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).