I couldn’t escape the irony of it all. As a young therapist, I was doing rather well at a new job in a family counseling program. Yet as the mom of a 13-year-old daughter who rhapsodized about her best girlfriend’s mother and shunned contact with me, I felt jealous and stymied.
So I complained to my family systems coach about my daughter’s apparent rejection of me. What I wanted was for the coach to take my side – to understand how ungrateful my daughter was, and perhaps to give me pointers on how to win back her allegiance and get the other mom to “butt out.”
Lucky for me, my coach didn’t get caught in that triangle; she taught me instead how triangles work. I came to see that my daughter, on the cusp of adolescence and greater independence, was likely feeling tension in our close relationship. What better way for her to escape that tension than to latch onto another relationship, especially one that cast my fitness as a mom in doubt?
Counseled by my coach, I tentatively experimented with encouraging the togetherness of the other two in this triangle. I learned to say counterintuitive things to my daughter like, “Of course you can go to see Best Friend’s Mom (BFM). How lovely that you have such an understanding woman to talk with, who is not your mother!”
Gingerly, I also tested out the systems view that I could disrupt the flow of anxiety around the triangle by forming a one-on-one relationship with each of the other two persons. Mustering my courage, I invited BFM to lunch. I think we were both surprised to hear me tell her, “My daughter admires you so much – she’s fortunate to have a positive female role model outside our family.”
My daughter and BFM both softened their attitudes toward me through this process, but the biggest change was in me. I realized my daughter’s adolescence would be smoother if I let go of jealous reactivity to her (developmentally appropriate!) moves away from our closeknit bond.
There were other mother-daughter triangles to negotiate as the years rolled by; they stymied me less. My work with therapy clients also improved as I was able to take the stance my coach had taken with me – present and available, but not siding with the client against an absent other, and thus not forming a triangle that could both mask and maintain the tension in the client’s relationship with that other.
Why this treatise on triangles? Well…there’s an upcoming WPFC conference that highlights triangles, and I know how useful learning about them has been to my life and work.
If I’ve whetted your appetite to learn more, there’s a great opportunity in WPFC’s annual Fall Conference and Symposium on October 14-15! The theme of this online event is “Understanding and Working with Triangles: A Challenge in Applying Family Systems Theory.” Registration is now open at https://www.wpfc.net/event/annual-fall-conference/.
Keynote presenter this year is Laurie Lassiter PhD, clinician and author of the article, “The Regulatory Function of the Triangle” in Peter Titelman’s book on Triangles. Dr. Lassiter has been a frequent presenter at Bowen Center Symposia and other conferences. In two separate presentations, she’ll address the effort to be more regulated by self, and less by the automatic emotional pressures of the triangle.
Triangles and the other concepts of Bowen theory show up in all walks of life. Business executives and consultants, religious and social service leaders, clinicians, educators, and oh yes! – family members – will find ideas presented at this conference stimulating and applicable to their varied settings.
WPFC founder Paulina McCullough first convened the Fall Conference and Symposium in the 1970’s, intending it as an annual forum for experts and earlier learners of Bowen theory to present their ideas and research.
Now it’s coming soon to a computer near you – hope to see you in one of those zoom rectangles!
Ann Depner, LCSW
WPFC Faculty Member
4 Replies to “How to Thrive on the Outside of a Triangle, and Other Benefits of Attending WPFC’s 43rd Conference and Symposium”
I appreciate your description of learning to respond differently as an outsider in a triangle and what a valuable lesson it has been for you in your personal and professional life. It is useful for me to hear how other people apply concepts from Family Systems Theory in their own lives.
Thanks, Wendy. I’ve also found it helpful to hear how others have worked with family systems concepts in their own lives. My own first coach, Marilyn Barton, was a master of telling stories of how she and others had done so. I understand Murray Bowen did the same thing, calling them “displacement stories.”
Ms. Depner, you have offered a personal example of the benefits of living beyond one’s own reactivity. Life is richer. Never thought of this before, but a byproduct of detriangling is it makes one a more interesting person. Thank you. I look forward to the conference.
Thanks for your observation, Ms. Rakow! I also hadn’t considered before that life becomes richer when living beyond one’s reactivity, and that the process of detriangling can imprint a more interesting quality to a person. I too look forward to the conference.