Students of Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST) learn early about the importance of triangles in relationship systems. The concept of the emotional triangle is one of the original eight basic concepts in BFST. So foundational to the theory of emotional process is the concept of emotional triangles that it is often said, “If you understand triangles, you understand the theory.”
The eight concepts of the theory, and their derivatives, are interrelated, together they comprise part of what is “systemic” in BFST. To truly “think systems” one cannot focus on one concept without considering all others. While not all concepts within the theory are equally applicable to the same extent for any particular case or issue, some are consistently linked in terms of emotional process in systems. For example:
Anxiety and reactivity
Overfunctioning and underfunctioning
Change and homeostasis
Differentiation and neutrality
Triangles and the emotional field.
One insight we often fail to apply to the concept of emotional triangles is that they exist and function within the dynamic of the emotional field to which they belong. One cannot truly understand the emotional process at play merely by identifying the triangle formed between three persons (or two persons and an issue) while ignoring the emotional field in which that triangle is being played out. In other words, context matters. Triangles are not just a result of anxiety, they are the product of the emotional field.
Friedman on the emotional field.
Edwin Friedman explained the concept of the emotional field:
“. . . Bowen has at times used the phrase “emotional field” rather than emotional system. So used, a field may be defined as an environment of influence that is not material in itself (a magnetic or gravitational field, for example) but comes into existence because of the proximity of matter to matter. However, once this field does come into being, it has more power to influence the discrete particle within it than any of those pieces of matter can continue to influence the field they have, by their presence, “caused” to exist.” (Friedman, Myth of the Shiksa, p. 167).
Further, he wrote,
“The term ‘emotional system’ refers to any group of people or other colonized forms of protoplasm (herds, flocks, troops, packs, schools, swarms, and aggregates) that have developed emotional interdependencies to the point where the resulting system through which the parts are connected (administratively, physically, or emotionally) has evolved its own principles of organization.” (Friedman, Myth of the Shiksa, p.163).
In light of that statement we can consider that triangles are part of the principles of organization of the emotional field.
Components of the emotional field
The Emotional process in the emotional field that affects everything in it, including the formation and maintenance of emotional triangles, can include the influence of the following components to one extent or another:
The positions of the individuals in the field and the functions they serve (leader, IP, etc.)
The field is moderated by the level of differentiation of self within and among the field
The field may be mediated by culture
The field is influenced by biology
The systemic structures of the field (type of system—biological family, corporation, congregation; developmental stage of the system)
The field is influenced by external and internal forces—positive and negative
The next time you identify emotional triangles in a system, work at gaining a deeper understanding of the emotional process at play by remembering that triangles are situated in the context of an emotional field.