Triangles in Social Groups and Wu-Wei



Would it be useful to see how dominance behavior emerges in a triangle?  It is easy to see the two person social system, as above, and far more challenging to see the family as a unit where the two against one triangle emerges.

Can it be that triangles are an automatic “whatchamacallit” scapegoating thing?

Answering yes, confirms that you do see the automatic nature of triangles, the two against one mechanism, putting pressure on a few to conform.

The dance begins innocently enough. Two are comfortable dancing in the dark. Then as tensions rise, a third is chosen who will either help the two dance the right way, or if the third person objects to helping, then more pressure is applied until they conform or become symptomatic.

Is it our fate to be blind to this kind of a mechanism? After all the mechanism has purpose: it distributes anxiety enabling cooperation but at some price. If the price is too high then perhaps there are things we can do to be more aware and perhaps fine-tune this regulatory mechanism?

For those interested in studying human behavior, one can learn to see how the two against one dance works by observations of subtle alliances. It’s hard to see since we are participating in subtle alliances all the time. At some level, to mess with these alliances is fraught with danger. Most of us live in dread of being rejected and of losing the love and approval we naturally seek. And messing with alliances or just bringing them into attention threatens everyone, including us.

Seeing the primitive nature of triangles is a window into our “red in tooth and claw”[1] of our evolutionary past. The brain and the autonomic nervous system conspire to convey that what worked in the past is good enough for the future, so leave well enough alone or else!

Consider that there are good reasons for each of us to be emotionally blind to the use of coercion. Our ancestors were faced with a dire need to cooperate or die. But to apply the pressure, and for that pressure to work, one must believe it is in the best interest of the other, it has to be sincere and appear to be well intentioned. So what do you do when someone you are dependent on uses guilt and blame just to make you conform, of course “for your own good”.

We see blame and scapegoating just about everywhere today, from our nuclear families and workgroups to the nation. Most of the presidential candidates find something to complain about and mock their competitors, or other nations, a sure-fire way to get their poll numbers up. At the office or at home, people are blaming, shaming and otherwise focusing on others and the same old problems continue. So what if anything can we do about these triangling, polarizing processes?

Understanding how automatically two-against-one triangles begin in the family, (where one person is often over worried about, scapegoated to bring the group together), can give us some insight into how larger political systems function.

As we become aware of these polarizing mechanisms, there is more that can be done to resist the instinctive urge to go along with ostracizing some for the benefit of others. Both in the family and in the larger society, people are increasingly aware of the downside of blame and the use of the triangle even if they don’t talk about triangles, per se. A family leader or a political figure that can be loose and momentarily outside the control of triangle can free the system. The ancient Chinese had a name for being freer of the system, Wu-Wei, or “the Way”. (I’ll say a little more about that later.)

Mechanisms to manage anxiety in a family unit or in society are so smooth and automatic that we barely notice, until, under the conditions of heightened anxiety someone becomes the outcast, the “loser.” Here is how it works. The one who is a little out of step with the group begins to draw more and more anxiety on to him or her self. They do not want this to happen any more than the others want it to happen, it just happens. Under enough anxiety someone gets pushed out. They do not fit in, are not cool enough or they are sick. Now the group is functioning better on the back of this one. They worry about them, complain and can’t get them to fit in, and so what happens next? One says to the preferred other, “I did all I could.” The twosome is restored and the third one is out.

You can observe this and explain it by saying people are so anxious that some have to get away from the others, and miss the triangle in the background working to force these two in and one out. For example it seems so logical when someone says: “I “choose” to have nothing to do with my great aunts” and then eventually say the same thing about their spouse and/or children.  No one thinks, “Oh my God, it’s a multi-generational triangle. The anxiety of my or his/her parents has landed in my marriage.” We do not see the flow of anxiety. We just often see that the cause of trouble is outside of self and in “the other”. Now if we can just find someone to tell about this and they agree, the triangle is formed. The scapegoat is chosen and two against one wins the day.

What does it take to see how triangles distribute anxiety?

What does it take to see interactions as part of an ancient emotional process and not as something particular to one person? Seeing how the system works for a minute or two can be confusing, disappointing and might even make you angry. However, if you’re aware of emotional process, there are things you can do to cope more adequately with side taking and scapegoating, etc. .

If you are unaware and are focused on blaming others, then you can miss the system that surrounds or reinforces the problems and you become part of the automatic forces of that system.

