When a person in a committed relationship takes a secret second lover, it forms a love triangle. This new constellation changes the relationship between the committed couple, redistributing some of the energy that would otherwise stay between them onto a third party. But psychiatrist Murray Bowen, a now deceased pioneer in the field of family therapy, believed that triangles had a tendency to crop up in other aspects of family life as well. When a child is born into a strained marriage, for instance, that child becomes like a third party, naturally absorbing some of the stress from the parents’ relationship and lessening the intensity of the issue between them.
Triangles, to be clear, are not a psychological term, says Laura Brooks, a clinical social worker and faculty member at the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. They are a naturally occurring process of pulling a third person into a strained dyad in order to distribute stress more broadly among parts and achieve a better sense of balance. “A family system is a natural system where most of what happens in automatic; the use of triangles to distribute anxiety in the system is an automatic natural process. It’s not pathology,” Brooks says.
Bowen’s theory of triangles was originally based on the mother-father-child relationship, but it has since been applied to other groups, like those in business and social settings. It’s one of eight concepts in his family systems theory, which has been drawn from as a foundational model of family dynamics since its development in the 1950s.
Another pioneer in the field of family systems, Salvador Minuchin, proposed that there were three basic ways triangles originated in families. In the first, infants respond to parents’ unresolved relationship stress with physical symptoms—like crying or throwing up—uniting the parents in efforts to manage a new problem that could keep their minds off of their own stuff. Once a child is old enough to speak, a second opportunity presents itself for a triangle to form: Parents are able to criticize one another to the child, perhaps to relieve stress or coerce their offspring to choose a side. Finally, Minuchin theorized that a triangle could also form when a dissatisfied parent has an extramarital affair, forming both a “love triangle” and a second triangle, in which the child becomes an emotional stand-in for the unfaithful parent.
What each of these scenarios has in common is that they force the child’s attention outward rather than inward, detracting from their ability to establish a solid sense of self, which has been shown to be a predictor of healthy, meaningful living. “The self emerges to the extent that there’s not a lot of anxiety in the system that’s being projected onto the child, with the child absorbing it and then getting more tuned in to the environment than they are to themselves,” Brooks says.
Recent research has applied family systems theories to explore how children’s roles in family triangles can have negative impacts. A 2016 study gathered data on the experiences of 15 children between the ages of 11 and 16 who had been involved in family triangles. They reported feeling “invisible,” stuck in the middle of their parents’ issues, and pressured to choose sides.
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And though Brooks, who applies Bowen’s theory in her work as a psychotherapist, says it’s common to feel anger upon realizing that you’ve been an unwitting participant in a parent-child triangle, blaming your parents is more likely to reinforce the dynamics than disrupt them. Instead, she directs clients to do the work of what Bowen called "differentiation of self."
Because adults who experienced triangles in early family relationships are so accustomed to being absorbed by and attentive to the emotional needs of others, they can lack a clear sense of their own wants and needs, and be overly dependent on the opinions of others in personal decision-making.
“Self-differentiation is about establishing self-defined goals as opposed to getting so caught up in the relationship processes around you that you spend a lifetime of reacting to and being shaped by them,” Brooks says. “It’s about the degree to which you can get clearer about who you are, what you want to do with your life, and how you can act on it even though you may not get any support.”
Brooks’ advice to triangle members who wish to stop taking on parental stress is to reflect on what it looks and feels like when you’re being most yourself, and recognizing what gets in the way of being that version of yourself when you’re with your parents. “Often times, what gets in the way is not wanting to hurt a parent’s feelings, or upset them,” Brooks says.
And differentiation has to happen at the scene of the crime—within the original triangle, where the problem originated. So while it may be tempting to remove oneself from the triangle altogether, Brooks says this will only lead to replication of the same dynamic with other close relationships. An adult daughter who cuts contact with parents who she once formed a triangle with is likely to replay unhealthy aspects of her role in the original triangle within other close relationships. When those relationships inevitably become strained as a result, she’s also more likely to deal with it by cutting off instead of addressing it.
And removing oneself altogether is a missed opportunity to do the work of creating a clear sense of self, a process that, while challenging, promises to yield benefits. Though it may not always be possible, Brooks says the focus should be on changing the way one functions within that system, which involves recognizing one’s own role in it, and beginning to do the work of changing associated behaviors.
But you should also expect pushback.
“Whenever someone makes a move to define and take more responsibility for themselves instead of getting drawn into things, there’s going to be pushback in the system. It’s not because the other people in the system are bad people, everyone pushes back automatically. It’s an effort to keep things the same,” Brooks says.
Thinking of your family triangle as a system that’s naturally resistant to change might not make the work of self-differentiation easy, but it might be a good way to curb the urge to blame and point fingers. And to eventually learn to shift the focus back toward the self.
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