Thursday, January 7, 2010

When triangles are “bad”

One misunderstanding about basic concepts of Bowen Family Systems theory has to do with assigning value statements. For example, the notion that overfunctioning is “bad.” Overfunctioning, like other behaviors are not “bad” or “good,” they are merely functions, symptoms, or manifestations of emotional process played out in the way people relate to one another. This is why it’s more helpful to observe function in the system than it is to assign motives to people’s behaviors.

That said, we must also accept that all functioning, while not “good” or “bad”, either contribute to the health of the system or work at keeping the system stuck. While we can say that triangles are neither good nor bad, merely one of the many ways systemic anxiety gets played out and structured, we can identify when triangles do not help the system toward growth and health. So, here are ways that triangles are “bad”:
  • When they promote the development of symptoms in relationships. For example, in a family an underfunctioning parent triangles a spouse and a child to “take care” of the symptomatic adult in the family.
  • When they perpetuate chronic symptoms or conflict. For example, when a system—a family or organization—reacts to problems by immediately identifying a scapegoat or identified patient rather than striving toward accountability without blaming.
  • When they work against the resolution of toxic issues. For example, because of its inability to deal with a willful but esteemed patriarch a congregation perpetually fails to deal with the individual’s willfulness by triangling the minister, the patriarch, and the congregation’s reticence at holding people accountable.
  • When they get so structured so as to block change over time. When triangles get formatted and entrenched, they deprive people of options. For example, when a triangle becomes part of the structure so that every decision needs to involve a particular person—whether or not that person has anything to do with the issue or decision. In a small congregation this may involve a “gatekeeper” and in a family, a patriarch. Conversely, in a system that adapts to weaknesses, the behavior may be checking with the person whose feelings are perpetually at risk of being bruised.

While it is not helpful to identify triangles as “bad” it is appropriate to identify when they are detrimental to the health and to the functioning of the system in mature, responsible, ways. For more on the BFST concept of emotional triangles see Peter Titelman's excellent and comprehensive treatment.

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