Relational System

RICHARD MORRISON Principal of Relational Coaching

My dictionary tells me that a ‘system’ is – a group of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent elements forming a complex whole. It might be possible for a system to be comprised of only two elements, but I doubt if it would be a very beneficial or productive system. In my mind, a system with only two elements is ‘too simple’ to be useful, out of touch with the complexities of our world.

Paradoxically, my initial reaction when it comes to ‘relationships’ is the reverse. I think about my relationship with you, or him, or her in more simplistic terms – as ‘one on one’. For example, when there is tension with the boss, it is the boss that I am angry with… he’s the cause of my angst! I often loose sight of the fact that every ‘one on one’ relationship exists in a large, complex system of relationships. So the concept of ‘one on one’ in relationships is an illusion – even the romantic couple engrossed in each other’s company bring to the table the memory and the influence of a whole host of others.

In the last twenty years Western society has become much more interested in complex systems and more accomplished at understanding them (if not always changing them). Over this time, there have been many innovations in this area – for example: non-linear mathematics of ‘chaos’ theory, ‘fuzzy logic’ control systems and qualitative research methodologies. These have helped us keep sight of interacting, interrelated and interdependent elements in complex wholes. Murray Bowen MD (1913-1990), is credited with development of much of our contemporary understanding of interpersonal relationship systems.

Two useful insights derived from thinking about relationships in system terms are Homeostasis and Triangulation.

Homeostasis – is the tendency for all relationship systems is to move to, and remain in, equilibrium. Whenever a new element is introduced to the complex relational system (say a new manager in the workplace) the system (rest of the company) will realign itself so as to accommodate the element with a minimum of disturbance (business as usual). The effects of this phenomenon may be beneficial or malignant. A benefit may be that it disarms a maverick manager. Conversely however, it may frustrate and subvert new management ideas and processes.

The mechanisms by which the system may achieve equilibrium vary from system to system. In a large system, the impact of new elements may simply be diluted. For example, if there are many ‘other’ managers using old processes, any new processes that are introduced may be quickly watered down – the system has maintained its equilibrium by neutralising the ‘new’ element. In systems that are overburdened the introduction of new elements may be met with a reduction in the efficiency of other sections. For example, a new position of quality manager is created to boost efficiency and a week later the production manager has a heart attack – this system has recovered its equilibrium by the ‘failure’ of an existing element. In both of these examples, the net effect of change on the system is nil – each system has found mechanisms by which to move to, or remain in, equilibrium.

Bowen suggested that “anxiety” was the underlying cause for the tendency of systems to maintain their equilibrium. As an illustration, the ‘other’ managers (we referred to earlier) are uncertain about the impact on them of the new manager and her new processes – they consciously or otherwise begin to tutor, block, distract and blame her in ways that minimise their own uncertainty. The old observation that fear paralyses appears to hold true in complex relationship systems.

It follows, that the way to overcome homeostasis is to reduce the amount of anxiety in the system. Naming such anxiety, putting it on the table for discussion, addressing it directly is a powerful mechanism for helping systems move beyond their current stasis. (And yes, naming anxiety in an anxious system may itself be the cause of more anxiety, but naming that too – even at the personal level, is frequently met with sighs of relief around the table and a new openness to possibilities).

Triangulation – the basic unit of the relationship system is the triangle. The triangles in relational systems consist of three elements. These may consist of individuals or of a mix of individuals and groups, ideas, memories, values, and so on. The first element in the triangle is you. The second element is the ‘other’ member(s) of the group, and the third element in the triangle may comprise of individuals, groups, ideas, memories, or values. These elements are not independent, each element will inevitably impact on your perception of, and relationship with, the other element.

For example, at the moment, you and I are in a relationship system that also includes a third element – the idea of “relational systems”. This may be impacting your perception of me (as the second element). If you have read this far you are probably thinking something like, “this (relational systems idea) is interesting,” or “I could use this (set of ideas).” Such thoughts are probably influencing what you think of me. You may be thinking that “he must be interesting,” or “he might be useful.” Likewise, who I am influences your attitude towards the idea of relational systems. You may be saying, “I can’t see what he is getting at,” or “he makes it sound too simple”. In other words, who I am has obscured your view of the third element in our relational triangle.

In any relationship system there is always more than one triangle. I have already highlighted our, “you – me – idea of relational systems” triangle. But as you read these words there is also a, “you – me – written expression” triangle, and there may be other triangles that include you and me and such other elements as – the editor of this newsletter, what I think of people who read articles like this, what you think of systems, who recommended you read this article, and so on. Mapping these triangles is a great way to bring clarity to our understanding of a relationship system.

Triangles are rarely (if ever) a meeting of equals. It is in the nature of relationship triangles for alignment (or alliances) to occur – two against one. In healthy triangles, the alignments move among the elements of the system. For example, at one time Jill will be taking the lead with Jack and John supporting, then at another John will lead while Jack and Jill fetch. As the anxiety of the system increases, alignments and alliances will be formed to maintain the equilibrium of the system. If John wants to install rainwater tanks, Jack and Jill will start going to the well together to reinforce each other in the old way of getting water. John becomes an outsider and before long Jack and Jill have founded the society for the preservation of wells (another triangle).

An interesting (although not always ethical) application of this aspect of triangles is that two relational elements in conflict can often be brought closer together by identifying a third more distant element which is seen as a common enemy (Jack & Jill need to work with John because the utility company – third element/common enemy – is about to lay pipes in the street).

De-triangling from unhealthy systems can be achieved by a process of awareness: becoming aware of the extent of the triangulation, naming the elements of the various triangles, and a measured repositioning of self in the system. This repositioning of self is critical. If your position in the triangle is as an outsider, you may be tempted fight back or simply to cut off or flee from the triangle. In fighting back, the distance between yourself and the other two elements is increased together with its destructive power. On the other hand, if John says, “Who needs Jack and Jill anyway!” or more dangerously, “Who needs water!” and attempts to cut off from the system he damages the system and himself. Such cut offs always leave collateral damage and unresolved issues.

The measured repositioning of self in a relationship system reflects the simple fact that we are the only ones we can change. As a member of a triangle, I am responsible for my element in the triangle/s. If I change then I can invite others to join me in that change – but I cannot force change on others (because they will triangle against me). This repositioning of my self must be carried out in an anxiety reducing way. It is what Bowen called ‘differentiation’, the ability to say. “This is what I am, I respect and remain connected to you, but I am not what your triangling is pushing me to become.” This is not the position of the egotist who simply asserts himself and cuts off all others, nor is it the position of the whimp who covertly conspires against himself and his system by accepting whatever the triangle/s hand out.

Bowen’s observation of homeostasis and triangulation (and his other systems oriented insights) first occurred in the context of the family relationship system. My experience is that their application to a wide variety of human interactions is equally valid. They are neither too simple to be believed, nor too complex to be implemented. While they are not the only perspectives we may bring to understanding relationships, they certainly add depth and clarity to what we see.

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