating serves to stabilize their relationship. They were also better able to live up to the societal expectations of a happy marriage. Scapegoating permits the family to maintain its solidarity. At the same time, communities can scapegoat the family with the dysfunctional child. One of the dysfunctions is that scapegoating creates "realistic problems and extra tasks" for the family. Another is that the child often becomes very adept at fighting back and usually directs their aggression towards the ever-present mother.

5. Marks, S. (1989). Towards a systems theory of marital quality.

Marks (1989) suggests that relationships can be understood in terms of two intersecting triangles. He has borrowed Margaret Mead's concept of "I" and "me" in describing the nature of the triangle. The "I" is the presentation of the self at that moment or in that situation. This contrasts with the "me" which is an organization of tendencies. The situation brings the "I" out of the "me". The triangle is three points and those can be understood as three tendencies, or three "me" corners. At any given moment one corner will be the focus of energy. That corner will then be the "I", the present manifestation of the tendencies. In therapy, the placement of the"I" structures the future.

Each triangle has three corners. The first corner is the I nner-self, the driving force. The second is the P artnership corner. This coordinates the self with a primary partner. The third (3rd) corner is any area where the self concentrates energy that is different from the first two corners, eg job, children, religion, friends etc.

Marks' conception differs from Bowen's view triangles in marriage. Bowen sees the couple as two corners of the triangle. The couple uses the third corner as a buffer against their tension. The third corner provides a distraction and relieves the marital pressure. In a marital therapy situation, the therapist can act as the third corner.

The "Three Corners" model is a systems theory of the self in marriage. A traditional concept in marriage therapy is "marital quality". Marks states "Quality of marriage is a consequence of the way married selves are systematically organized (p. 20). A person whose "I" maintains some regular motion around and between all three corners has a high quality marriage."

The article introduces seven different manifestations of the dual triangle construct. The first three are low quality relationships. These are characterized by a concentration of energy on one corner without a flow of energy to all parts. The first triangle is the "Romantic Fusion", wherein all the energy is focused on the P . This is the traditional beginnings of a relationship. This becomes unhealthy after a while because other areas of the self are neglected. The second is the "Dependency-Distancing" relationship. This is a traditional unhealthy female-male situation where the woman places energy on the partner and the partner (the man) places energy on the 3rd corner, usually work. The third is the "Separated" relationship where both people focus their energy on their 3rd corner. Marks says that while this can be very healthy and stable, as a marriage is concerned it is low quality.

The last four triangles represent high quality marriages. There is a radical shift in the conception of the triangle. Because there is a constant flow of energy, the three points are connected by rounded lines, making a circle. This represents uninterrupted energy flow between the "me's". In a high quality marriage there is a multiplicity of healthy connections which are as dynamic and fluid as the energy. The fourth is the "Balanced Connection" which has an equal concentration of energy. The fifth is "Couple Centered". The energy is focused on the P , but differs from the second triangle in that the other "me's" receive energy. The sixth is "Family Centered". Both people focus their energy on the family, which would be a joint 3rd interest. The seventh is "Loose". The energy is focused on the 3rd , without detriment to the stability of the couple because, again, there is a steady flow of energy to the other corners.

6. Slater, S. (1994) Approaching and avoiding the work of the middle years: affairs in committed lesbian relationships.

This article looks at how sexual triangles appear in committed lesbian relationships. Understanding the reasons for the emergence of the triangle and how to approach it clinically requires an understanding of intrapsychic, systemic and oppression related influences.

The author believes there are both universal and uniquely lesbian factors involved in the psychic and systemic processes (p. 20). The lesbian couple is considered to have reached "middle years" at no less than 5-7 years. At this point there is both an understanding of commitment and the need to maintain newness to avoid stagnation. The lesbian relationship involves a unique systemic challenge. Many lesbian relationships commit without a ritual because they are generally excluded from church and state marriages. The ritual serves as both a support and a signal of an exciting new time together. The second issue is the more universal need to maintain newness in a committed relationship. The intra-psychic factors involved in the maintenance or stagnation of a lesbian relationship can be understood through the self-in-relation model.