It can take years to train ourselves to notice the way relationships shift silently in the night and to be willing to take action to do something about the part we play in these situations.  All of these mechanisms, conflict, reciprocal relationships, over and under functioning, physical and/or emotional symptoms and projection of worries into the next generation may be activated as anxiety rises due to any kind of stressful event that disturbs the status quo.

Bowen developed a scale of differentiation to describe the range in functioning in people’s ability to perceive adequately the outside environment and solve problems in a realistic way, without encouraging greater dependencies. Consider that people may feel “we all should cooperate.” In an innocent way this urge runs over a few people who may see the problem differently and want to respond differently.

Bowen focused on fusion and the togetherness force (controlling others or giving way to others) and how both can lead to a regression in self, because there is greater reliance on others to make decisions and less ability to adapt and grow.

Putting self OUT to build one’s emotional backbone

The essence of de-triangling is separating a self emotionally, while staying connected to others. In other words one chooses the outside position, instead of being put there by others. One is carefully defined based on growing awarenss fo the fusion dn the togetheness force, stands alone, or is neutral and is not side taking or one is just different or just “strange.” Being “strange” and or provocative in a social group has a long history.

Putting others together (or into togetherness) and getting self outside, is the goal as one defines one’s self. It is a very difficult and challenging disciplined path to take. However, over time this kind of process does result in higher levels of emotional maturity for those who are willing to step outside the controlling and sometimes even comforting control of the triangle. For some it is worth the price of potential rejection to have more interpersonal freedom and a bit of joy.

Differentiation of self is the only effort that has been described by Dr. Bowen as a way through these multigenerational triangles. Dr. Bowen’s quotes about this process appear at the end of this paper. One of his off-the-cuff explanations of de-triangling was, “ Put your parents back together and get yourself out.“

Since the time of Adam, Eve and the snake we have seen over and over just how automatically the triangle works. Two are momentarily together and one is out.  When the outsider gives in, having been in essence manipulated and seduced into going along with the others, all hell breaks loose.  A regression of biblical proportions takes place.  Adam ate the apple. He was unable to keep his promise not to. Principles sound good and even noble till one is bullied in a triangle.  Some of us might think that “It’s not me with the snake” or “That’s not me being the snake” or “Poor old Adam is just a little blind, but I’m not”. We are all doing it, joining, rejecting, influencing, punishing and being punished.  We may feel how others try and do influence us, but not know what to do about it. We may not notice how we are picking on others or joining and going with others to put down or build up others thereby impacting our own status.  The way in which people are able to control another is so subtle, so amazingly innocent and so very easy to talk about, but so very hard to notice in real time.

Once we can accept the subtlety and innocence of triangles then it is possible we can see them.  This method of observing self in relationships dispenses with the blame or guilt that often can blind us to seeing the impersonal and automatic machinations of the system. Of course, this is the way Mother Nature designed the system. Why not just marvel at how nature works to distribute anxiety in a system? Amazing, isn’t it?

If you get the idea of standing alone with no one on your side then you see the down side of de-triangling successfully. Be careful of the kiss of togetherness that beckons.  Be careful about saying to yourself (or worse, to others), “Look how clever I am.”  Yes, I am suggesting that the only way to be a more mature self is not totally believe or get addicted to love and approval. A little bit goes a long way.

My grandfather used to say, “Approval is a bit like perfume, have a drop but do not drink it.” The avoidance of love and approval can safeguard you from false pride and intense need for others. Get used to struggling along and welcoming being on the outside. One may be their best stumbling along. There’s no need to be perfect.

Systems will encounter too much anxiety and so, as nature shows us, the parts begin to break down. It’s no one’s fault, it’s just sometimes too much for the system (and some of the individuals in it) to handle.  Stuff happens. People die, people suffer and people lose the ability to cooperate and solve problems. Trust is lost and misunderstandings, blame, guilt and isolation begin to dominate the relationship landscape. Stumbling along as we learn to define a self requires us to think carefully about how we might begin to restore trust and cooperation in a system by changing the way we participate in it.

The Way and Wu-wei

In ancient China, irrationality was encouraged as a way for individuals to regain the ability to cooperate and reestablish trust. It sounds counterintuitive, but being irrational does force you to draw the negative focus, so be prepared. You draw the energy towards yourself in an effort not to give in to the demands of the system to keep the status quo going. It is not easy to separate yourself from all the others and to be cool in the face of rejection and criticism.

If one is the focus of negativity for too long, one doesn’t have the strength to break family patterns. Often it is the strongest person in the family who can perceive reality with a bit more clarity, and who is not so fearful of disturbing others. Such individuals are not as afraid of rejection, are willing to risk breaking the patterns that seem mal-adaptive under the current circumstances.

Many people change after a death. Perhaps a little inner voice will remind you and say, “ Come on, it’s worth it. We’re outside the system and we have freedom.” Of course people know there is a price to pay for doing this but they also get the positive freedom of stepping outside the controlling ways of the system.

Bowen wrote that a person over 65 on the scale of differentiation can say and do things without getting people upset.  I consider this an ideal to move towards. Most of us will still pay to be more open, more self defined, because the system wants you as you were and is always prepared to put up a fight to keep you there.

Since each of us passes on anxiety in some way or another the anxiety is often absorbed more by one or some, than others. It may not be “fair”, but it’s how systems work. Pipes leak because pressure builds up in the system. Where the leak occurs is not always predictable but with enough pressure, there will be a leak. Some may be willing to sacrifice for others. But many sacrifice themselves because the emotional process began early on to program them so that they see themselves as “the problem”.

There have been many attempts to explain how to live a better life and how to become a more mature person. Bowen added to this by clarifying what the emotional system is and what the nature of the individual is who’s willing to be more separate from others.

In the Chinese philosophy of wu-wei, “The Way” one begins to move self, not following clues from others but finding a moral compass, an inner guidance system that is mature to deal with an unaware and uncooperative and unethical social person or group.  The Wui-we energy may be perceived as crazy as its not part of the system, it seem irrational in the short term but if emotions are sincere they demonstrate “The Way” to restore virtue and values.  Spontaneous irrationality can be threatening to self and others, or it can be clever like posing paradoxes or speaking to others in reversals. The point is to force the system to reorganize.

One example of an unregulated system and a way of responding that breaks the pattern is described in the following ancient Chinese story. The farmer promises his son 5 chickens for a day’s work. The son chops wood all day but the father insists that the son’s work is worth only 3 chickens. Should the son accept his father’s assessment of the value of his work and in so doing, encourage his father’s unreasonable behavior? The son believes it is not virtuous to encourage this dominant seeking behavior in his father.   If the son displays irrational indignation in objecting to his father,, the father may think twice and give him the 5 chickens. Virtue and cooperation are restored.  Of course in this story we do not hear about any triangles or the mother’s part in this situation.  She is silent, but we know she must be feeling sorry for the son, angry with the father or some other variation on these ancient patterns of human interaction.

“Very basic social interactions cannot work unless there are powerful emotions lurking in the background keeping everyone honest.”[2]   Robert Frank at Cornell showed that old-cognition or rational self-interest was incapable of establishing trust, whereas human emotion is the only way to keep people honest. In the Confusion and Daoist schools, wu-wei describes the state of mind of an effortless and spontaneous state.

“Wu-wei” is sometimes compared to being like a pivot or hinge. The behavior points at the center from which one can respond to every change, to every eventuality.” [3] Here the mind is capable of producing great art, or a brilliant insight from a highly integrated state of great harmony.

The ideas of wu-wei were produced in the 3rd to 5th centuries BC, a time of great wars and transformations. Bowen theory was developed following WW II, a time of change and social upheaval. Both wu-wei and the ideas of de-triangling and differentiation of self offer paths to a release from the controlling ways of the emotional system and allow the possibility of greater cooperation with others.]

Bowen theory points to the effort to be emotionally separate from the interlocking triangles. The effort is full of many small steps. One can begin anywhere by simply defining with humor one’s self and one’s boundaries. This lack of blame and greater ease demonstrates that one is available to interact freely without threat. Taking steps to be less caught in triangles, less caught in the primitive state in which two are comfortable while the third is suffering, is where freedom is earned.

Defining self leads to maturity. More energy is directed towards changing self than towards changing others. A more mature person is less dependent on others and therefore knows what to do spontaneously in order to deal with the challenges in both the family and in the larger social systems.  Spontaneous behavior is hard to fake. Differentiation of self is hard to maintain unless one can perceive the environment accurately enough to define self to the system.  Then hold onto your hat, and breath slowly while you stand your ground, alone for a long enough time for the social system to reorganize.


