Summary of Edwin Friedman’s ‘A Failure of Nerve’: Part 6

Other Posts in Series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4, Part 5

Emotional Triangles

An ‘emotional triangle’ refers to ‘the manner in which the relationship between any two people, or a given individual and his or her symptoms, can be a function of an often unseen third person, relationship, or issue between them’ (205). Indeed, there ‘may be no such thing as a two-person relationship.’ Emotional triangles are the building blocks of relationship systems and ‘function predictably, irrespective of the gender, class, race, culture, background, or psychological profile of the people involved, and also irrespective of the relational context, family or business, the kind of business, or the nature or severity of the problem.’

Emotional triangles follow a few straightforward rules:

  • They form out of people’s discomfort with each other.
  • They are self-preserving and resist all attempts to change them.
  • They interlock with and reinforce other emotional triangles.
  • They make it hard for people to alter their patterns of thought and behaviour.
  • ‘They transmit a system’s stress to its most responsible or most focused member’ (206).

Once we understand the logic of emotional triangles, we will have a means by which to make emotional processes more directly observable. These emotional triangles support the claim that one’s position rather than one’s nature is the most determinative factor within a relational system. They also help to explain why self-differentiation can be so effective.

‘Almost every issue of leadership and the difficulties that accompany it can be framed in terms of emotional triangles, including motivation, clarity, decision-making, resistance to change, imaginative gridlock, and a failure of nerve.’ As leaders learn to recognize and analyse triangles, they will be better able to understand the connections between people and issues and the precise structure of difficulties, and be better equipped to overcome them.

Friedman gives dozens of examples of possible emotional triangles. Within the family it could involve the spouses and any third person (child, lover, relative, in-law, boss, friend, etc., etc.), or the spouses and a symptom (drinking, smoking, health, job, spending, gambling, etc.), or the parent, child, and a third party (teacher, sibling, grandparent, friend, etc.), or the parent and their child and their behaviour. Emotional triangles can also exist in workplaces and in any other relational context.

The Laws of Emotional Triangles

How they form

Emotional triangles form ‘because of the inherent instability of two-person relationships’ (209). Between partners with a lack of differentiation, no clear leadership, and in a context of anxiety, it won’t be long until a third person or issue becomes their focus. A and B, by triangling a third party, C, into their relationship (by a shared hatred or support for), or out of their relationship (through secrets and exclusion), grants stability to the relationship between A and B, who can now organize their relationship in terms of that third axis.

In the context of adultery, the triangle is formed, not primarily by the sex, but by the secrecy. Within a family, the most common emotional triangle involves two parents and a child. A single child is almost invariably in such an emotional triangle. Such an emotionally triangled child will often tend to either extreme achievement or dysfunction. Trying to help such a child to overcome their dysfunction without addressing the triangle itself is generally futile. The only way that such a situation can usually be addressed is by one parent taking the lead ‘against the resistance of the other’ (210). Understanding the logic of emotional triangles can help us to understand why children in the same family can grow up so differently.

Emotional triangles also exist in society. Friedman illustrates this in terms of race relations in America: ‘from the beginning the black population of America has served as a displacement focus for the problems of whites with one another, particularly the normal differences between classes’ (211). He suggests that this displacement focus is one reason why America has never experienced the intensity of class struggles that one finds in other nations (it might also suggest that, as race issues are addressed, a greater class struggle would emerge). Emotional triangles help to form alliances and are often shrewdly employed by weaker parties.

How they operate

‘Once formed, emotional triangles (1) are self-organizing; (2) are perpetuated by distance; and (3) tend to be perverse’ (213). Emotional triangles are self-organizing in the sense that they establish stability in relationships that would otherwise be unstable. When one of the axes is removed or significantly changed, the relationship becomes unstable again. The emotional triangle tends to resist such change. In most triangles one side is more conflictual. However, if that relationship is calmed, trouble will tend to emerge in one of the other sides.

Friedman argues that most in-law struggles involve displacement issues with, for instance, the daughter-in-law displacing issues with her own mother, and the mother-in-law displacing issues from her marriage. Such struggles can be seemingly magically transformed when the daughter-in-law works on her relationship with her mother, or on her relationship with her own daughter.

