Triangulation Part One: Triangles and Tangles

Where do we find the line, or lines, in our relationships with our abusive families?

As anyone who has survived geometry class knows, a triangle is a shape created by three lines that connect at three points, typically called A, B and C. A connects to B connects to C connects to A and there you have the triangle.

Overlapping Triangles

Overlapping Triangles


The theory of triangles, or triangulation, within family dynamics was introduced by Murray Bowen, who developed the theory while working for the National Institutes of Mental Health in the 1950s. Originally, Bowen’s theory focused on the father-mother-child “triangle”, where two of the “points” in the triangle use the third to defuse or manipulate tension or anxiety between themselves. In simplest possible terms for a psychology rookie like myself, this means that where you have three people, you will end up with a dynamic of two-against-one. The dynamic is fluid. Sometimes points A and B ally against C; at other times, A and C against B; and so on. (Credit for that explanation must go to my therapist, whose patience is very much appreciated.)

My father’s family provides many examples of the triangle dynamic. Two parents plus seven children equals quite a few potential triangles . If you work some fancy math, you can calculate how many triangles that family could form.  Assuming that two parents against any one child is a triangle, you immediately get the obvious answer: seven triangles.  Then you move on to the triangles formed between each parent and any two children, and the triangles formed between any three of the children. Ultimately, over 70 family triangles were forming, re-forming, and fluctuating during any given period of time.

 The Family Tangle

This leads me to what I’m calling the family tangle. As the image below demonstrates, it resembles some strange microbe.  The two central yellow circles are my father’s parents; the red circles are their children; the red lines represent the length of time between their legal adulthood and their production of children. When I began to sketch out a family tree for therapy reasons, the image came about by what you might call a Freudian slip of the pencil. Nothing about it indicates simplicity.

Artistic depiction of family tree as tentacled

Family Tangle

The central yellow circles represent my father’s parents. Each red circle is one of their children who survived to adulthood. The purple dots are the grandchildren of the yellow circles, and subsequent dots indicate their offspring.  As I tried to depict, the youngest of the children was born not long before the oldest grandchildren were born. This placed the oldest children in a position of quasi-parental status relative to the youngest children, and the youngest children in a quasi-sibling status with their oldest nieces and nephews.  Alliances begin to cross generations, a topic I’ll address later in this series. In Part Two, I’ll focus on specific examples of the “triangles” in my father’s immediate birth family.

Images original by CE Miller


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