Triangulation (psychology)

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Triangulation is a term in psychology most closely associated with the work of Murray Bowen known as family therapy. Bowen theorized that a two-person emotional system is unstable, in that under stress it forms itself into a three-person system or triangle.[1]

Family theory[edit]

In the family triangulation system, the third person can either be used as a substitute for direct communication or can be used as a messenger to carry the communication to the main party. Usually, this communication is an expressed dissatisfaction with the main party. For example, in a dysfunctional family in which there is alcoholism present, the non-drinking parent will go to a child and express dissatisfaction with the drinking parent. This includes the child in the discussion of how to solve the problem of the alcoholic parent. Sometimes the child can engage in the relationship with the parent, filling the role of the third party, and thereby being "triangulated" into the relationship. Alternatively, the child may then go to the alcoholic parent, relaying what they were told. In instances when this occurs, the child may be forced into a role of a "surrogate spouse". The reason that this occurs is that both parties are dysfunctional. Rather than communicating directly with each other, they utilize a third party. Sometimes this is because it is unsafe to go directly to the person and discuss the concerns, particularly if they are alcoholic and/or abusive.

In a triangular family relationship, the two who have aligned risk forming an enmeshed relationship.[2]

Positive and negative triangulation[edit]

Triangulation can be a constructive and stabilizing factor. Triangulation can also be a destructive and destabilizing factor. Destabilizing or "bad triangulation" can polarize communications and escalate conflict.[3] Understanding the difference between stabilizing triangulation and destabilizing triangulation is helpful in avoiding destabilizing situations.[3] Triangulation may be overt, which is more commonly seen in high-conflict families, or covert. [4]

A 2016 longitudinal study of adolescent relationship skills found that teens who were triangulated into parental conflicts more frequently used positive conflict resolution techniques with their own dating partner, but were also more likely to engage in verbally abusive behaviors. [5]

The Perverse Triangle[edit]

The Perverse Triangle was first described in 1977 by Jay Haley[6] as a triangle where two people who are on different hierarchical or generational levels form a coalition against a third person (e.g., "a covert alliance between a parent and a child, who band together to undermine the other parent's power and authority".[7]) The perverse triangle concept has been widely discussed in professional literature.[8][9][10][11][12][13][14] Bowen called it the pathological triangle,[13] while Minuchin called it the rigid triangle.[15] For example, a parent and child can align against the other parent but not admit to it, to form a cross-generational coalition.[16] These are harmful to children.[8][12][17]

Child development[edit]

In the field of psychology, triangulations are necessary steps in the child's development. When a two-party relationship is opened up by a third party, a new form of relationship emerges and the child gains new mental abilities. The concept was introduced in 1971 by the Swiss psychiatrist Dr. Ernst L. Abelin, especially as 'early triangulation', to describe the transitions in psychoanalytic object relations theory and parent-child relationship in the age of 18 months. In this presentation, the mother is the early caregiver with a nearly "symbiotic" relationship to the child, and the father lures the child away to the outside world, resulting in the father being the third party.[18] Abelin later developed an 'organizer- and triangulation-model',[19] in which he based the whole human mental and psychic development on several steps of triangulation.

Some earlier related work, published in a 1951 paper, had been done by the German psychoanalyst Hans Loewald in the area of pre-Oedipal behavior and dynamics.[20] In a 1978 paper, the child psychoanalyst Dr. Selma Kramer wrote that Loewald postulated the role of the father as a positive supporting force for the pre-Oedipal child against the threat of re-engulfment by the mother which leads to an early identification with the father, preceding that of the classical Oedipus complex.[21] This was also related to the work in Separation-Individuation theory of child development by the psychoanalyst Margaret Mahler.[21][22][23]

Destabilizing triangulation[edit]