Emotional triangles are perpetuated by distance. ‘Distance’ can involve secrets and gossip that keep people in the dark, or criticism in the form of ‘you statements’, which pushes people away. It could also involve excessive levels of privacy. If a leader wants to succeed in a context, it is important to close these distances. When these distances are closed, polarization is less likely to occur.

Emotional triangles are perverse. The more that one of the parties in an emotional triangle works to change the relationship between the other two, the more likely that their relationship will become even stronger. Understanding this helps us to account for the failure of many attempts at coercion and therapy, and also for why the presence of a leader can be so effective.

The general rule is this: One can only change a relationship of which one is directly a part. For example, if a child gets in trouble with teachers or friends because of particular behavior patterns, a parent will not be successful in trying to modify those patterns. The very act of making the attempt creates a stabilizing triangle that makes change impossible. (215)

Interlocking Emotional Triangles

Different emotional triangles can share sides. These interlocking triangles can form vast structures in society, families, institutions, and other relational systems. ‘The side that is shared by two triangles is the key to the transmission of emotional processes from one triangle to another’ (217).

Triangles can be with the past. For instance, the way that our parents related to certain aspects of our behaviour can shape the way that we relate to our children’s behaviour. We might need to revisit that old triangle in order to address the problems in the new one. Interlocking triangles are especially obvious in blended families. ‘[T]he guaranteed way to break up the marriage is for either partner to try to rearrange the partner’s established relationships with his or her children.’

Friedman sees a further example of a common interlocking triangle in that between an entrepreneur’s relationship to his business and its problems and his position as a ‘standard bearer’ of his family of origin, with a mandate to achieve (219).

Stress in Emotional Triangles

There is an inverse relationship between effective leadership and stress: ‘the type of leadership which creates the least stress also happens to be the type of leadership that is most effective.’ To the extent that you become ‘enmeshed’ in the relationship that exists between two other persons (either as you take responsibility for it, or as they triangle you out), ‘you will wind up with the stress for their relationship’ (220).

Stress is not just about hard work, but is about the place that we occupy in emotional triangles. ‘[T]he same amount of hard work will be more or less stressful depending on the position from which one approaches or becomes involved with work.’ The stress that leaders experience primarily arises from the manner in which they come to occupy a position of responsibility for the relationships of other parties. These other parties ‘could be two persons … or any person or system plus a problem or goal.’ ‘The way out is to make the two persons responsible for their own relationship, or the other person responsible for his or her problem, while all still remain connected.’ This last part is crucial: one stays in the triangle, but one does not allow oneself to become triangled. This is very different from quitting, abdicating, or resigning.

Stress has a toll on our bodies. Each one of us is in a triangle between our bodies and our minds. The challenge that we face is that of putting them together ‘through the integrating effects of self-differentiation’ (221). Symptoms of stress and burnout can be mental or physical depending in part on the way that we negotiate this triangle, something that can depend on our genes, family background, etc. Leaders are most likely to suffer the effects of stress if they have failed in the task of self-differentiation.

Leaders who feel responsible for holding an entire system together are most vulnerable to the harmful effects of stress. Emotional triangles are very effective at channelling stress toward a single individual. The ‘togetherness position’ can be lethal to the leader who allows him or herself to be triangled. Leaders should learn to treat their physical, mental, and behavioural symptoms ‘as early warning signs that they are in an emotional triangle that is pulling, if not tearing, them apart’ (223). These symptoms can function as a sort of feedback from the environment and, rather than trying to ignore and battle through them, leaders should see them as signs that they are approaching things in the wrong manner. Such symptoms, if we attend to them, can help us to become more effective leaders.

Crisis and Sabotage

While the experienced sailor appreciates that engaging in a battle of wills with the forces of wind, tide, and sea is generally futile and that it is far more effective to position oneself in relation to these forces so that their natural operations enable you to achieve your purpose, most leaders believe that, if they just have enough will, they can overcome all of the forces that operate against them. At the heart of virtually every deeply disturbed or failing relationship system is a conflict of will. When leaders are experiencing little or no success, it is almost certain that they are swimming against a tide.

The key dimension of positioning oneself so as to take advantage of the forces at work in such a context is to be found in the leader’s self-differentiation, ‘his or her capacity to be a non-anxious presence, a challenging presence, a well-defined presence, and a paradoxical presence’ (230). Even when leaders have great power invested in them by virtue of their office, the true strength of the leader is ultimately rooted in the ‘nature of their presence’ (231).

Friedman contrasts poorly differentiated with well-differentiated leadership. Well-differentiated leadership focuses on strength rather than pathology, is concerned with its own growth rather than being obsessed with technique, and works with motivated people rather than symptomatic people. Well-differentiated leadership seeks to mature the system, rather than ‘better the condition’ and enduring change, rather than mere relief of symptoms. It is avoids the treadmill of just trying harder and focuses on its own issues, rather than on diagnosing others. It is not put off by reactivity, but recognizes that ‘reactivity and sabotage are evidence of one’s effectiveness.’ It has a wide and non-reductionist perspective (for instance, seeking understanding in relational systems, rather than in the individual psychology of system members). It recognizes that ‘problems’ are generally the symptoms of anxiety rather than the cause. It adapts towards strength, rather than towards weakness. Instead of seeking empathy with ‘helpless victims’, it has a challenging approach designed to produce responsibility in others. It is more likely to create intimate relationships, rather than dependent relationships.

In sum, the well-differentiated leader modifies the relationships by which he or she is surrounded ‘through its presence rather than its forcefulness’ (232). Our full appreciation of this fact entails a conceptual leap from action-oriented understandings of leadership to presence-oriented understandings. Friedman compares the well-differentiated leader to a step-down transformer which functions to decrease anxiety levels ‘in such a way that you let the current go through you without zapping you or fusing you to the rest of the circuit.’

This is not a matter of “breaking a circuit”; it requires staying in touch without getting “zapped.” Anyone can remain non-anxious if they also try to be non-present. The trick is to be both non-anxious and present simultaneously. (233)

Leadership is not an easy task. It can involve the pain of isolation, of the losing of friends, and of suffering personal attacks.

Friedman’s Own Experience

Friedman relates all of this to his personal experience as a patient facing surgery. He observes the way in which he had to manage information, and the fact that information and expertise ‘does not take the place of making decisions’ (239). Important as being informed is, it should not be overrated.

Experts are also often unclear in their communication of the exact character of the information that they have: is it a fact, a hypothesis, or a finding based merely on one particular research method? Are prognoses based upon on a person’s condition, or on statistical averages, without full account being taken of a person’s capacity for self-differentiating response?

There comes a point where you have to decide that you have enough information, and you need to be decisive. Friedman’s approach was to stop when the same question asked to various experts on several occasions produced no new information. He approached the physicians as if they were his cabinet and he was the president. The cabinet members have far more specialized knowledge and the president needs to consult them, but ultimately the president is the one elected to be responsibility for the territory (241).

He also points to the importance of physicians’ own relational networks with him and with each other. When physicians fail their patients there is frequently some relational problem in some other area of their lives.

Managing anxiety and managing one’s own self overlap. It is important to keep our presence ‘loose’, so that we can be present in triangles, without getting locked into them. As Friedman observed earlier in the book, reactive societies take everything in deathly seriousness. Injecting light humour into situations is an important way in which things can be kept loose.

He articulates a number of principles that are important in times of crisis. We must keep up our functioning, refusing to ‘let crisis become the axis around which your world revolves’ (245). We need a wide support system, to stay focused on long-term goals, to practice means of calming, and to listen to our bodies. We need to be attentive to triangles and keep everything loose with humour. We also need to recognize the possibility that the crisis may have been occasioned by our own prior forms of functioning, and seek to address and change these.

In crisis situations, leaders must maintain a balance between different poles of behaviour (e.g. leaning on others/staying accountable, getting information/being decisive, appreciating loneliness/not cutting off), going different ways as the situation demands, but without ‘triggering a counterbalancing reaction’ (246).


