There are no two-person arguments in a family. In a family, conflict always breaks down into a three-person triangle.
Bowen Center: “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. Spreading the tension can stabilize a system, but nothing is resolved.”
Bowen Center: Triangles
There are no two-person arguments in a family. Either they break down into a coalition of the parents against the child (called the “identified patient”), or into a coalition of a parent with the child against the other parent (called a “cross-generational coalition”).
Salvador Minuchin, the founder of the Structural school of family systems therapy has a Structural family diagram depicting a cross-generational coalition of a father and son against the mother, resulting in an “emotional cutoff” (Bowen) in the child’s relationship with the mother.
Cloe Madanes, the co-founder of the Strategic school of family systems therapy, describes the cross-generational coalition in her 2018 book, Changing Relationships.
From Madanes: “In most organizations, families, and relationships, there is hierarchy: one person has more power and responsibility than another. Whenever there is hierarchy, there is the possibility of cross-generational coalitions. The husband and wife may argue over how the wife spends money. At a certain point, the wife might enlist the older son into a coalition against the husband. Mother and son may talk disparagingly about the father and to the father, and secretly plot about how to influence or deceive him. The wife’s coalition with the son gives her power in relation to the husband and limits the husband’s power over how she spends money. The wife now has an ally in her battle with her husband, and the husband now runs the risk of alienating his son.”
From Madanes: “Such a cross-generational coalition can stabilize a marriage, but it creates a triangle that weakens the position of both husband and wife. Now the son has the source of power over both of them. Cross-generational coalitions take different forms in different families (Madanes, 2009). The grandparent may side the grandchild against a parent. An aunt might side with the niece against her father. A husband might join his father against the wife.
From Madanes: “These alliances are most often covert and are rarely expressed verbally. They involve painful conflicts that can continue for years. Sometimes cross-generational coalitions are overt. A wife might confide her marital problems to her child and in this way antagonize the child against the father. Parents may criticize a grandparent and create a conflict in the child who loves both the grandparent and the parents. This child may feel conflicted as a result, suffering because his or her loyalties are divided.”
Jay-Haley, the other co-founder of Strategic family systems therapy provides the professional definition of a cross-generational coalition.
From Haley: “The people responding to each other in the triangle are not peers, but one of them is of a different generation from the other two… In the process of their interaction together, the person of one generation forms a coalition with the person of the other generation against his peer. By ‘coalition’ is meant a process of joint action which is against the third person… The coalition between the two persons is denied. That is, there is certain behavior which indicates a coalition which, when it is queried, will be denied as a coalition… In essence, the perverse triangle is one in which the separation of generations is breached in a covert way. When this occurs as a repetitive pattern, the system will be pathological.” (Haley, 1977, p. 37)
Notice Haley calls the cross-generational coalition a “perverse triangle.”
These are the top people in family systems therapy – Bowen – Minuchin – Madanes – Haley.
Do you think family systems therapy would be relevant to apply to family conflict in the courts?
Do they apply family systems constructs and principles to their work with family conflict in the courts?
Is that unethical practice in violation of Standard 2.04 Bases for Scientific and Professional Judgments that requires – mandatory – that psychologists apply the “established scientific and professional knowledge of the disciple” as the bases for their professional judgments?
Do they even know family systems constructs and principles when assessing and treating family conflicts?
Are they in violation of Standard 2.01 of the APA ethics code for practicing beyond the boundaries of their competence?
Do the licensing boards care that they are in violation of Standards 2.04 and 2.01 of the APA ethics code?
I don’t know. Someone should ask them and find out why they don’t enforce ethical standards of practice in the family courts.
Don’t you deserve to have ethical and competent psychologists treating you and your children?
Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, CA PSY 18857