The author looks to the "self-in-relation" model to explain female development. The female childhood experience revolves around finding a sense of self through relationships with the mother. At a certain point even this dyad is expanded to a triad. The purpose of this is to ensure healthy individuation for the girl. When lesbian couples are ready to commit, the affected partner might feel like their sense of self is being lost in the relationship. She then falls back on the childhood experience and restores individuation through a third point. The author argues that the introduction of a secondary love interest acts as an individuating factor. The secondary love interest also gives the lesbian couple a chance to address the issue of connection and stagnation in their relationship.

There are other implications. The move to regain an independent self may end up splitting the affected partner between the two love interests. The primary love interest represents stability and connection. The secondary love interest represents newfound sexual pleasure and an increased sense of individuation. The author suggests that at this point the affected partner needs to "return to the challenge of consolidating her sense of identity and perceiving it as originating with in herself" (p. 31). This is considered a uniquely lesbian factor because the developmental issues of two women (or three) are at the root of the conflict.

Another uniquely lesbian aspect of the triangle is the nature of lesbian sexuality. American culture regards lesbian sex as destructive. There is no biological possibility for reproduction. The sexual love between two women challenges men's role in society. Yet the act of owning a lesbian identity is life-affirming and freeing for a woman. The existing dichotomy posits sexuality as capable of creating and destroying vital relational connections. The triangle reinforces the liberating nature of sexuality through renewed passion and self-assurance. The affect such an act has may act to confirm the destructive nature of lesbian sex in the mind of the affected partner.

In treatment, the triangle can create a false impression that the affected partner is less interested than the primary partner. The clinician must keep in mind that "triadic configurations create unfair, but create tenacious impressions of each partner." It is important to remind the couple of the process they have gone through to create a stable relationship in a world hostile to lesbian relationships.

7. Butler, M.H., and Harper, J.M. (1994). The divine triangle: God in the marital system of religious couples.

The purpose of this article is to discuss ways in which belief systems can be incorporated into marital therapy. While not evaluative of the belief systems, the article discusses the triadic relationship between the couple and the deity, the triangular processes employed during periods of marital strife, and implications for marital therapy.

The authors discuss the increasing interest in the metaphysical aspects of marital and family systems. A major foundation of relationships is shared beliefs. For religious couples God is a significant factor in their beliefs. God also becomes a member of the marital triangle. God is present in the couple's language ("it was an act of God"), symbols ("God is the head of the household"), ritual (the act of marrying before God), and history (the Bible). For deeply religious couples, God is a dynamic presence. The marital narrative perpetuates the God-couple relationship. The relationship belief system "...(1) personifies the Deity, (2) guides the marital relationship as it sets a pattern for marital behavior, and (3) characterizes God's interest and intimate involvement in the marriage." (p. 279) The authors make the point that for the couple the belief system is objective. The clinician needs only to look at the system to be effective. This will reduce the risk of judging the belief.

The authors discuss Bowenian and structural concepts in understanding process in couple-God triangles. Bowenian therapists understand triangulation as an emotional process. Emotional reactivity can either be high (undifferentiated) or (low) differentiated. The more emotionally involved, the greater the propensity towards triangulation. When people are differentiated, triangles exist without projecting anxiety on to a third person. For religious couples, God is uniquely qualified to be a differentiated member of a God-couple triangle. The therapist can use God as a means of detriangulation. The couple will be able to see their relationship through an unbiased member of the triangle. The couple can gain strength from the knowledge that God believes in the marriage and use that as a differentiating tool.

There are times when couples are too emotionally anxious to see an unbiased God. The authors look at three types of triangles. Coalition triangles form when the members of the couple side with God to resolve a dispute. This can degenerate into conceptions of patriarchy and ownership. In this situation the therapist may point out "From your perspective, it sounds like God is entirely on your side. Do you feel that God may have more understanding and empathy with your wife's position than you have surmised?" (p. 284)

Displacement triangles place the blame on God, enabling the couple to avoid dealing directly with each other. The therapist might ask the couple "Are you really angry at God or angry at yourselves for your marital distress?" (p. 285)

Substitutive triangles describe the substitution of God for the original dyadic relationship. The appearance of harmony is illusory because stability only exists through God. One or both spouses distance from their partner and form a surrogate relationship with God. Another manifestation is when the couple substitute "building the kingdom of God for building the marriage." (p. 284) A final example is when God's power substitutes for marital power. The therapist might approach the situation by "asking the couple to reconsider God's goals for the marriage, and invite them to consider whether, in the process of building God's Kingdom, God is willing for them to forfeit their marital satisfaction." (p. 285) In all three triangles, God's neutral position is compromised.

