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Last edit of this page 22/12/2013

5 archived articles on Relationship triangles

There is always an element of unlived life in every triangle and it seems we are sometimes unable to discover that unlived life except through the extreme emotional stress which triangles generate. Source and more of that material in Article 4 below

Also available on this site a pdf chapter giving a clear account of Strategic and Systemic Family Therapy from this home study course.

Triangles involves three people and three roles, like parts in a play. One person un-consciously chooses the role of the Persecutor ("P"). S/he blames, disrespects, attacks, ignores, and/or criticizes the Victim ("V") for something, causing the Rescuer ("R") to defend the Victim. That may quickly shift so that the Persecutor becomes a Victim, and the former Victim may become a Rescuer.

Each role may be played by an adult or a child. Each person can switch back and forth between these roles with different situations and different people. Few people are aware they're doing this. If they are, they don't know how to not do it. Stay aware that these three labels refer to roles (behaviors and attitudes), not the person in the role. Sourced from an excellent article on Triangulation.

Also read on site my article on the blame and placate negaitve interaction cycle, which is at the heart of chronic impasses in marriage. These cycles can draw in a third party such as one of the children, who then provides the primary relationship for both parents absent one with each other. Usually these kids end up feeling responsible for stuff they have no control over and can carry this impression into adult life, co-creating what at home became the norm.

Infidelity is a triangle with the 'other woman' or 'other man'. It forms a P.V.R interactional sequence in those roles even when the presence of the third party is well disguised. Work, an in-law or a step-child or step-parent can be enduring triangular sequences in families.

Article 1: 'When Three's a Crowd' by Jackie Garretson

Each of us must find the right balance between individual self and emotional togetherness.

In this century, there have been several important shifts in the way professionals view mental health in individuals and families. One of these shifts occurred in the 1950s and early '60s when Dr. Murray Bowen at Georgetown University Medical Center introduced Family Systems Theory. This was a major step away from previous theories about the emotional life of humans, which had focused on the individual. Dr. Bowen saw the family as an "emotional unit" wherein each individual functions emotionally in relation to the larger family system. Bowen thought of a family as a natural system, and studied the order and predictability in human family relationships. The concept of family systems theory is also based on the assumption that human behavior is not very different from the behavior of animals under similar conditions.

One important element in a healthy family is the level of "self" that each member is able to achieve. The job of each child is to grow into an emotionally independent person with the ability to act, think and feel for him/herself. An opposing force – the instinct to maintain togetherness – operates to keep the members of a family emotionally connected. Each of us, therefore, must find the right balance between individual self and emotional togetherness.

Bowen explained that families have predictable methods for dealing with emotions such as anxiety, which can move from one person to another in a family. For example, when a person uses distancing, denial or an addiction to deal with anxiety, he may lower the anxiety level in himself while sending it to higher levels in someone else. We are very sensitive (although not always consciously) to the emotional states of other people, and we continually adjust ourselves to the emotions of those around us. Anxiety in person "A" can result in a physical or social symptom in person "B." If "A" then begins to caretake "B" because of these symptoms, "A" may feel less anxious. Individuals in relationships can actually shape and create each other over time.

Anxiety or tension between two people in a family can be dealt with by pulling in a third person.

According to Bowen, the resulting "triangle" is a basic element of any emotional system. Triangles in families occur naturally and can be observed and documented easily. The anxiety or tension of each of the participants generates the activity in triangles. A two-person relationship will be stable as long as it is calm. When anxiety increases, however, the presence of a third person can decrease anxiety by "spreading it out" over three relationships. This makes it less likely that any one relationship will overheat. In any triangle, there are two people who are insiders and one person who is an outsider. If you understand the position you occupy in a triangle, it may be possible to bring it to a positive conclusion.

Several weeks ago, I spent time with my younger sister and her three children. When David (10) and Dylan (8) became too intense or competitive in their play, one of them would triangle Emily (4) by getting her to take sides or commit to being closer to one than the other. The insider and outsider positions of the resulting triangle would shift accordingly while spreading out the tension. Two parents with two children can produce four triangles. If there are three children, the number of possible triangles is ten.

The following is an example of insider/outsider movement in a triangle.