A  Book on Triangles:

Triangles: Bowen Family Systems Theory Perspectives edited by Peter Titleman

Chapter two The Regulatory Function of Triangles by Laurie Lassiter


Dr Bowen at Board

A Few Bowen Quotes on Triangles and Differentiation of Self

Theoretically, the experience with families adds increasing conviction to the belief that schizophrenia will eventually be explained as an emotional phenomenon if we conceive of an emotional process involving multiple generations. Schizophrenia is as fixed and rigid in the father-mother-patient triad as in the patient, but there is evidence to indicate that the process can be reversed in the family ego mass in which the parents grew up if members of the family of origin are available for therapy. Notes: I prefer to use the word “triad in one” because it designates one component of the family ego mass. Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 145). Jason Aronson, Inc.. Kindle Edition.


This will be discussed under “detriangling the triangle.” From experience with this therapeutic system, there are two main avenues toward a higher level of “differentiation of self.” (1) The optimum is differentiation of a self from one’s spouse, as a cooperative effort, in the presence of a potential “triangle” (therapist) who can remain emotionally detached. To me, this is the “magic” of family psychotherapy. They must be sufficiently involved with each other to stand the stress of “differentiation” and sufficiently uncomfortable to motivate the effort. One, and then the other, moves forward in small steps until motivation stops. Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 175). Jason Aronson, Inc.. Kindle Edition.


After several years of symptom-relieving methods, including working with various combinations of family members, I began what I have called “detriangling the triangle.” This is too complex for brief discussion but it involves helping one parent to establish an “I” position and to “differentiate a self” in the relationship with the child. If there is another “magic” in family psychotherapy, it is the family response when one parent can begin to “differentiate a self” from the amorphous “we-ness” of the intense undifferentiated family ego mass.

One bit of clearly defined “self” in this area of amorphousness can bring a period of amazing calm. The calm may quickly shift to other issues, but the family is different. The other parent and child fuse together into a more intense oneness that alternately attacks and pleads with the “differentiating parent” to rejoin the oneness. If the differentiating one can maintain a reasonable “I” for even a few days, there is an automatic decrease in the intensity of the attachment between the other two and a permanent decrease in the intensity of the triangle. The second step Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 180). Jason Aronson, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

In broad terms, the concept is one of withdrawing psychic energy from the other and investing it in the poorly defined ego boundaries. It involves the idea of “getting off the back” of the other by reducing the “other directed” thinking, verbal, action energy which is designed to attack and change the other, and directing that energy to the changing of self. The changing of “self” involves finding a way to listen to the attacks of the other without responding, of finding a way to live with “what is” without trying to change it, of defining one’s own beliefs and convictions without attacking those of the other, and in observing the part that self plays in the situation. Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 178). Jason Aronson, Inc.. Kindle Edition..

Two important variables in triangles. One deals with the level of “differentiation of self.” The other variable deals with the level of anxiety or emotional tension in the system. The higher the anxiety, the more intense the automatic triangling in the system. The lower the level of differentiation in the involved people, the more intense the triangling. The higher the level of differentiation, the more the people have control over the emotional process. In periods of low anxiety, the triangling may be so toned down it is not clinically present. In calm periods, the triangle consists of a two-person togetherness and an outsider. The togetherness is the preferred position. The triangle is rarely in a state of optimum emotional comfort for all three. The most uncomfortable one makes a move to improve his optimum level of emotional closeness-distance. This upsets the equilibrium of another who attempts to adjust his optimum level. Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 307). Jason Aronson, Inc.. Kindle Edition

The over-all goal was to help family members become “system experts” who could know the family system so well that the family could readjust itself without the help of an outside expert, if and when the family system was again stressed. Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 157). Jason Aronson, Inc.. Kindle Edition.









[1] Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam A. H. H., 1850, Richard Dawkins used ‘red in tooth and claw’ in The Selfish Gene, to summarize the behavior of all living things which arises out of the survival of the fittest doctrine.

[2]  Trying not to Try: the Art and Science of Spontaneity by Edward Slingerland, p 77

[3]  Trying not to Try: the Art and Science of Spontaneity by Edward Slingerland, p 159

One comment

  1. Andrea,

    Thank you! I am at my grandmothers house caring for her and my father, both with broken hips for a still to be determined amount of time and anxiety is palpable.

    I was thinking of ordering a copy of mindful compass since I don’t have mine here but this email is the perfect reminder I needed. I do the strange outside position well but there is always much to improve.

    I appreciate your research and wisdom. Thank you so much. Will miss you at TEOS this month but hopefully willbe present soon.

    Best regards, Rose

    Sent from my iPhone


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