The authors believe there are many implications for marital therapy. By inviting the couple to describe how God views the marital situation, the therapist can assess the couples construction of the triangle. The reactions mentioned above place God back in a neutral position. As discussed earlier, this provides a great deal of stability and opportunity for differentiation. Furthermore, in the process, the therapist models questions that will be important in maintaining a healthy God-couple relationship.

8. Taylor, D. (1986). The child as go-between: consulting with parents and teachers.

The author focuses on the triangular relationship between parents, teachers and student. The author is a practicing psychologist at the Tavistock Clinic in London, England which provides services to students referred for learning and behavioral difficulties. Many of these difficulties arise from the child needing to transition between the parents and teachers. The paper looks at this issue of the go-between, issues of authority, and coping mechanisms.

Children find themselves as the only link between two dominant systems in their lives, their parents and their teachers. The two systems relate more to the child than each other, and in fact are in a relationship only because of the child. Each system has issues with the other. Parents often worry that the teacher will not give their child adequate attention and care. Teachers often feel burdened by unrealistic demands made by parents and resentful for "being dumped on" (p. 80). When the parent-teacher relationship becomes stressed, the child is triangulated.

One of the simplest coping mechanisms for the child is "divide and cope". By this, the author means that the child will keep the two systems as separate as possible. The child might avoid discussing school at home and visa versa, or experience great anxiety during parent-teacher conferences. In this situation two separate and manageable triangles are formed. In more extreme cases the child is unable to tolerate the tension nor keep the two systems separate from each other. The most common solution is for the child to ally her or himself with one system and reject the other. In a parent-child coalition, the teacher is seen to be the source of all problems, unsympathetic and bullying. In a teacher-child coalition the parents are described as neglectful, and victimizing of the child. Yet another situation is where one parent joins the child "in the victim position and the other parent becomes the guilty one" (p. 84). The school is rendered impotent in this situation because the guilty parent is usually abusive and this information is kept secret from the school. The author notes that these situations were beyond the realm of school based sessions.

The author discusses "authority" and "deprivation" as central issues for families and schools. Authority includes issues of control. As institutions, schools must have ways of controlling large groups of kids, and teachers must control their classes. Parents must also maintain control over their kids. As children grow older, both the schools and the parents must allow the children more self-control. It is often the parents who feel a loss of control to the schools. Teachers have "the status of experts and carry the authority of professionals" (p. 84). Many parents have not resolved their own issues of authority with "teachers" because they left school before a mature relationship developed with their own teachers.

The issue of deprivation refers less to do with the actual status of the parent and more to do with the parent's perception of their status. Often they feel underprivileged and lacking control in their lives. They look to the child as something within their control.

The author briefly mentions that the child and the teachers also play active roles in the dynamics of the triangle. The child often understands the situation and works to maintain her or his key position. Teachers are themselves family members with their own issues of authority and deprivation. The author notes that the focus is more on the parents because they are the ones who come in for therapy.

What produces a successful go-between? The author notes that researchers have found that "good" parents produce "good" pupils. That is, if the parent is interested in the child's school work, supportive of the teachers and the school culture, the child is more likely to be successful. The author believes that true interest and support is not necessary, only the ability to convince the teacher they have their child's education at heart. The author concludes by pointing out that while it is the child who is referred, all three parties contribute to the creation of the triangle.

9. Donley, M.G. (1993). Attachment and the Emotional Unit.

In this article, the author argues that a new theoretical framework based on triangles, not dyads, is necessary in understanding recent developments in research on attachment theory. Attachment theory has its basis in ethology (the comparative study of animal behavior). A founding principle is that infants' actions are "instinctively motivated to maximize proximity to the mother." (p. 4) The child's sense of self grows out of the relationship with the mother and her ability to meet the needs of the child. Recent literature, however, is showing that factors outside the dyad exert an influence on the mother-infant relationship. Some studies have looked at a triad composed of three dyads (mother-child, father-child and mother-father). This is problematic because it views the mother-child and father-child relationships as separate instead of interactive. Donley contends that this accounts for many of the "exceptions" found in current literature. Furthermore, adopting a triangle-based theory would give the "exceptions" a framework.