Dad observes the close relationship between Mom and daughter, feels anxiety, and begins to pout. Mom notices and starts giving Dad more attention. Daughter feels left out and begins hanging on her dad. Mom feels pushed into the outsider position and makes a critical comment about daughter's messy room. Daughter has a fit and gets mom's attention back with a long discussion about her room. Notice that if the system is really tense, it may feel better to be in the outsider position whereas, if the tension is temporarily gone, it's nicer to be in an insider spot. If dad was criticizing mom and mom then mentions that daughter didn't clean her room this week, Dad might shift his tension from mom to daughter giving mom a break.

How do we "detriangle?"

This is one of the most important skills learned in family systems therapy. It would be great if we could recognize a triangle and step back to say, "Oh my, we are acting out one side of a triangle and we have just pushed Aunt Mary into the outsider position." Triangles, however, are driven by emotion, not logic. In fact, people in a triangle are able to ignore logic and rational explanations easily because the logical parts of their brains are short-circuited by emotion.

When you observe a triangle in action, remember first that family members need to develop a healthy level of independence from each other in their thinking, acting and feeling. It is never good to expect everyone in a family to agree or feel the same way. Second, view the triangle as a method of easing tension and anxiety in the family system. Your participation in the triangle may be helpful if you understand enough to make a positive contribution. Try to be an observer and stay detached enough to avoid getting pulled in emotionally. A level of detachment is achieved when any person in the triangle can see both sides of the other two players and refuses to "take sides." Hopefully, this will encourage someone to take responsibility for his/her part and then the other may also. Anxiety and its accompanying tension are normal in family systems. Families that tolerate individual differences and manage triangles can maintain loving connection.

Jackie Garretson, LMFT, is an Imago Relationship Therapist practicing in Anchorage, Alaska." Source retrieved 23/05/09.


Article 2: Playing the Victim, Rescuer, Perpetrator (VRP) triangle

Guidelines for Playing Victim, Rescuer and Perpetrator RolesVS.How to be a Grown Up
Creating drama and chaosvs.Solving problems
Dodging, deflecting, and blaming othersvs. Taking on responsibilities
Denial/pretendingvs.Honestly facing painful situations
Making excuses and instigating bad boundariesvs.Maintaining boundaries to have true respect for others
Ignoring damage that has been done and pretending it has nothing to do with youvs.Making amends and recognizing consequences
Maintaining your illusions at all costsvs.Having the courage to become more self aware
Giving yourself too much respect (narcissists) or too little respect (martyrs) vs.Balancing both respect for others and yourself
Letting drama rulevs.Letting integrity/character rule
"I know what's best for both of us"vs.No one has a market on truth-it always lies in between people
Creating doubt in the other personvs.Seeing what hard truths the other person may have to teach you
Assuming others are there to be an audiencevs.Realizing what happens between people is unknown, not orchestrated
Thinking in simple terms of Right/Wrong, Good/Badvs.Recognizing complexity
Manipulating others, which is a shell game that ends up hollowvs.Using your heart and head together to be more emotionally honest with others
Trying to have it both waysvs.Facing sacrifice
Taking the easy wayvs.Knowing the right thing to do is the hard thing to do
Short-term thinkingvs.Long-term thinking

 SOURCE retrieved 23/05/09.


Article 3: "Thinking in Threes: Family Problems and Triadic Interaction

The following lecture notes were retrieved on 09/03/05 and quoted in full from

Idea: To understand individual and family problems, it helps to think in threes

Main points

The triangle is a fundamental social unit, and triangulation (third-party involvement) is a ubiquitous social process.

Cohesion between two people depends on their relationship with a third (e.g., scapegoating, supporting someone who needs help).

Triadic processes help to manage conflict.

Cross-generational coalitions correlate with many problems.

Thinking in threes often suggests what to do about problems (e.g., structural interventions).Major theorists: Jay Haley, Salvador Minuchin, Murray Bowen Family triangles (like ironic processes) are more relevant to how problems persist than to how they originate. Still, triangles can start very early in life. (Ffeifer cartoon) Lessons from demonstration role-play exercise (Coppersmith)

Circularity of triadic interaction

Each individual’s behaviour maintains and is maintained by the system.

Victims and villains are hard to identify (everyone’s trapped in a game without end).

People communicate on more than one level (importance of nonverbal messages).

Secret coalitions and splits require enormous energy.

Structure and process mutually define and require each other.

Haley’s Theory of Pathological Systems

Problems occur in contexts characterized by covert coalitions that cross status (generation) lines.

Coalition = two people joining together against or to the exclusion of a third.

