One of Bowen’s observations took centre stage in his understanding of humans as fundamentally systemic in nature. He watched the ever-present shifting of anxiety and roles within the basic unit of parents and children (and other social groupings). A major mechanism for shifting, fueling or calming that anxiety he called ‘triangles’.
Dr. Bowen described a two person unit (A/B) as unstable. Two individuals have more or less difficulty being with one another and each keeping their focus on their own thoughts, feelings, behavioural choices. The first one to become anxious in this togetherness (A) will shift the focus onto someone else (D). The third person drawn in (literally or figuratively) serves to ease tension between A + B. One triangling pattern is for A to relieve the tension with B by seeking a new and more secure, inside position with D. If D responds to this overture, then A and D form the new inside and the tension shifts from A/B to B/D.
Another pattern is that A+B can deny the unresolved tension in their relationship and begin to focus on D as the ‘problem’ or the ‘enemy’ . They then form a more secure inside position with one another by having a common issue with D. Thus the tension between A+B lowers and the tension/stress builds in D as she/he is focused on as the problem.