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Relationship Triangles

We can’t live our lives without things happening that cause anxiety. Murray Bowen taught that when tension enters the picture, a two person relationship is inherently unstable. 

It doesn’t matter whether the interaction involves husband and wife, parent and child, brother and sister, or boss and employee, the tension between two people has no place to go unless the two people are willing to look directly at the issue and work through it together.

It’s much easier to pull in a third party, or an outside activity or condition, like work or an addiction, or sometimes even a physical illness. This leads to a relationship triangle.

Triangles are stable and they are much more resistant to change than a two person sub-system. This happens because the anxiety doesn’t need to get resolved. It can be easily shifted. In a triangle two people interact closely and one person feels left out, uncomfortable, or at odds with the others. The outsider position can move around the sides of the triangle.

Bowen taught that triangles are a fundamental relational unit in human systems. Sometimes they play a healthy role in relationship. For example, a therapist or counselor forms a triangle with a client and his or her problems. A good therapist will use this position to help bring about healthy change.

On the other hand, triangles often play an unhealthy role in people’s lives by encouraging people to avoid dealing with important issues.

For example, a married couple may be experiencing a lot of tension. One spouse feels emotionally or physically neglected by the other. Instead of directly addressing the issue with his or her husband or wife, the “neglected” spouse begins an affair.

Initially the tension level between the couple eases, but the underlying issue has not be addressed and a new issue has been added to the mix.

Sometimes parents over focus on a child instead of addressing tension between themselves. Or co-workers gossip rather than trying to deal with an incompetent boss or colleague.

What are the healthy and unhealthy relationship triangles in your life?

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