These two little words are what family therapy pioneer Murray Bowen devoted much of his time to understanding. His research and work in the 1950s helped move therapy away from focusing strictly on the individual to considering the interconnected nature of the family system. As we continue to navigate staying at home and reintegration into society these two words have new significance in our lives.
In light of the forced togetherness we have experienced during the pandemic it seems relevant to discuss healthy ways to find a balance between these two counterforces. For the introverts out there, the current state of being may feel good as you thrive with less commitments to attend social gatherings, or interact with people. And for those who consider themselves extroverted, this situation has been less than ideal for filling your need for social connection at area hotspots or hanging out with friends.
Regardless of where you land on the extrovert-introvert continuum one thing is certain, as we have quarantined with our family members, or roommates we have run into some interpersonal challenges as we try to coexist peacefully under one roof.
Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing some of the concepts that are part of the Bowen Family Systems Theory. Murray Bowen’s theory has shaped the systems thinking of many therapists, including my own, over the years. His theory, when applied within a family system context, has helped individuals, couples, and families learn healthy ways of relating to one another with the added benefit of decreasing anxiety within the individual and family system.
The first concept I would like to present to you is the emotional triangle. In an emotional triangle you have two people in conflict with one another. As anxiety increases within the dyad a third person is pulled into the situation to provide sympathy or to win them over to your side. This person could be a friend, co-worker, or family member. In families with children it is often a child that occupies this role. The child serves as a buffer. What this arrangement resolves on the surface, in reality, allows the parents to ignore their own relationship tension by diverting it elsewhere. This places undue pressure on the child by pulling the child into a position that can jeopardize the child’s autonomy, thereby increasing anxiety, and decreasing independence.
Awareness is where change begins. As you become aware of emotional triangles in your life consider the following suggestions to decrease the anxiety created by them:
- Own the part that you bring to any conflict you are experiencing with a family member, friend, co-worker, or roommate. By keeping the conversation between the two caught in conflict and not diverting the tension onto another you can significantly change the negative cycle.
- Take a personal stance by saying what you are feeling rather than focusing on what others are doing. When you do this, you decrease emotional reactivity. For example, when you are seeking the attention of a significant other yet feel ignored or overlooked by them, you might say “I wish you would spend more time with me” rather than “you’re always putting the needs of others ahead of my needs.”
- Make things less personal, by sharing what you feel objectively. When you do so, anxiety decreases and you can think more clearly. When you are thinking more clearly you will be more aware of the options that are available to you for resolving conflict.
As you incorporate these suggestions into your relationships, be patient with the process. Change does not happen overnight, but in time, when applied with care and concern for the relationship, you will create new and meaningful ways of relating to others.
Next time, I will discuss the multi-generational transmission process. A concept that will help you understand the role your family of origin played in shaping your ability to relate to others. If you are interested in reading more about Bowen Family Systems Theory, or emotional triangles click here. If you are feeling stuck in negative patterns of relating to your spouse, co-workers, or within your family of origin, contact me to learn more about how family systems theory can help you improve the interpersonal relationships in your life.