Destabilizing triangulation occurs when a person attempts to control the flow, interpretation, and nuances of communication between two separate actors or groups of actors, thus ensuring communications flow through, and constantly relate back to them. Examples include a parent attempting to control communication between two children, or a relationship partner attempting to control communication between the other partner and the other partner's friends and family.[24] Another example is to put a third actor between them and someone with whom they are commonly in conflict. Rather than communicating directly with the actor with whom they are in conflict, they will send communication supporting his or her case through a third actor in an attempt to make the communication more credible.[25] Furthermore, research shows that triangulation can adversely impact children, who may experience increased anxiety and self-blame due to involvement in marital disputes between their parents.[26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bowen, Murray (1985), "On the differentiation of self (1972)", in Bowen, Murray (ed.), Family therapy in clinical practice, Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., p. 478, ISBN 9780876687611.
  2. ^ "How triangulation in family relationships can lead to love triangles". NYC Therapist. 2010-11-06. Retrieved 14 September 2015.
  3. ^ a b Johnson, R. Skip (3 January 2020). "Escaping Conflict and the Karpman Drama Triangle". BPDFamily. Retrieved 4 January 2021.
  4. ^ Carr, Alan (2015). The Handbook of Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychology: A Contextual Approach. Routledge. ISBN 9781317591504.
  5. ^ Fosco, Gregory (2016). "Triangulation and Parent-Adolescent Relationships: Implications for Adolescent Dating Competence and Abuse". Journal of Research on Adolescence. 26 (3): 524–537. doi:10.1111/jora.12210. PMID 28581646. S2CID 6391632.
  6. ^ Watzlawick, Paul; Weakland, John H. (1977). The Interactional View. Studies at the Mental Research Institute, Palo Alto: W. W. Norton & Co. ISBN 9780393333305.
  7. ^ Scarf, Maggie. Intimate Partners, The Atlantic, Nov 1986, accessed 04 October 2016
  8. ^ a b "peverse triangle (definition)". Behavenet. Retrieved 30 August 2015.
  9. ^ Hoffman, Lynn (1981). Foundations of family therapy: a conceptual framework for systems change. Basic Books. ISBN 9780876687611. Details.
  10. ^ Staff writer (1995-05-10), "perverse triangles (definition)", in Miermont, Jacques (ed.), The dictionary of family therapy, Blackwell, ISBN 9780631170488 Available online.
  11. ^ Scarf, Maggie (November 1986). "Intimate partners". The Atlantic. Atlantic Media. Retrieved 30 August 2015.
  12. ^ a b Gottlieb, Linda J. (2012). The parental alienation syndrome: a family therapy and collaborative systems approach to amelioration. Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas Publisher Ltd. pp. 4, 87, 180, 214, 222, 249, 254, 258, 259. ISBN 9780398087364. Preview.
  13. ^ a b Baker, Amy J. L.; Sauber, S. Richard (2013). Working with alienated families: a clinical guidebook. New York London: Routledge. pp. 200, 230, 238. ISBN 9780415518031. Preview.
  14. ^ Childress, Craig A. (2015), "Family transitions", in Childress, Craig A. (ed.), An attachment-based model of parental alienation: foundations, Claremont, California: Oaksong Press, p. 33, ISBN 9780996114509.
  15. ^ Minuchin, Salvador (1974), "Therapeutic implications of a structural approach", in Minuchin, Salvador (ed.), Families and family therapy (1st ed.), Harvard University Press, p. 102, ISBN 9780674292369.
  16. ^ Adams, Jerome (2014), "Milan systemic therapy: glossary", in Wetchler, Joseph L.; Hecker, Lorna L. (eds.), An introduction to marriage and family therapy, Oxford New York: Routledge, p. 143, ISBN 9780415719506. Preview.
  17. ^ Kerig, Patricia (October 2005). "Revisiting the construct of boundary dissolution revisiting the construct of boundary dissolution". Journal of Emotional Abuse. 5 (2–3): 5–42. doi:10.1300/J135v05n02_02. S2CID 141324161.
  18. ^ Abelin, Ernst (1971), "The role of the father in the separation-individuation process", in McDevitt, John B.; Settlage, Calvin F. (eds.), Separation-individuation: essays in honor of Margaret S. Mahler, New York: International Universities Press, pp. 229–252, ISBN 9780823660650.
  19. ^ Abelin, Ernst. "The organizer and triangulation model (abbreviated: The O&T-Model)". Organizer Model.
  20. ^ Loewald, Hans W. (1951). "Ego and reality". The International Journal of Psychoanalysis. Wiley-Blackwell for the International Psychoanalytical Association. 32: 10–18.
  21. ^ a b Kramer, Selma; Prall, Robert C. (February 1978). "The role of the father in the preoedipal". Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association. 26 (1): 143–161. doi:10.1177/000306517802600108. PMID 632531. S2CID 37990830. Also available here.
  22. ^ Mahler, Margaret S. (October 1967). "On human symbiosis and the vicissitudes of individuation". Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association. 15 (4): 740–763. doi:10.1177/000306516701500401. PMID 4170516. S2CID 33386502. Also available here.
  23. ^ Mahler, Margaret S. (1963). "Thoughts about development and individuation". The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child. 18: 307–324. doi:10.1080/00797308.1963.11822933. PMID 14147283.
    Abstract also printed as: Mahler, Margaret S. (1975), "334. MAHLER, MARGARET SCHOENBERGER. Thoughts about development and individuation. 18:307-324, 1963", in Eissler, Ruth S. (ed.), The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, volumes 1-25: abstracts and index, New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 222. Preview.
  24. ^ Morrigan, Danu You're Not Crazy - It's Your Mother: Understanding and Healing for Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers
  25. ^ Bailey-Rug C (2014) It's All About ME! The Facts About Maternal Narcissism
  26. ^ Wakefield, M. "The Role of Triangulation in the Narcissistic Abuse Cycle". Narcissistic Abuse Rehab. Narcissistic Abuse Rehab. Retrieved 19 July 2023. Triangulation can also occur in families. Research shows that children who experience destabilizing triangulation are " feel caught, trapped, or torn between parents." (Franck & Buehler, 2007).

Further reading[edit]

  • Ernst Abelin (1975): Some further observations and comments on the earliest role of the father. Internat. J. Psycho-Anal. 56:293-302
  • Ernst Abelin (1980): Triangulation, the Role of the Father and the Origins of Core Gender Identity during the Rapprochement Subphase. In: Rapprochement, ed. R. Lax, S. Bach and J. Burland. New York: Jason Aronson, S. 151-169.
  • Ernst Abelin (1986): Die Theorie der frühkindlichen Triangulation. Von der Psychologie zur Psychoanalyse. In: Das Vaterbild in Kontinuität und Wandel. ed. J. Stork. Stuttgart: Fromann-Holzboog, S. 45-72.
  • Actual thoughts on early triangulation by Ernst Abelin: