One of the foundational features of Murray Bowen’s family systems theory is his concept of triangles. Bowen notes that a dyad (a two-person relationship) is the most basic of all human relationships — but that it is also the most unstable. Bowen said that a dyad is the most unstable of all human relationships because when two persons are at odds with each other, they tend to triangle (i.e., hook in) in a third person. He called this process triangulation. Incidentally, there are good reasons why triangulation rhymes with strangulation — when you are being triangulated by another, you can actually feel the tightness in your chest because you know that you are being cajoled (or even manipulated) to take that person’s side.
Differentiation of self
One telltale feature of triangulation is when people talk behind the backs of others. People do this when they are not comfortable speaking to others directly. Bowen states that the lower one’s level of differentiation (i.e., the lower one’s maturity) the higher the proclivity for triangulation. Those who have the most difficulty directly voicing concerns or sensitive issues with others are the least mature. And conversely, highly-differentiated persons possess a greater capacity to speak face to face with those with whom they feel conflict or tension.
Bowen’s concept of differentiation of self, what he called his theory’s cornerstone concept, is directly tied to his concept of triangles. Bowen crafted a differentiation of self scale (with 1 being the lowest level of differentiation and 100 being the highest) as a way for persons to measure their emotional and relational maturity. For Bowen, the terms maturity and differentiation of self are synonymous. He noted that he never met anyone with a score over about 70, and reported later in his career that he regretted ever developing this scale because people became obsessed with trying to measure their level of differentiation. Can you imagine that?
Bowen’s 12 core capacities of highly differentiated persons are:
- The capacity to define one’s true or basic self clearly.
- The capacity to take a stand.
- The capacity to manage anxiety non-reactively (i.e., to possess emotional objectivity) — with no counter-attacking.
- The capacity to think rationally rather than respond with emotional reactivity.
- The capacity (or courage) to make decisions based on
- The capacity to regulate or modify oneself maturely
(i.e., be self-focused rather than other-focused).
- The capacity to be non-blaming.
- The capacity to maintain healthy, separate boundaries (i.e., boundaries that are neither too porous or too rigid).
- The capacity to maintain healthy, balanced functioning in the system — no prolonged under- or over-functioning.
- The capacity to de-triangle (i.e., stay out of the middle of other persons’ emotional space and issues).
- The capacity to develop person-to-person relationships.
- The capacity to stay connected or related to all (but especially key) persons in the system.
Negotiating relational triangles
For Bowen, triangles (a three-person relationship) are the basic building blocks of relationships. In any family or organization there are a series of what he calls interlocking triangles. For example, in a family with a mother, father, daughter and son, there is a triangle between the husband, wife and daughter — and another between the husband, wife and son. Further, there is a triangle between the two children and the father — and the two children and the mother. You get the idea. The more members in a family, the more interlocking triangles there are. When you add in all the triangles of one’s extended family and the in-laws you immediately see how complicated families really are.
As I teach this theory and do family systems pastoral coaching, I must routinely reiterate the sometimes difficult-to-grasp difference between triangles (which Bowen sees as essentially neutral) and triangulation (which is manipulative, pernicious, damaging and a sign of immaturity). I am sometimes stunned at how many persons misuse the terms triangled and triangulation. I often have to remind both myself and others that there are “good” as well as “bad” triangles. When couples seek counseling, they come because they are not capable of working through their issues by themselves. They need professional help — a “pastoral referee” or therapeutic mediator. An appropriate therapeutic relationship, therefore, constitutes a good triangle.
If we are engaged in human relationships, we are constantly negotiating relational triangles. There is no escape. One of the gray areas between understanding the distinction between triangles and triangulation surfaces when persons are not clear about the difference between triangulation and maturely processing delicate situations or potential plans of action with trusted friends or colleagues. (I covered some of this in my previous Outlook article on parking lot meetings. See: pres-outlook.org/parkinglot) Being in conflict with others is common, stressful, confusing, exhausting and very emotional. Conflict increases our anxiety, and increased anxiety makes us more “dumb,” impulsive and reactive. Author Tricia Taylor is fond of saying: “Anxious people do what anxious people do.” Mature persons know the value of processing delicate situations in order to ponder responsibly all available options before jumping into action. After all, learning the value of peer consultation is one of the core objectives of clinical pastoral education (CPE). The old adage, “Look before you leap,” still rings true. I call it employing the pastoral pause. Rollo May writes, “Real freedom is the ability to pause between stimulus and response and in that pause choose.”
Triangle vs. triangulation
One of the differences between being in a triangle and being triangulated has to do with motive. Persons who wish to process maturely some prickly or unethical issue involving other persons are generally:
- Open and willing to speak to those persons directly;
- Open to healing the relationship or to at least pursue some degree of peace, reconciliation or justice;
- Not expecting others to take all of the responsibility to fix the problem for them; and
- Not seeking simply to vent or talk behind the other’s back.
Mature persons who wish to address the conflict directly with the other person often need to process how and when to do this with trusted friends or colleagues before crafting an action plan. Therapists call this process “the art of timing and judgment.” It is the right thing to do? When is the right time to speak up?
