“You should,” Part 3 (Emotional Triangles)

You indeed could! Or not.
You indeed could! Or not.

This is the third of four posts on the nature and management of shoulds.

From Ed Friedman I also learned of the incredible importance of emotional triangles — the laws of relationships; this information changed my life. Essentially, shoulds invest energy in the third limb of the triangle, an investment that is generally dysfunctional (unless other people want the investment).

For those who are unfamiliar with my work, an emotional triangle is the triangular relationship between any two people and a third person or issue, e.g., me and you, me and an issue (or person), you and the same issue. Since there are many people in my life, and many issues (sometimes many issues with the same person), there are many (thousands) of emotional triangles in my life (and in the life of every person). I do not live in isolation, and I am always subject to the influence of these triangles! It is the system within which I live, and systems are designed to remain the same — shoulds are one of the ways in which this occurs.


It is also important to recognize emotional triangles can also exist (and frequently do) between the sailors within me. These internal triangles have the same rules, but are not as apparent usually. Management is also the same.

There are three laws associated with emotional triangles, with corollaries, applicable to every triangle. Imagine you and I and an issue (a sample triangle — the laws are the same for every triangle).

  1. I can only change myself. I can change my relationship with you, I can change my relationship with the issue, but I cannot change you and your relationship to the issue. This latter is called my third limb, the limb to which I do not belong; it is a relative term in that your third limb is the relationship between me and the issue. But what happens if I am anxious about you and your relationship, my third limb? These are the corollaries.
    1. When I attempt to change my third limb, the results of my efforts are not predictable. In spite of how much I think I know you, you are not predictable. You will only change when you want to do so, not when I want you to do so (these might be the same, but often not). Much of human activity involves investment in the third limb, but is cooperative and seems as though it is predictable. For example, in work environments, the boss is invariably seeking to change the third limb — but here, the employee is willing to cooperate so as to get paid!
    2. What is predictable is that, when you don’t want to change, the more I insist that you change, the more I will get the opposite of what I want. You will resist me.
    3. Under these circumstances, any pain in the triangle between us will move in my direction. Needless to say, not a recipe for success.
  2. If I change, you must change. We are connected! But, under these circumstances, you may be anxious about my changes. This will be especially true if my change is significant to the system in which I live. Corollaries:
    1. Suppose you are anxious about my change. In your anxiety, you will attempt to change your third limb, me and my relationship to the issue. This is called sabotage. It will occur, and in fact, I can know that my change is effective by the degree to which sabotage occurs. I generally tell people that changing myself is only 30% of the work of change; dealing with the sabotage is 70% of the work.
    2. Sabotage will occur even when my change is ultimately healthy for the system. Expect it; be prepared for it! Systems strive to remain stable, and therefore resist change.
  3. Change requires that I stay connected. Corollary:
    1. It takes about three months for change to work its way through the system. Rats — I have to stay and deal with the sabotage. It would be so nice if I could leave and come back when the change is complete. Tough!

As simple as these laws are, they are incredibly subtle in their usage. They also provide an active way by which to live the Serenity Prayer. The third limb refers to what I cannot change, the second law to what I can, and the boundary to the difference between these two areas. I first learned of the Serenity Prayer when I was 30; I did not learn how to use it until I learned of Emotional Triangles.


A major aspect of the management of shoulds is, thus, to really grasp the significance of these laws.

Originally posted to Facebook 20160611

To be continued.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s