The most problematic coalitions are covert (concealed, denied).

A common clinical example: An over involved parent and child in coalition against the other (peripheral) parent (the “perverse triangle”).

Principle applies in all organizations - not just families.

Triangles can be understood in terms of both relational structure (alliances, coalitions, boundaries, etc.) and interactional sequence (a circular pattern of events occurring in time).Example of a triadic sequence (from Haley, 1987) Father-Incompetent (Father upset or depressed, not functioning to capacity) Child-Misbehaving (Child out of control or shows symptoms) Mother-Incompetent (Mom can’t deal with child, Dad gets involved) Father-Competent (Dad deals with child effectively) Child-Behaving (Child behaves well or “normally”) Mother-Competent (Mom deals with child and Dad competently, expects more from them) Father-Incompetent (Dad upset or depressed) Cycle begins again Key idea: Dyads stabilize themselves by involving a third person (e.g., parental tension decreases when they focus on a child)

Minuchin’s conflict-detouring family triads


- parents band together to control “bad” child (but often disagree)

- associated with child conduct problems


- parents focus on “sick” child, showing overprotective concern

- associated with psychosomatic problems (e.g., asthma, anorexia)

Problematic structural triangles and other boundary-breaching patterns

Cross-generation coalition - e.g., mom and child exclude dad; mom and child closer than mom and dad

Triangulation - e.g., child caught between parents; symptom detours parental conflict Collapse/reversal of parent-child roles - e.g., child takes care of parent or tells parent what to do; child and parent are peers

Intergenerational fusion - e.g., parent and child are reactively enmeshed Note: These are normative theories that make testable predictions about adaptive and maladaptive family patterns (unlike the ironic process idea from Lecture 1)

A body of empirical research links child and adolescent problems to family triangles and breached generation boundaries

Child, adolescent, and young-adult problems such as academic failure, delinquency, eating disorders, substance abuse, depression, marital distress correlate with cross-generation family coalitions and primary alliances

- Observational studies (e.g., Gilbert et al., Mann et al.)

- Report studies (e.g., Teyber, Rohrbaugh et al.)

Involvement in parental conflict predicts child adjustment problems (e.g., Emery, Hetherington et al.)

Treatments based on structural principles are effective for delinquency and drug abuse problems (Stanton & Todd, Szapocznik et al., Henggeler et al.)

Application: Structural family therapy for child problems (from Camp, 1974)

Weaken existing cross-generation alliances

Strengthen parental coalition

Strengthen relationship between less-involved parent and symptomatic child

Help parents and children strengthen relationships with peers of their own generations Application: Mara Selvini-Palazolli’s “Invariant Prescription”

Italian therapy team (a) calls together entire family, (b) dismisses everyone but parents, (c) enlists parents in a pact of secrecy, and eventually (d) coaches them to disappear for several hours without warning.Why are cross-generation triangles problematic?

Triangles may impede the child’s individual development (separation, individuation) by not allowing disengagement from the parental relationship.

Clear generation boundaries may be necessary for negotiating transitions in the family life cycle.

Problem behaviour may be reinforced and maintained by its stabilizing role in the family system.

Overt or covert parental conflict may undermine effective parenting.

Triangles in remarried families

Triangles involving an ex-spouse

- e.g., ex-spouse intrudes, no emotional divorce; child caught between natural parents

Triangles within the remarried system

- e.g., step mom as primary caretaker; step dad as disciplinarian, rescuer, intruder; fights between his kids and her kids

Triangles involving the extended family

- e.g., in-laws disapprove of remarriage, loyal to ex-spouse; grandparent(s) compete with step-parent (complicated)

Does a strong parent-child bond (secure-attachment) override the effects of family triangles?

Are parent-child triangles as influential as genes, siblings, and (especially) peers.

Do normative structural principles apply in other cultural contexts (e.g., are cross-generation primary alliances as problematic for Hispanic as Anglo families?)

Further Readings:

Carter, E., & McGoldrick, M. (1988). The changing family life cycle (2nd edition). New York: Gardner Press.

Haley, J. (1967). Towards a theory of pathological systems. In P. Watzlawick & J.H. Weakland (Eds.), The interactional view. New York: Norton, 1977 (pp. 94-112).

Haley, J. (1987). Problem-solving therapy (2nd edition). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass (excerpts)

* Hoffman, L. (1981). Foundations of family therapy: A conceptual framework for systems change. New York: Basic Books.

