The Bowen Family Systems Theory concept of Emotional Triangles was illustrated in a recent T.V. interview with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
Reporter Steve Kroft interviewed Clinton and Obama. They answered his questions about how they resolved their differences after the contentious 2008 election. Both acknowledged that their staffs and their spouses had more difficulty forgiving and forgetting than they did:
Steve Kroft: But how long did it take you to get over that? And when did it happen?
President Obama: You know, the– it didn’t take as long as I think people would perceive it. As I said, once the primary was over, Hillary worked very hard for me. Bill worked very hard for me… I think it was harder for the staffs, which is understandable. Because, you know, they get invested in this stuff in ways that I think the candidates maybe don’t.
Steve Kroft: You said the staff took a little longer to ignore, to forget the campaign stuff. What about the spouses? Is that an impertinent question?
Secretary Clinton: What I was going to say, Steve, is having been a spouse, having been a candidate, I think spouses take it much harder…when the shoes were on the other feet, all of a sudden, you know, this calm, cool guy (Bill Clinton) who never was upset by anything is all of a sudden watching me.
According to Bowen Family Systems Theory:
“A triangle is a three-person relationship system. It is considered the building block or ‘molecule’ of larger emotional systems because a triangle is the smallest stable relationship system. A two-person system is unstable because it tolerates little tension before involving a third person. A triangle can contain much more tension without involving another person because the tension can shift around three relationships. If the tension is too high for one triangle to contain, it spreads to a series of ‘interlocking’ triangles.” http://www.thebowencenter.org/pages/concepttri.html
The Obama/Clinton 60 minutes discussion alludes to multiple interlocking triangles between Barack, Hillary, their spouses and their staff members.
In any emotional triangle, at any given time, two participants will occupy “inside” positions and one will occupy the “outside” position.
When conflict (anxiety) is low, an inside position is preferred. An outsider will feel uncomfortable and try to replace one of the insiders.
When conflict is high, an outside position is preferred. One or both insiders will try to “pull in” an outsider to take an inside position. The insider can then move to the less stressful outside position.
One can imagine what might have happened after one of the presidential debates:
Hillary left the stage, exhausted and aggravated. She vented to her staff about that upstart, Barack Obama. Later, she went home and complained to Bill. He didn’t sleep that night because he was so worried about the tight race and his wife’s chances. Barack did essentially the same thing with Michelle and his staff. Everyone was all worked up.
Hillary and Barack could not “hold” the high level of tension between them. Therefore, multiple triangles were created.
The higher the tension or stress level grows, the more visible the triangles become.
One could say that the entire American public was triangled into the Obama/Clinton conflict!
Once the campaign was over, Obama and Clinton were more available to work cooperatively. They’d “transferred” the conflict to their staffs and spouses who weren’t so quick to forgive and forget.
Emotional triangles exist in all relationships. When awareness is heightened they can be seen absolutely everywhere.
(Go to http://www.thebowencenter.org/pages/conceptds.html for more about the Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory)