Triangles (not the shape but the relationship dynamic) can mess up relationships especially if you aren’t aware of what they are and what they can do.  Everyone, to some extent, has relationships that are triangles.  Triangles, according to Murray Bowen*, a psychiatrist and one of the early marriage and family therapists, are “the smallest stable relationship system.”  Three people, according to Bowen, are the “building block” of larger emotional systems.  Why three?  Two people are unstable because it takes just a little bit of tension for most people to begin to feel uncomfortable.  So, they bring in a third person to disperse the tension.

Let’s say Mary is upset because Joe, her husband, is leaving his dirty clothes on the floor even after she’s asked him to pick them up.  Fed up, she complains to her mother about his lack of consideration.  Mary has now diffused her tension between Joe and herself, and brought her mother into their relationship dynamic.  This behavior may diffuse tension, but what if Mary’s mother begins to criticize Joe as well instead of being neutral?  What does that do for Mary and Joe’s relationship?  And she and her mother’s?  Let’s flip this and say that Mary’s mother says, “Sounds like you’re frustrated. Have you spoken to Joe about this?  Hey, how about a cup of tea and tell me all about those grandkids of mine!”  Mary would have a different relationship with her mother if her mother responded like this.  Many divorces start with dysfunctional triangles.

If there is too much tension for a triangle to handle, other triangles might be formed.  Or, the tension becomes unbearable and the primary relationship needs a counselor to help resolve their issues.

Sometimes the third party in the triangle is an addiction like alcohol, work, or pornography (Bowen does not write of this dynamic, but addiction can certainly be a third party to a relationship).  A third person in a triangle may end up becoming that big scarlet letter “A” — which stands for adultery.

  It’s how you handle the stress and tension that all relationships go through that differentiates the loving, long-lasting relationships from those that aren’t so healthy.

Relationships can get messy by bringing in others to soothe the tension.  If triangles involve someone with ulterior motives or this person is not neutral, then the relationship will begin to have issues–issues like:

  • There may be hurt feelings by the odd person out.
  • Respect and trust are lost.
  • The feeling of safety is diminished.
  • The relationship may lose its specialness if someone else is privileged.
  • Gossip and negativity can erode the relationship.

Triangles can be beneficial however. 

A wife talking with her friend about how hard it is to balance kids and marriage, and her friend compassionately listening and validating the struggle can be a good thing.  The wife talking about her stress with a well-intentioned friend allows the wife to be more present and less stressed with her husband.  A therapist can be part of a triangle that functions well–a triangle isn’t dysfunctional if the people who are part of it aren’t–that goes for the original two in the relationship as well.

When thinking about your relationships with your partner, your ex-partner, kids, in-laws, family of origin, friends, co-workers–think about how triangles affect your interactions.  Do you honor your relationships when speaking to others?  Do you add drama when there isn’t any?  Are you helping or hurting your relationship(s) when you talk about your loved one to another person?  Is this other person neutral?

divorcedBy the way, if you’re familiar with Parental Alienation (PA), you’ll notice that this takes the form of a dysfunctional triangle.  The issue with PA is that instead of the parents/co-parents being part of subsystem together that shares parental power (see the top triangle in the picture on the right), the power is subverted to the child so that one parent (the rejected/targeted one) is demoted in stature and stripped of some or all of their power by the coalition between the favored parent and child (as depicted in the bottom triangle in the picture on the right).  This upsets the natural hierarchy and balance in families and puts undue stress on the child (not to mention the targeted parent).


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Nicole Nenninger counselor

Divorced?  Going through one?  You might be faced with the imposing challenge of how to create a nice life for yourself after divorce.  It can be scary to think about reinventing your life.  What about those dreams you had as a couple–how do you let those go?  Now you have to switch and rework your future dreams without your ex as a part of them.  Oh, and on top of what you’ve got going on, you also might be worried about your child(ren)–how will they be affected?  How are you going to keep them healthy and happy–and yourself too?  There’s so much to heal after a relationship break-up–where do you start?  How do you start?

Hi there!  I’m Nicole Nenninger.  My passion is being a change agent for those who are going through some major challenges because of divorce.  I am a certified life coach, Reiki master, and counselor.  I have a master’s degree in psychology and another almost completed master’s degree in marriage and family therapy.  I am also the author of Transforming Divorce and Attract Your Soul Mate.  I’ve also been through a divorce and I know how lonely and daunting it can be facing life as a single person again.  I’ve experienced the fear, anguish, sadness, and anger that that good ol’ emotional roller coaster can send you on.  And, I’ve also discovered the path to happiness and even love again.  And so can you.  To find out more about divorce coaching, CLICK HERE.


*If you’d like more information about Murray Bowen and his work, please visit The Bowen Center website.  There’s some great content there and his theory on differentiation of self is well worth reading about.