Crisis can also result in a manner that is ‘precipitated by the leader’s own leadership’. Such a crisis ‘is not due to failure or incompetence but to his or her success at self-differentiation.’ Self-differentiation triggers reactivity, and the way that leaders respond to this is a ‘make or break’ moment, ‘part and parcel of the leadership process itself’ (247).

‘Self-differentiation always triggers sabotage.’ It is in the face of sabotage that leaders are tempted to unwork their differentiation and adapt to the dysfunctionality of the system again. Sabotage is unavoidable in the process of effective leadership. ‘It is only after having first brought about a change and then subsequently endured the resultant sabotage that the leader can feel truly successful.’

The Presence of the Past

While most approaches to understanding relationship appreciate the importance of the past, most think of the past’s relationship to the presence as akin to the collision of billiard balls, and only focus on the impact of the immediately previous generation. Friedman argues that ‘the nature of connections in the present can have more to do with what has been transmitted successively for many generations than with the logic of their contemporary relationship’ (249). In seeking to change the way that a family, organization, or institution operates, structural changes alone will prove insufficient, unless they are ‘accompanied by changes in an institution’s multigenerational emotional processes.’

Friedman gives the example of churches that have the reputation for being ‘pills’ and others that have the reputation for being ‘plums’. While ‘plums’ often only have only ‘three or four clergy in a century … pills spit them out after a few years’ (250). ‘Pills’ can make new leaders look very ineffective, while ‘plums’ can make them appear highly effective, as they benefit from the ‘effective functioning of the congregation’ (251). Without well-differentiated leadership the character of such institutions will not change, generation after generation. The leader who understands this can be effective in situations where others may not be.


First, it would be interesting to explore the relationship between emotional triangles and church unity (and further to relate this to Girardian scapegoat mechanisms). How often does the unity of churches depend upon ‘triangling’, which channels the stress of the system onto particular persons (e.g. pastors, older faithful members, especially single people who lack a partner to help them in their differentiation)? Alternatively, how often is church unity achieved through the systematic exclusion or isolation of certain parties? When church unity breaks down, it can be worth exploring whether it was previously held together by such a perverse triangling unity, which has since been rendered inoperative.

Second, it seems to me that the relationship between sin and triangles could prove an immensely important and fruitful matter for study. If what Friedman has said about triangles is correct, then a direct attack upon the sins in our lives may prove ineffective. In fact, it may even strengthen them. Even if it does prove effective in eradicating a particular area of sin, problems are likely to emerge elsewhere. Sins are symptoms of broader relationship dysfunction (something which should equip us in understanding the concept of systemic evil). In order to tackle sin effectively, our focus should not really be on tackling sin directly, but on dealing with the dysfunctional relationships that it symptomizes.

Theologically, it might help to illuminate the problem of the Law, which can lead to us being in a perverse triangle with our sin and the Law. The more that we will to change, the more ineffective we can be. It is only through the work of Christ, who enters into this triangle and reconfigures it, and our relationship with sin and the Law, that sin no longer holds us in bondage. Christ enables us to self-differentiate from our sin and through free forgiveness heals the broken relationships that produce the anxiety that fuels our sin. I don’t know, perhaps there is something worth exploring here.

Third, it might be helpful to explore the gospel in terms of good humour, that which loosens the bonds of the destructive triangles that fetter us to dysfunctional behaviours and relationships. The gospel injects pure joy into the world, something that is alien to all reactive and triangled relationships, which are characterized by a grim seriousness (even in their supposed humour).

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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10 Responses to Summary of Edwin Friedman’s ‘A Failure of Nerve’: Part 6

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  7. Travis Beck says:

    For more on triangles and churches, check out Friedman’s classic book “Generation to Generation” and Peter Steinke’s “Healthy Congregations,” “How Your Church Family Works,” and “Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times.”

  8. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2011-2012 | Alastair's Adversaria

  9. I especially enjoyed your comments section. You ask interesting questions; it seems like we need a larger forum for this kind of thing. Is it because Friedman isn’t a Christian author that nobody seems interested in applying these principles to the Church? I think Paul touched on the topic of triangles.

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