Since the mid-1960s, there has been increasing appreciation for the importance of the family environment in understanding normative child development and child maladjustment. In their search for theoretically sound and empirically testable hypotheses about family functioning and its impact on children, researchers have found a rich resource in the work of family systems theorists and therapists. As a consequence, concepts from the study and practice of family therapy have slowly been working their way into the lexicon and empirical investigations of diverse disciplines (e.g., psychology, family studies, sociology). At its core, regardless of the specific model being applied, family therapy requires that one think of the family as a dynamic system in which all parts are interdependent (Minuchin 1985).
Systemic and Structural Family Theories
In efforts to describe family processes that extend beyond the dyadic level, the idea of triangles within the family, or triangulation, is one of the more robust theoretical concepts that has emerged. Triangulation can occur in a variety of ways, but always involves a pair of family members incorporating or rejecting a third family member. Triangulation is seen in the cross-generational coalitions that can develop within families, a concept that many family therapists, including such prominent pioneers as Murray Bowen (see Bowen 1966, 1978; Kerr and Bowen 1988) and Salvador Minuchin (see Minuchin 1974), have linked to the development of maladjustment in children. Although the theoretical models of both of these men extend far beyond the concept of triangulation, their theories were foremost among those that helped establish the construct as an important one.
Bowen. One of the seminal constructs of Bowen's theory is the idea of an emotional triangle (Friedman 1991). In Bowenian terms, triangles occur in all families and social groups (Hoffman 1981). They are fluid—rather than static—as all two-person relationships go through cycles of closeness and distance (as dictated by individuals' varying needs for connectedness and autonomy). Drawing in a third party is one way to try and stabilize the relationship. For Bowen, triangles are most likely to develop when a dyad is experiencing stress (Nichols and Schwartz 1995). Triangulating patterns tend to become rigid when created under duress but tend to be more flexible during calmer periods in the family life-cycle (Hoffman 1981). When tension exists between two family members, one of them (most likely the person experiencing the greater level of discomfort) may attempt to "triangle in" a third person either directly or indirectly (e.g., by bringing them up, telling a story about them). For example, in the case of marital triangles, a husband who is upset with his wife might start spending more time with their child or a distressed wife might start confiding about the marital difficulties with their child. Both situations result in a temporary reduction of marital tension though the essential problem remains unresolved. A third party (e.g., child, friend) who is sensitive to one spouse's anxiety or to the conflict between the dyad can also insert themselves into the dyad and thereby create a triangle as they try to offer reassurance, advice, or pleadings to reduce the conflict.
Minuchin. Salvador Minuchin is credited with developing the structural school of family therapy (Minuchin 1974). The term family structure refers to the organized patterns in which family members interact. When certain sequences of interaction are repeated, enduring patterns or covert rules can be created that determine how, when, and to whom family members relate (Nicholas and Schwartz 1995). Each individual, like dyads and larger groups, is a subsystem (Minuchin 1974). Individuals and subsystems are demarcated by inter-personal boundaries: invisible barriers that surround individuals and subsystems and regulate the amount of contact with others. Boundaries vary from rigid to diffuse and one of their functions is to manage hierarchy within the family.
Detouring and cross-generational coalitions are two types of triangulation described by Minuchin (Minuchin 1974). When parents are unable to resolve problems between them, they may direct their focus of concern away from themselves and onto the child, perhaps reinforcing maladaptive behavior in the child. The child may then become identified as the problematic member of the family. Detouring occurs when parents, rather than directing anger or criticism toward each other, focus the negativity on the child and the parent-child conflict thus serves to distract from the tension in the marital subsystem. This type of triangulation also is sometimes referred to as scapegoating as the child's well-being is sacrificed in order that the marital conflict might be avoided (Minuchin 1974). Cross-generational coalitions develop when one or both parents trying to enlist the support of the child against the other parent. Cross-generational coalitions also exist when one of the parents responds to the child's needs with excessive concern and devotion (enmeshment) while the other parent withdraws and becomes less responsive. In the latter situation, the attention to the child is supportive rather than critical or conflictual. Minuchin believed cross-generational coalitions to be particularly associated with psychosomatic illness (Minuchin, Rosman, and Baker 1978) and recent research also shows associations with marital distress (e.g., Kerig 1995; Lindahl, Clements, and Markman 1997).
In Bowenian family therapy, it is argued that a conflict between two people will resolve itself in the presence of a third person who can avoid emotional participation with either while relating actively to both (Bowen 1978). Typically, it is the therapist who takes on the nonanxious role and forms a triangle with a couple. While remaining emotionally unreactive, the therapist is able to induce change in the relationship that would not have occurred had the same things been said in the absence of the therapist (Friedman 1991). Alternatively, a family system can be detriangulated when the therapist insists that one family member take a position on an issue and maintain that position despite opposition from other family members that might occur (Hoffman 1981). This strategy helps establish differentiation of self but also, in a three-person emotional system, allows one person to remain detached and unreactive.
An essential element of structural family therapy is introducing challenges to the prevailing maladaptive family structure (Minuchin and Fishman 1981). In the case of triangulating cross-generational coalitions, it is the goal of the therapist to realign subsystem boundaries. For example, if a family is characterized by an overinvolved mother-child dyad and an excluded father, techniques are employed to strengthen the parenting alliance and to increase the father's participation in the parental subsystem. One way to do this is to give the parents a common task (e.g., directing them to support one another's parenting efforts). This type of intervention strengthens the parental subsystem and increases the proximity between the spouses while at the same time increasing the psychological distance between the mother and the child. Family members may be asked to physically change their seating arrangement in order to facilitate proper boundary development. If a child engages in frequent detouring behaviors in the face of interparental conflict, the therapist may ask the child to sit next to him and instruct the parents to request that their child be quiet while they discuss an area of disagreement.