Kerr, M.E. (1981). Family systems theory and therapy. In A.S. Gurman & D.P. Kniskern (Eds.), Handbook of family therapy (volume 1). New York: Brunner/Mazel.

Mann, B.J., Borduin, C.M., Henggeler, S.W., & Blaske, D.M. (1990). An investigation of systemic conceptualizations of parent-child coalitions and symptom change. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 58, 336-344.

Minuchin, S. (1974). Families and family therapy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.* Chapter 6 (“The Pathological Triad”) on library reserve." SOURCE


Article 4: Eternal Triangle by Liz Green retrieved 23/05/09 from

The painful experience of an emotional triangle is one which occurs in virtually all lives, although the 'third point' of the triangle is not always a human one. This article explores the triangle from several different perspectives: the early family triangle which, if unconscious and unresolved, produces profound repercussions in adult relationship life; power and defensive triangles, meant to avoid rather than experience deep relationship; triangles in pursuit of the unobtainable, often masking creative or spiritual needs; and triangles which embody the unlived life of the participants.

Relationship triangles are an archetypal dimension of human life. We do not ever escape them, in one form or another. We also tend to handle them rather badly when they enter our lives. That is understandable, because triangles are usually evocative of very painful emotions, regardless of the point of the triangle on which we find ourselves. We may have to cope with feelings of jealousy, humiliation, and betrayal. Or we may have to live with the sense of being a betrayer - of being dishonest, of injuring someone. We may feel all these feelings at once, as well as the conviction of being a failure. The emotions that are involved in triangular relationships are often agonising, and cut away at self-esteem. Because triangles confront us with very difficult emotions, we will usually find ourselves trying to blame someone for the presence of a triangle in our lives. Either we blame ourselves or we blame one of the other two people. But triangles are indeed archetypal - and if we have any question about their universality, we need only read the literature of the last three thousand years. Anything archetypal presents us with a world of purposeful patterns and intelligent inner development. There is something about the experience of the triangle which can be one of our most powerful means of transformation and growth, unpleasant and painful though it is. Betrayal, whether one is the betrayer or the betrayed, does something to us which potentially could be of enormous value.

Nothing enters our lives that is not in some way connected with our individual journey. This does not imply blame or causality, but it does imply a deeper meaning which may be transformative for the individual who is prepared to seek that meaning. If a triangle enters one's life, it is there for something. If we choose to react solely with bitterness and rage, that is our choice. But we could also choose to make the triangle a springboard for some real soul-searching. This is particularly difficult because the experience of humiliation usually invokes all the defence systems of infancy, and it is very hard to move beyond such primal responses to a more detached perspective. As astrologers, we may find it worth exploring whether there is such a thing as a pattern in the chart that is conducive to triangles; whether there are deeper reasons why any individual gets involved in a triangle, by their own or someone else's choice; and why some people are more prone to triangles than others. We might also consider what possible approaches might help us work with triangles more creatively, which will involve looking at them psychologically and symbolically.

The universality of triangles

There are many kinds of triangles, not all involving an adult sexual relationship. Even if we restrict ourselves to sexual triangles, we would find many different varieties. Sexual triangles are not always made of the grand dramatic stuff of Tristan and Isolde. In some adult love triangles, all three points are fixed. There are two partners and there is a third person involved with one of the partners, and there is no movement in the triangle. It is static and may go on for many years, until one of the three participants dies. In other love triangles, one of the points is constantly changing. One can practise serial adultery - sometimes, as in the case of John F. Kennedy, with an astonishing rate of turnover. But both these situations are triangles, even though we tend to accord a higher romantic value to the first; and both will evoke the same spectrum of archetypal emotions.

Apart from triangles where a sexual involvement exists between any combination of the two sexes, there are many other kinds of triangles. The most fundamental are those involving parents and children. Triangles may also involve friendships. More complex are the triangles which involve non-human companions. One partner may feel a sense of jealousy and betrayal about the other one's dedication to work or artistic involvement or spiritual development. Such triangles can evoke exactly the same feelings of jealousy as the sexual variety. When one withdraws into a creative space, one has somehow 'left' the person one lives with, and it can create enormous jealousy on the part of one's partner. The creative process is an act of love, which is perhaps why the 5th house is traditionally said to govern both. If one loves one's work, it may evoke enormous jealousy. There are even triangles involved with pets. This might sound absurd, but one partner can feel extremely jealous, hurt, upset, and abandoned because the other partner is deeply attached to his or her cat or dog - even if one does not wish to admit to such feelings in public. All these different kinds of triangles may seem unrelated. The one thing they have in common is the component of one or another variety of love, which, in a triangle, is no longer exclusive. And when we must share someone's love, whether with another person or with something ineffable like the imagination or the spirit, we may feel betrayed, demeaned, and bereft.