An important step towards a triangle-based theory is looking at the family as an emotional unit . The author notes that Bowen's family systems theory believes that the mother-child relationship is dependent on the larger emotional unit (1993, p. 7). This would make it a triangular relationship.

Attachment theory benefits greatly from the concept of the emotional unit. In order to adequately understand the complexity of attachment, it is important to include the family as the emotional unit. The process of attachment would be very different if a child were born when the emotional unit was stable and supported, than when the same family was experiencing great stress.

The author believes that triangles are the basic building block of the emotional unit. The term "triangles" should not be confused with "triad", which the author defines as a more narrow and static description of three sets of influencing relationships (Appendix, Fig.1). In contrast, the triangle accounts for the forces which drive the interactions. In triangles the individual is less of a concern than the function of each position. If there is tension between two points, then the importance of the third point lies in its function as a buffer. Following the ethological origins, the author notes that triangles are also found in non-human primates. Some of the most germane findings are that the father's relationship with the infant is intimately linked with the father's relationship with the mother.

According to the author,

This research supports the idea that triangles form the foundation of attachment theory and acknowledges the interconnection between the child's attachment to the mother and the child's attachment to those related to the mother. (p. 13)

We now see the emotional unit not as a three person relationship, but a series of interlocking triangles. The author relates this back to one of the principles of family therapy, that a dyad incorporates a third corner to manage anxiety. Trying to understand the triangulation of a child by a mother or a father in terms of dyads would produce "exceptions" that are commonly found in literature.

The author concludes that "...the context in which the mother-child bond develops may exert more influence on the bond than the actual characteristics of the mother and/or child." (emphasis original, p. 14) One of the many implications of this is that triadic process might have less to do with human psychology than behavior of all living things. The inclusion of Bowenian family theory is imperative in attachment theory because it provides the basis for understanding the multidimensional processes involved.


As mentioned in the introduction, the purpose of this paper is to review the extent to which the concept of triangles is being researched and if there is any empirical support for the concept. For that reason, the nine articles reviewed here are not intended to be representative of the depth of research, but rather to represent the broad range of applications researchers have found for the concept of triangles. The purpose of this section is to highlight information from the literature that is relevant to the study of triangles. In an attempt to synthesize information from the articles, this section will first look at three major themes that emerged from the literature and end with a look at the implications for social work .

One of the major themes is that Bowen's theories are still applicable to today's issues. A majority of the articles applied Bowen's concepts directly. Butler's (1994) application of the triangle to religion illustrated two important distinctions between Bowen's and Zuk's theories. The first is while Bowen believes that neutrality is the key to resolving conflict, Zuk believes that side-taking is inevitable and can be effective if done skillfully (Zuk, 1981, p. 39). Zuk reasons that the family will see the therapist as taking sides, even if the therapist believes she or he is not. In Butler's (1994) article, the power of God lies in neutrality. Zuk's position of side-taking would not be applicable. The second difference is that Bowen believes the triangle is an emotional configuration, whereas Zuk understands it as a relational configuration, which can be more or less pathogenic. Bowen's model relies on the subjectivity of emotions which is important in understanding the subjective realities of faith.

From this example, it should not be taken that Zuk's model is without merit. Andolfi and Angelo (1988) support Zuk's position that the therapist is an active participant in developing the therapeutic system. There is no neutral stance because the therapist would always be reacting to attributes placed by the family (p. 238). If the family places the therapist into a family role, then she or he is in a great position to gather important information about the family. The authors support Zuk's position that entering a triangle can be very helpful because they can influence the direction a family moves. As a social worker, being open to the positions a family might put me in would be essential in understanding cultural differences that might arise.

A second theme is that triangles can be functional and dysfunctional. Vogel and Bell (1968) point out that triangles provide stability for a family. Slater (1994) notes that triangulation allows for a re-evaluation of the relationship. The dysfunctional aspects of triangles is that they do not allow the family to address the real problems at hand. Vogel and Bell (1968) found that the harmony created between the parents within the family as a result of scapegoating the child usually led to community disapproval and community scapegoating the family. The idea that communities can scapegoat families would be important to remember in social work. An important portion of social work is working with communities. If a community had scapegoated a family, the case worker could look at the family characteristics and, according to Vogel and Bell (1968), learn something about the characteristics the community does not like about itself.