The Empirical Study of Triangulation
Historically, most investigations of familial interaction have taken a dyadic approach, studying the antecedent-consequent interactions of two family members at a time (e.g., parent criticism followed by child negative affect). Until the end of the twentieth century, there had been surprisingly little empirical research examining whole-family (or any family unit that extends beyond dyads) dynamics and their implications for child development. An implicit assumption seemed to be that triadic or family-level processes had little impact on children's behavior beyond the contributions of dyadic husband-wife and parent-child interactions. However, twenty-first-century researchers began to establish the importance of triangulation (among other triadic processes) for child functioning. For the most part, triangulating processes have been studied in the context of marital conflict and how it may negatively affect other family subsystems.
Marital functioning. Several studies found children to be more likely to be triangulated into marital disputes in families characterized by higher levels of marital conflict. Kristin Lindahl, Mari Clements, and Howard Markman (1997) found marital distress and conflict before the birth of a child to be predictive of the development of cross-generational coalitions and husbands' tendency to triangulate the child into marital disputes five years later. In other words, when couples were ineffective at regulating negativity between them before a child was born, they were more likely to later try to form alliances with the child against the other parent, and fathers were more likely to involve or incorporate the child into ongoing marital conflict years later. Exposure to intense marital conflict, including aggression, has been shown to be related to children's tendency, especially in boys, to make efforts to distract or deflect parents' attention away from ongoing interspousal conflict (Gordis, Margolin, and John 1997).
Using a pictorial assessment strategy, Patricia Kerig (1995) asked parents and their children to describe their family structure by pointing to the drawing that best illustrated the level of closeness that existed between the different members in their family. Parents from triangulated families, in which there were cross-generational coalitions between parents and children, rated their marriages as the highest in conflict and maladjustment. Cross-generational coalitions or alliances would seem likely to threaten the relationship the child has with each parent, both the one seeking an alliance with the child as well the one against whom the child is being asked to align. The child may feel anger or resentment at being asked to in essence betray the other parent (Cox, Paley, and Harter 2001). In addition, child triangulation is thought to prolong marital distress and family tension as the original conflict is not resolved.
Child functioning. Triangulating processes have been shown to be linked to higher levels of maladjustment in children in several studies ( Jenkins, Smith, and Graham 1989; O'Brien, Margolin, and John 1995). Children who report coping with interparental discord by becoming involved in the conflict, either through intervention or distraction and acting out, have been found to have higher levels of anxiety and hostility, and lower levels of self-esteem than children who cope by avoidance or self-reliance (O'Brien, Margolin, and John 1995). Children who triangulate themselves may perceive a conflicted parent-child relationship as one that is less threatening and easier to manage than a conflicted marital relationship (Cox, Paley, and Harter 2001). In one of the few empirical investigations to include a clinical sample in the study triangulating processes, Barton Mann and colleagues (1990) examined parent-child coalitions in families with a delinquent adolescent and in families with a well-adjusted adolescent. Cross-generational coalitions, defined by the degree of verbal activity, supportiveness, and conflict-hostility in one parent-child dyad relative to the other, occurred significantly more often in the families with antisocial teenagers. In particular, in the delinquent sample, the adolescents were more often aligned with their mothers (who often perceived their husbands as too harsh) and disengaged from their fathers (who were often punitive and emotionally distant from the child).
Although the majority of the studies examining family processes have focused on middle-class Anglo families, there is evidence to suggest that triangulating processes occur in other ethnic groups as well. Kristin Lindahl and Neena Malik (1999) compared Anglo, Hispanic, and biethnic (Anglo/Hispanic) families and found detouring marital coalitions (spouses' marital conflict was redirected to the child in an attacking and critical manner) to be associated with higher levels of marital conflict and externalizing behavior problems in children across all three ethnic groups. Within a clinical sample of Hispanic families, José Szapocznik and his colleagues (1989) found family therapy to be related to improvements in family functioning (including triangulation).
As suggested by early family therapists such as Bowen and Minuchin, and echoed by empirical researchers such as Robert Emery, Frank Fincham, and Mark Cummings (1992), the family is more complex than a simple collection of dyadic relationships and children's development is intimately intertwined in this web of reciprocal family inter-actions. Triangulation of children into ongoing marital disputes, whether it be through scapegoating the child, detouring marital conflict through the child, or the establishment of an overly close parent-child alliance that excludes the other parent, has been linked to marital dysfunction as well as child behavioral and emotional problems. Ongoing areas of research and clinical work are focused on better understanding the complex reciprocal nature of family relationships and the development of effective interventions that can reduce the likelihood of triangulation as well as reduce impact of problematic interaction processes (such as triangulation) on child development.
See also:Boundary Dissolution; Conflict: Couple Relationships; Conflict: Family Relationships; Conflict: Parent-Child Relationships; Coparenting; Family, Diagrammatic Assessment: Genogram; Family Systems Theory; Interparental Conflict—Effects on children; Therapy: Family Relationships; Therapy: Parent-Child Relationships
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tri·an·gu·late / trīˈanggyəˌlāt/ • v. 1. [tr.] divide (an area) into triangles for surveying purposes. ∎ measure and map (an area) by the use of triangles with a known base length and base angles. ∎ determine (a height, distance, or location) in this way. 2. [tr.] form into a triangle or triangles: the brackets triangulate the frame.