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Triangles, The Clouds of Relational Systems: Breaking Down the Elements of Interpersonal Storms

By Lynn M. Acquafondata

People form relational triangles as easily as clouds form in the sky, and like clouds, some are beneficial and some aren’t. In weather, all clouds are made of condensed water vapor, but cumulonimbus clouds bring thunderstorms while cirrus clouds signal good weather, providing much needed shade and protection. 

Like clouds, relational triangles have common elements as well as differences. Here are the commonalities in triangles.

Murray Bowen taught that triangles are a fundamental relational unit. We can’t live our lives without encountering things that cause anxiety. When tension develops between two people, the relationship loses its balance at least for the moment. The more serious the tension, the larger the potential becomes to shake up what seemed to be a stable relationship. At that point many of us create a Basic Relational Triangle to decrease anxiety. I’ve done it many times myself. Here’s how it works.

When two individuals face each other to directly address and resolve an issue between them, the relationship comes into balance again. However sometimes the issue is intense and feels like it could put the relationship at risk. At this point people often begin to form triangles.

Triangles stabilize tension in human interaction, but they do it at a cost. If we can learn to understand triangles and recognize both the costs and the benefits, we can become adept at manipulating parts of the triangle in our relational systems in ways that lead to greater health.

Basic Relational Triangles play a big role in last week’s scene from Coastal Church.

Triangles Cloud Relations at Coastal Church:

Last week, tensions surfaced at the funeral for Mrs. Hartwig. Many of those tensions involved triangles.

Two of the triangles in last week’s scene include:

Triangle One: Rev. Amy  /Mrs. Nancy Hartwig and her lawyer / the Church

The Triangle:

Rev. Amy doesn’t choose to take a position in the triangle, but steps into it inadvertently because a letter from a lawyer told her to act in a certain way. The lawyer and Mrs. Hartwig form one point of the triangle. The lawyer’s letter is actually Mrs. Hartwig’s voice speaking after her death. When Rev. Amy announces the gift, it makes her appear connected to the gift and the choices implied in the gift. Mrs. Hartwig clearly had a close connection to the Christian Education (CE) program (the other point on the triangle). But what about the rest of the church? Why give the gift exclusively to the CE program and not the church as a whole? Announcing the gift at the memorial service puts Rev. Amy in a relational triangle between Mrs. Hartwig and the church and puts her in the awkward position of appearing to favor the Christian Education program over other programs in the church.



The Problem:

Rev. Amy’s role in this triangle clouds her relationship with the congregation. Just like clouds obscure the sun, it is no longer clear what her stand is regarding gifts given to specific ministries within the church. Congregants are left to wonder whether she, like Nancy Hartwig, favors improvements to the Christian Education program over spending money on social justice outreach or improvements to the building such as a wheelchair access to the front of the sanctuary or increasing staff salaries to reach recommended guidelines.

Triangle Two: Chair of CE Committee (Natalia) / Director of CE (Roy) / Board Chair (Sam)

The Triangle:

At the funeral luncheon, Natalia, who is the chair of the Christian Education committee

says, “That’s enough money to hire a pastor of religious education. I’ve dreamed of that for years. A CE pastor could put our church on the map.” 

Sam, the board chair responds, “What about Roy? He isn’t ordained.”

Natalia says, “We aren’t wedded to him. Besides he’s too controlling.”

Natalia is in conflict with Roy, the director of the CE program, who is a non-ordained staff person. She becomes a point on this triangle by talking indirectly about getting rid of Roy’s position without mentioning her conflict with Roy or addressing Roy directly. When Sam, the board chair, asks about Roy, Natalia expresses her displeasure with Roy to Sam. Sam becomes the third point on the triangle. Roy is the focus of the conversation and the third point on the triangle.


The Problem:

Roy is not present to defend himself or his staff position and he could be negatively affected by this communication about him in his absence.

We will learn later that Natalia has had a growing displeasure with Roy’s performance, but has not spoken directly to Roy, nor has she brought her concerns to the Christian Education committee.


Once again the cloud metaphor emphasizes the way in which relationships between people can get blurred when relational triangles exist. Similarly, clouds have the potential to block out one’s view of portions of the sky. When clouds and triangles exist, it is no longer clear exactly where the boundaries are and who believes what.

Sometimes basic relational triangles are created intentionally. Sometimes an unplanned comment like Natalia’s comment about Roy in this informal social setting can lead to development of triangles if no one questions her statement.

These two triangles have many layers built over recent years. Layers also brew below the surface, going back multiple generations. All the layers affect the interactions we see here.

Basic relational triangles only show a surface layer of triangles. Join me next week as I examine underlying layers in this scene by introducing a subcategory of triangles that can help us understand family and organizational storms.

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Edited by Johanna Bond

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