The Eternal Triangle

This little diagram is a simplistic picture of the three points of the triangle. For the moment, the astrological significators have been left out. Some people experience only one of these points in a lifetime, and some are experienced in all three.

The Betrayer is the person who apparently chooses to get involved in the triangle. I use the word "apparently" because one cannot always be sure how much conscious choice there really is, and one cannot be sure how much collusion exists between Betrayer and Betrayed as well. But whatever might be at work beneath the surface, the Betrayer is a divided soul. There is a love or attraction or need for two different things. Most of us carry the assumption that love should be exclusive, even if on a conscious level we profess a more liberal perspective. Because of the values of our Judeo-Christian heritage, we are brought up to believe that if our love is not exclusive, it is not love, and we are no longer 'good' people. We have failed, or we are selfish and unfeeling. When we experience this kind of deep inner division, it is therefore extremely difficult to face. It is much easier for the Betrayer to come up with a list of justifications for why he or she is committing the act of betrayal. We do not often hear the Betrayer say, "I am divided. I am torn in half." More commonly, what we hear is: "My partner is treating me very badly. He/She is not giving me A, B, C, and D, and I need these things in order to be happy. Therefore I have a justification for looking elsewhere."

At the next point of the triangle is the Betrayed, who is apparently the unwilling victim of the Betrayer's inability to love exclusively. I have used the word "apparent" here too because, once again, there may be some question about the unconscious collusion involved in this particular role. All three points on the triangle are secretly interchangeable. They are not as different as they first appear. But the Betrayed generally believes that he or she is loyal, and it is the other person who is disloyal. It is someone else who has initiated the triangle. Usually we think of the Betrayed as having the hardest time in a triangle, because this is the person who generally acts out all the pain and jealousy and feelings of humiliation.

Finally, at the third point of the triangle, there is the Instrument of Betrayal. This is the person who apparently enters an already existing relationship between two people and threatens to destroy or change it. This point of the triangle usually gets a rather bad press, being seen as 'predatory' or a taker of someone else's beloved possession. If we happen to occupy this point, we may receive only limited sympathy, and none at all from those in established relationships who feel the cold wind of their own possible future. In fact, the Instrument of Betrayal may feel himself or herself to be a victim, and may perceive the Betrayed as the predator. We can begin to glimpse the secret identity between these two points of the triangle. There are people who move round the triangle and try all three points during the course of their lives, sometimes many times. There are other people who stick with one point exclusively, and always get betrayed in their relationships, or always wind up playing the Betrayer. Or they are always the Instrument of Betrayal, and keep getting involved with people who are attached elsewhere.

We might also think of triangles as belonging to four basic groups. These may overlap, but they may also be associated - up to a point - with distinctive astrological configurations. There is the ubiquitous family triangle, about which this article is primarily concerned. There are also power triangles and defensive triangles. These two varieties of triangle are not really separate, although there are some slight differences. Both have a distinctive flavour, and the reasons for their entry into one's life may not be entirely rooted in the family background. A defensive triangle would be, for example, a man or woman who needs to form an additional relationship outside their established partnership because of feelings of deep inadequacy. They may be plagued by great insecurity, and may feel very frightened that if they commit themselves too much, and put all of their eggs in a single basket, they would be too vulnerable, and rejection would be utterly intolerable. A triangle is then unconsciously created as a defence mechanism. If they are abandoned by one partner, they have always got the other. This is not usually conscious, but it is a powerful motivating factor in many triangles.

There are also triangles in pursuit of the unobtainable. These can overlap with family triangles as well as with defensive and power triangles. But there is a special ingredient to the pursuit of the unobtainable, and often the deeper motivation is artistic or spiritual. Sometimes, when we seek unobtainable love, it actually has little to do with human beings. But we may translate our creative or mystical longings into the pursuit of those we cannot have. In this way we open up a dimension of the psyche which has more to do with creative fantasy than with relationship. The artist's 'muse' is rarely his or her wife or husband. This kind of triangle can involve elements of early family dynamics, and it may also incorporate defensive motives; but it needs to be understood from a different perspective.

The last group - triangles which reflect unlived psychic life - subsumes all the others. When we look more deeply at family triangles, we always need to ask why we want so badly to be close to a particular parent. What does that parent mean to us? Why can we cope with indifference from one parent but require nothing less than absolute fusion with the other? In the end, inevitably, we will find bits of our own souls farmed out along the points of the triangle - any triangle, whether motivated by family dynamics, power, defensiveness, or all of the above. There are exceptions, because there are always exceptions to any psychological pattern. But in the main, when a triangle enters our lives, regardless of the point we are on, there is some message in it about dimensions of ourselves which we have not recognised or lived. If a pattern of triangles keeps repeating, then it is a very strong message, and we need to listen to what it is trying to tell us.

The family triangle

Family triangles do not finish in childhood, but have repercussions throughout life. If unresolved, they may secretly enter our adult relationships. If a family triangle is unhealed, we may recreate it, once or many times, hoping on some deep and inaccessible level that we will find a way to heal or resolve it. Freud developed the idea of the Oedipal triangle - also known as 'the family romance' - in a very specific context. In his view, we attach ourselves passionately to the parent of the opposite sex, and enter into a situation of rivalry and competitiveness with the parent of the same sex. Depending on how the Oedipal triangle is resolved in childhood - and this includes the parents' responses as well as one's own innate temperament - our later relationships will inevitably be affected. If we unequivocally 'win' and get the exclusive love of the parent of the opposite sex, we suffer because we never learn to separate or share. We experience a kind of false infantile potency because we feel that we have beaten the rival. We are all-powerful, which may open the door to a later inability to cope with any kind of relationship disappointment. And one's relationships with one's own sex may also be disturbed accordingly.

If, for example, a boy sees his mother and father in conflict, and 'wins' the Oedipal battle by becoming his mother's surrogate husband, he may experience deep unconscious guilt toward his father. Also, he may lose respect for his father, whom he has apparently pushed out of the way with great ease. The boy's image of father may then be of someone weak, impotent, and easily beaten, and somewhere inside he will fear this in himself, because he too is male. This boy may have to keep affirming his Oedipal victory later in life by turning every male friend into a rival, and relating exclusively to women. Such men do not connect with other men, but only to the women who are attached to other men. The bond with his mother will have cost this man his relationship with his father, which may mean he has no positive internal masculine image on which to draw, and no sense of support from the community of men around him. His sense of male confidence and male sexual identity must rely entirely on whether his women love him - and the more, the better. That is a very insecure and painful place in which to live. We could apply the same interpretation in the case of a woman and her father.

If we entirely lose the Oedipal battle - and the operative word is entirely - we also suffer. Absolute Oedipal defeat is a humiliation which can severely undermine one's confidence in oneself. By 'absolute', I mean that the child feels that no emotional contact of any kind has been achieved with the beloved parent, and a profound feeling of failure ensues. One simply cannot get near the parent, who may be incapable of offering any positive emotional response to his or her child. Or the other parent is always in the way. Later in life, such an emotional defeat can generate a gnawing sense of sexual inadequacy and inferiority. It can contribute to many destructive relationship patterns - not least the kind of triangle where one is hopelessly in love with a person who is permanently attached elsewhere. One may become the unhappy Instrument of Betrayal, forever knocking at the closed door of a lover's marriage. Or one may become the Betrayed, helplessly repeating the Oedipal defeat in the role of the established partner who is humiliated by the greater power of the mother - or father - rival. With both unequivocal Oedipal victory and unequivocal Oedipal defeat, we are unable to establish a psychological separation from the beloved parent, and a part of us never really grows beyond childhood. We may then become stuck in repetitive relationship dynamics where we keep trying to 'right' the original difficulty through a triangle.

Freud thought that the healthiest resolution of the Oedipal conflict is a kind of mild defeat, where we get enough love from the beloved parent but are still forced to acknowledge that the parents' relationship is ultimately unbreachable. We may then learn to respect relationships between other people, and build confidence through establishing relationships beyond the magic parental circle. We are here in the realm of what Winnicott called 'good enough' - a good enough parental marriage, a good enough relationship with both parents, and sufficient love and kindness for the Oedipal defeat to be accompanied by a reasonable sense of security within the family and a knowledge that one will continue to be loved. It is also important that we do not fear punishment from the parent-rival. Sadly, many parents, themselves emotionally starved and resentful in an unhappy marriage, do punish their children for 'stealing' the partner's love. We need to recognise that we cannot supplant one parent in order to have the other, but we also need to know that we will be loved by the parent we have tried to overthrow. Naturally this is an ideal which few families can achieve. A great many people suffer from one degree or another of excessive Oedipal victory or excessive Oedipal defeat. What really matters is what we do with it, and how much consciousness we have of it. And nothing is quite so potent an activator of consciousness as a relationship triangle.