A third important theme is the relationship between development and triangles. Taylor (1986) discusses the impact that unresolved parental issues of authority regarding teachers has on creating an unhealthy triangle between the parents, the child and the teachers. Vogel and Bell (1968) point out that all of the families with a scapegoated child had unresolved marital tensions from early in the marriage. Jacobson (1986) notes that pre-marital counseling is important in resolving issues. Donely (1993) addresses the impact that the family as the emotional unit has on the infant. West (1986) notes that triangles create a false sense of attachment and security and do not give the child the opportunity to develop a healthy separate identity. This is particularly dangerous because, as Bowen (1978) points out, triangular patterns become embedded. This idea is supported by West's finding that students are still affected by family triangles, even when away from the home. A final example is the Slater (1994) article on triangles in committed lesbian relationships. For women, the self develops in relation to others. Issues of differentiation and connection hold different meanings than for men, and the issues involved in triangulation are different as well.

Marks' (1989) concept of the self as a triangle is very useful and deserves more attention. A useful application would be in Slater's (1994) article on triangles in committed lesbian relationships. In his article, Marks does not discuss the possibility of energy revolving around the "I". This might reflect an assumption that there is a sufficient concentration on the "I" naturally, that the inner-self is the base of all the external interactions. This assumes a degree of differentiation that, developmentally, is traditionally more male than female. Slater points out that the affected partner needs consolidate her sense of identity and perceive it as originating within herself. This would result in the "I" in Marks' model to be the focus of energy. Without this option, the therapist would concentrate the affected partner on the "P" and miss the opportunity for individual growth.

Implications for Social Work

Some of the social work implications of triangles and therapy have already been discussed. Fine and Jennis (1985) look at two specific activities that can be used with parent education groups that are related to triangles. The first is a detriangulating activity. Parents often find themselves side-taking with their kids. (Remember that Zuk discussed that only a highly skilled therapist could negotiate side-taking for positive results.) The exercise requires the parents to go home and practice taking the role of the curious observer . In this way they can observe the patterns of triangulation. At the following week's group, they can discuss techniques of avoiding triangulation. The purpose of the second activity is to increase parents' understanding of triangles and triangulation. This exercise occurs in a group of between 8 and 16 parents, each of whom has pen and paper. They are asked to write down 3 acceptable and 3 non-acceptable behaviors that their kids engage in routinely. This enables them to distinguish behaviors from attitudes. The group divides into four person sub-groups and discusses the sequence of events surrounding those behaviors. The authors suggest five categories. "(1) the preceding event or circumstance, (2) the child's behavior, (3) the parent's reaction, (4) the child's response, and (5) other family members' reactions to (2-4)" (p. 26). These are particularly relevant to social work. These exercises are simple, they are effective with many different populations, and they take into consideration the role of the family members in situations.

As exciting and varied as triangle theory is, there are valid criticisms. The first is that the majority of the studies focused on dependence as being the dominant catalyst for problems. A good example is West (1986) who states

In this enmeshed situation the child seems to experience a distorted sense of attachment, involvement, or belonging with the family and fails to experience a secure sense of separateness, individuality or autonomy. (p. 167)

This implies that independence is more important than attachment, and given what we know about gender roles, that male characteristics are more important than female characteristics. The possible gender bias could be addressed by a study on the role of an overly-detached family member on the creation of triangles. This would look at the role that stereotypical male behavior has on the other two members.

A second criticism stems from the social work perspective. With the exception of Vogel and Bell's (1968) study, none of the subjects were noted to be minorities. This makes it difficult to relate specific issues to social work. Social work needs to be engaging in triangle research for a number of reasons. First, if one understands how triangles function, the pattern will be the same in all emotional systems (Bowen, 1978, p. 478). The concept of triangles (and multiple interlocking triangles) is a very powerful tool for understanding complex dynamics, at the family, community or national level.

In conclusion, there appears to be some support for the use of triangles in understanding social dynamics. This is important because, as noted in the introduction, the concept of triangles has been accepted as one of the bases for family therapy. Exploration of the basic tenants of this theory has stimulated other fields to apply the use of triangles in understanding other issues. As with most theories, the practical applications can be criticized for gender-bias and a lack of cultural awareness. The hope is that current research will encourage practitioners and researchers to continue expanding the use of this powerful concept.


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Written By: Jonathan Singer, LMSW-ACP
Website: http://home.flash.net/~cooljazz/