Conversely, the telltale features of triangulation are when persons are:
- Not open to speaking to the other persons directly;
- Not interested in healing the strained relationship;
- Expecting others to take all or most of the responsibility to fix the situation for them;
- Just wanting to vent or disparage the other person with no real plan for reconciliation; or
- Not very circumspect about their motives or actions.
- There are, however, some exceptions to these general rules. The exceptions ordinarily have to do with both the level of danger and the differential of power in the relationship.
Case study: Exceptions to the rules
Imagine a scenario where a young woman is being sexually harassed by her boss. As her boss’ advances become more aggressive and uncomfortable, she begins to discuss the situation with a few select colleagues and trusted friends both within and outside of her office. Her motive is not to talk behind her boss’ back, but to process what she is experiencing: “Am I imagining this?” and “What should I do about it?” She soon learns that other coworkers also have stories of inappropriate humor and touch with this same boss, but are too afraid or reticent to join her in reporting it.
The thought of reporting this to the director of human resources (all by herself) is especially terrifying and threatening because the HR director and her boss are close friends. She wonders if the HR director can even hear her objectively. She wonders: What will happen to me if I officially report these incidents? She intuitively knows that whistle blowers are often attacked, minimized, disparaged, not believed, fired or wind up committing “vocational suicide.” The systemic pressures are overwhelming, but after she carefully reviews her company’s written sexual harassment policy, it is clear that her boss is egregiously violating it. She finally musters up the courage and makes a decision of conscience to report her boss’ behavior to the HR director.
Now imagine if the HR director said: “This conversation is making me uncomfortable because you are triangling me. I want you to work this out privately with your boss, and I hope that you have not been discussing this with anyone in this office.” The employee feels like she has been kicked in her stomach.
The following questions put a finer point on the difference between being in a triangle and triangulation:
- Is she “triangulating” the HR director?
- Is it wise, safe and prudent for her to meet with her boss privately to work this out?
- Should she “walk the gangplank” all alone?
- Was it inappropriate that she processed her experience with several trusted co-workers and friends before talking to her HR director?
- Was it inappropriate that she sought others to join her in reporting her boss’ behavior?
Those in positions of authority must understand and accept that their jobs mandate that they are required constantly to negotiate all kinds of triangles due to the nature of their position. That old adage still rings true, “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Thus, managers, supervisors, directors and ecclesial leaders must be particularly adept at distinguishing between simply being in a triangle and being triangulated. There are times when it really is not safe for persons to confront others in power directly and alone — especially given the power differential or the particular degrees of threat or danger in the situation. Reporting organizational ethics violations, questionable practices or policy irregularities to a person in authority is not triangulation.
When attempting to discern when a behavior is truly triangulation, one must always consider the entire system with its powerful emotional fields and its overt and covert power dynamics. Healthy organizations develop fair and safe venues and safeguards whereby employees or volunteers can ask tough questions or report violations to persons in organizational authority so the victims do not have to confront offenders all by themselves. I know a university that has an office of secure disclosure, which promises confidentiality to all employees who wish to discuss or report sensitive concerns.
Imagine speaking to the principal at your child’s school about a bullying case. The principal accused you of triangling him. You are stunned by his statement because he clearly does not understand triangulation. Approaching an organization’s leaders who have the responsibility and authority to monitor that organization’s capacity to follow its own policies is not triangulation! You were simply asking him to do his job. Had he been more circumspect and honest, he would have admitted something like this: “I’m in a relational bind here. I don’t want to deal with your request because the father of the alleged bully is president of our parent teacher association, and I am friends with him and I play golf with him on a weekly basis. Your request means that I actually have to take a stand against one of my closest friends and colleagues and that makes me very uncomfortable. Frankly, I’d rather get a long, slow root canal.” By playing the “you are triangling me” card, he is clearly attempting to deflect and dodge his leadership responsibilities because he is in a relational double bind.
What if a person filed a suit in a court of law and the judge said: “I’m sorry, but I won’t hear this case because you are triangling me”? When persons accept positions of authority, they must fully accept that much of their daily work will be spent negotiating the challenge of relational and systemic triangles. We must teach this basic truth in our seminary pastoral leadership classes.
In reporting her boss’ inappropriate behavior, the woman in the above case has a legal and moral right: to be heard fully; to be treated fairly; to be taken seriously; to expect protection against all reprisals or payback; to expect that her allegations will be investigated in a thorough and timely manner; to be treated justly; to expect the organization to take prompt and appropriate action; and to expect organizational transparency by being routinely apprised of the entire investigative process and its outcomes.
So, the next time you jump to the conclusion that persons are triangulating you, first ponder your job description thoughtfully (i.e., your systemic power and authority) and whether such persons are appropriately asking you to listen to their concerns and help them address a prickly situation that appropriately warrants help from someone like you who is entrusted with the appropriate power and authority to address such matters.
DAVID LEE JONES is director of the doctor of ministry program at Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Nashotah, Wisconsin.