There is considerable value in Freud's psychological model, and there do seem to be many situations where absolute Oedipal defeat or absolute Oedipal victory are linked with a tendency to become involved in triangles later in life. But there are serious limitations to this model of the family romance. The parent to whom we attach ourselves is not necessarily the parent of the opposite sex. The parent may be one's own sex. Oedipal feelings are not, after all, 'sexual' in an adult sense, but have more to do with emotional fusion. So, in fact, do many of our apparently purely sexual feelings in adulthood; sexuality carries many emotional levels which are not always conscious. An Oedipal defeat or victory involving the parent of one's own sex may have equally painful repercussions, and be equally conducive to later relationship triangles. One may feel dislocated from one's own sexuality, because the beloved parent is a model for that sexuality and the bond is too weak or negative to allow the model to be internalised in a positive way. A man may forever try to win his father's love by proving how manly he is. He may then unconsciously set up triangles which are not really about the women with whom he becomes involved, but are unconsciously aimed at impressing other men - or punishing them for the father's rejection. And a woman may try to win her mother's love and admiration in the same way, or punish other women for her mother's failure to love her. The rival in an adult triangle may be secretly far more important to the individual than the apparent object of desire. We have only to listen to the obsessive preoccupation the Betrayed and the Instrument of Betrayal have with each other to recognise that the situation may be psychologically far more complex than it seems.

Triangles which involve unlived life

We now come to the issue of what might really lie beneath the dynamics of triangles - beneath the parental patterns and defences and power-plays and all the other apparently 'causal' reasons why triangles enter our lives. I believe there is always an element of unlived life in every triangle, and for various reasons it seems we are sometimes unable to discover that unlived life except through the extreme emotional stress which triangles generate. Betrayal is an archetypal experience which is our chief instrument of maturation. This does not mean that we all need to become embittered cynics. But there is something important in recognising how our fantasies of what we think life and love should be prevent us from growing up and becoming full members of the human family. Betrayal is the means through which these fantasies are punctured and recognised. We attempt to enclose ourselves and other people in our fantasy-world, which is meant to compensate for childhood pain. Since all childhoods have pain, the naive assumptions we carry are also archetypal, and reflect an alternative child-world that resembles Eden in its innocence and fusion-state with the divine parent. The serpent in the Garden is therefore an image of this archetypal role of betrayal, which is inherent in the state of innocence and sooner or later rises up to destroy our fusion.

There is no formula to cope with the pain of betrayal. But an archetypal perspective can help us to look at things differently, although the pain cannot be explained or imagined away. There is no remedy for this kind of pain. But there is a difference between blind pain and pain that is accompanied by understanding. The latter has a transformative effect. When there is no consciousness, triangles do tend to repeat themselves - different characters, same script. Some triangles are truly transformative. They do break apart an old pattern, and the new relationship is genuinely much happier and more rewarding. Or the triangle serves the purpose of freeing energy, freeing inner potentials, and even if the old relationship is re-established, or one winds up with neither party, everything has changed. But we are still ourselves, however much we try to rearrange our outer lives, and if an inner issue has not been dealt with, the same patterns will begin to arise in the new relationship. The compatibility may be greater with another partner, but one must still deal with one's own psyche.

