The three body problem

By July 26, 2023Uncategorized

How does a Bowen theory perspective inform the “terror of threes?”

Three major nuclear powers instead of two. Apparently, this is a big problem. Why? According to physics, “the three-body problem” is almost impossible to solve. Thus the title of the New York Times article “The Terror of Threes.” But people aren’t planets, so could a human systems model provide some insight? I think it can.

The idea presented in the article is that if two people know they can obliterate each other, then they both know they absolutely can’t win a fight. In fact, they both know they will lose completely. So they work things out; it’s better than the obliteration option. But if a third party joins, what might happen? Could two obliterate one? Could one survive if the other two go at it? That’s what folks are worried about. Why do they think this is such a difficult problem? What does system thinking offer?

The three-body problem.

In many areas of nature, physics in particular, going from two to three creates great complexity because of the nature of systems. Predicting the final configuration when adding a third body is the “problem” because there is no formula to predict the outcome. For example, will three planets collapse into two, and the resulting two collapse into one? Will all three separate, resulting in no system? Or will the three develop into a stable configuration? The “problem” in going from two to three is that three *reciprocal* processes must be optimized simultaneously while constantly influencing each other. This three-body problem idea is being applied to nuclear powers. It concerns individuals since they can’t predict any outcomes. But that doesn’t mean one (or more) doesn’t exist.

People aren’t planets, and planets don’t have emotions.

What perspective does emotional systems thinking provide on this issue? Dr. Bowen posited that any two-person system is inherently unstable (e.g. person A and B), in that it is human nature to bring in a third person. For example, should tension arise between A and B, either could bring in C.  The third person, C, can help lower the tension, which is why A, B, or both will automatically seek C. Usually, this involves getting C to be an ally so that A or B feels less anxious. It is a natural process because the body knows it feels better. It occurs with other species as well. This A – B – C configuration is called a triangle in Bowen theory.

*One of the important concepts in this theoretical system has to do with “triangles.” I did not include it with the other concepts because it has more to do with therapy than the basic theory. The basic building block of any emotional system is the “triangle.” When emotional tension in a two-person system exceeds a certain level, it “triangles” a third person, permitting the tension to shift about within the triangle. (1)

Triangles are everywhere

In the realm of politics, triangles are going on all the time. Diplomats are experts at navigating multiple interlocking triangles. Triangles allow stress and reactivity to be managed better if the “third parties” can stay more neutral and less reactive (like a good diplomat). This can open up the lines of communication. It can help the two in disagreement to work things out.

Bowen wrote:  Any two in the original triangle can add a new triangle. An emotional system is composed of a series of interlocking triangles. The emotional tension system can shift to any of the old pre-established circuits. It is a clinical fact that the original two-person tension system will resolve itself automatically when contained within a three-person system, one of whom remains emotionally detached. This will be discussed under “detriangling the triangle.”

The NY Times article references this process as well:

‘Separately, each expert argued that keeping an uneasy peace among nuclear foes required them to talk, share concerns and take modest steps at confidence-building. “We have to keep the lines of communication open and interacting,” Dr. Deaile said.’

Differentiated leadership makes a difference.

Besides open communication, the other systems ideas to consider are a) leaders’ level of differentiation, b) their level of stressors, and c) influential triangles.

We can think of the level of differentiation in two ways. One is how well I can stick to my principles despite pressure from others to change while not impinging on others. Non-impingement is a key factor. Impinging or forcing my will on others is a sign of lower levels of differentiation and/or higher stress levels.

The second way to think about differentiation is how well I can distinguish feelings and subjective thinking from rational, objective thinking. Facts from fiction, opinions from the truth. A leader surrounded by “yes” individuals will have difficulty getting facts and thinking objectively.

A more differentiated leader recognizes subjectivity and reactivity, has less of it, and manages it better. It is easier to speak truth to power and to provide accurate feedback to a more differentiated leader. Less differentiated leaders don’t want to hear bad news and create a team of less differentiated people that will be afraid to express bad news. This can create a harmful and dysfunctional feedback system.

It’s already an N-body problem.

All leaders are susceptible to criticism and praise from other parties. Most leaders seek allies so they aren’t going it alone, so their power is secure. Triangles are everywhere. Depending on the level of differentiation, important triangles would have a greater influence on these leaders. For example, China’s influence on North Korea.

A less differentiated leader will make decisions influenced by anxiety and reactivity rather than by thoughtful, principled conviction. They will be far more likely to impinge on others to get their own way. This behaviour is predictable.

Level of differentiation is key.

So the problem with arms proliferation is also a problem of the leaders’ level of differentiation. The least differentiated are the most impinging and reactive. People don’t change unless they have to. While this can come from wanting to change, usually, the pain of continuing has to be greater than the pain of change. This applies to leaders. It’s the basis of nuclear deterrence.

Individuals can get better at thinking systems. Engaging in open dialogue, managing reactivity, defining self in a non-impinging manner, working to think less subjectively, and recognizing our interdependence are things anyone can work on. We could even elect leaders that exhibit these qualities. Now there’s an idea!

Predicting the configuration of a three-body system of leaders is challenging; however, a higher level of differentiation in leaders improves the chances of achieving a stable configuration.

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway

You can find the New York Times article here.

Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.

(1) I took the above quotes from Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, Jason Aronson, Inc. Kindle Edition.