A triangle can be like a grand trine in a chart. The energy circles around and around; it flows back on itself and does not nourish anything else in one's life. Within triangles, all three people tend to project elements of themselves on each other. The triangle holds these projections in place, and there may be enormous resistance to change. We might even say that the triangle forms because there is resistance to change, so whatever is seeking expression from within is experienced through projection. When such a triangle breaks up, the projections come back home again. Psychic energy is released, whether it is through death or the voluntary relinquishing of someone. The timing of this is not accidental. In one or two or even all three parties, unconscious issues have finally reached a point where they can be integrated, even if this is expressed by simply letting it go. The moment we are able to do that, the projections begin to become conscious. I do not believe real forgiving comes in any other way. It is a kind of grace. It cannot be created by an act of will. It is very sad to hear the Betrayed saying, "I forgive you", not because it is truly heartfelt, but in order to get the straying partner back again. Underneath there may be no forgiveness at all - although this may not be entirely conscious - and then the punishment can go on and on. Forgiveness can only come out of a recognition of one's collusion in the triangle - whatever one's role - and the taking back of one's projections. Before that, forgiveness is not really possible. It only seems to emerge out of something being genuinely integrated in oneself. The entire process is transformative. We cannot manufacture forgiveness if we have been betrayed - nor can we manufacture it for ourselves if we are the Betrayer. We can only work to integrate what belongs to our own souls.

The Saturnian parent who rejects, and then turns up in a triangle as a cold and rejecting partner, may have something to do with our own need to acquire boundaries. If we view this fundamental Saturnian experience from a more detached perspective, what is rejection, in the end, except someone else drawing boundaries which we find intolerable? It may be our own lack of boundaries that attracts us into a triangle where we are the Betrayed, rejected by a Saturnian partner who says, "I can't stand this emotional claustrophobia. I want to be separate". Or we may be the Betrayer, fleeing from a partner whose emotional needs seem stifling but who secretly mirrors our own inability to cope with loneliness. The hard and painful lessons that come from these kinds of experiences are lessons about what is undeveloped in ourselves. We may have to discover our primal passions if Pluto is in our 10th or 4th. But we may disown this at first, and say, "My mother was terribly manipulative", or, "My father was so controlling". Why do people become manipulative and controlling? If someone is expressing Plutonian qualities in a relationship, they are not doing it because it is fun; they are doing it because the relationship is equated with survival, and there is a desperate need to ensure that the beloved remains close. Pluto is mobilised when one feels under threat. People become manipulative because they are terrified of losing the object of their love. That love object constitutes survival for them, and manipulation seems the only possible way to ensure the continuity of the relationship. We are all capable of this, given the right level of attachment and the right level of threat. If we disown these Plutonian attributes and keep them firmly projected on the parent, Pluto may turn up in a triangle. Then we ourselves may have to discover how possessive we can be. Or we acquire a deeply possessive partner. We may get as far as saying, "Ah, yes, I have chosen someone just like my mother/father". That is a useful piece of insight, but it is only the beginning. This possessive quality in the parent is described by our own 4th or 10th house Pluto. We must still discover it in ourselves. Often we only discover we have a Pluto through the experience of betrayal. It is just a blank in the chart until a triangle unearths it, and then we suddenly find our Pluto for the first time. We discover that we feel passionately, that we need intensely, that desperation can make us treacherous and manipulative, and that control may seem the only way to survive. This process of self-discovery may be a frightening and humbling experience, but it allows us to fully become what we are.

Psychic integration is the teleology of all triangles. Even when the outer planets are involved in parental triangles, the thing to which we are so deeply attached in the parent is really something that belongs to our own souls. This 'something' may involve our stretching beyond personal boundaries and allowing a deeper or higher level of reality into our lives, but nevertheless it is connected with our own life journey. When we see astrological symbols which we experience first through the parents and then later through a triangle in which the same experience repeats itself, there is something within us that needs to be lived, and it may keep coming back through triangles until we find a way to live it. Planets which are parental significators in the chart are not only descriptive of parental patterns. They are descriptive of unlived dimensions of ourselves, especially when they do not agree with the rest of the chart. Even if the parent embodies the planet in creative ways, it is still our planet, and belongs to our own destiny. A planet in the 4th or 10th, or in major aspect to the Sun or Moon, may not be enacted obviously by the parent, but it will be part of what we experience through the parent. If the parent has not creatively lived the archetypal pattern symbolised by the planet, it is harder to understand what we are dealing with. And therefore we may not realise what we are meeting through a triangle which appears in our life later. It is not just an unfinished parental complex, although that element may be important to explore. It is ultimately one's own planet, and therefore something of one's own soul. It is part of our psychological inheritance, but we must give shape to it. Even triangles which appear screamingly Oedipal also have to do with our own inner lives, because what we love or hate in the parent is something that belongs to us. But we need to find our own way of living it.

Remainder of her article has more astrological references and is here

Article 5. Review of 9 professional articles on triangles

Retrieved from

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.

9 Articles

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.

Discussion of the articles

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



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