You walk into a room. It’s filled with people you know. You make your way through. You overhear a friend praising President Trump. You voted for Clinton. What do you do? Well, if you're like a majority of Americans, you leave.
In a recent study by the Pew Research Center, people were asked how they would feel if they found out a friend supported Trump? A majority of liberals said their relationship with a friend who supported trump would be stressful and frustrating. Democrats are more likely to leave the room. You can read the study by clicking here. However, it’s more than just walking away or feeling stressed. Americans are polarized as a nation.
In nature, when groups of animals are afraid, they automatically respond by herding – getting closer together. Humans do the same thing, but it’s called, among other things, tribalism. When there is a perceived threat to the group, the group comes together to address the threat. This type of behavior has its roots in relationship triangles. As anxiety goes up, people realign their relationships in the triangles to address a perceived fear.
There are a few angles to a relationship triangle. One angle consists of two people tipping the scale from having a positive relationship valence to a negative one. It’s as if they become allergic to each other. One of them (and in some cases of both of them) find another person to have a positive relationship valence. The result is two people who have a positive valence while having a negative valence towards a third person. In other words, someone says, “I have decided I don’t like you and this person now agrees with me.”
So, the triangle includes two people who have an emotionally close relationship (it can be positive or negative) and one person who is in the outside position. All relationship systems consist of triangles. Most people are not aware they are in a triangle and how it functions to manage anxiety and tension. It's as if triangles operate below the radar.
It is possible to see relationship triangles with some effort. They are visible when someone tells you about a problem they are having with someone else. Voila! A triangle. If you agree with the person’s perspective of the relationship, you simply perpetuate the triangle. If you disagree, stating an allegiance to the other, they will move on to find someone else who will agree with them. Instead of agreeing or disagreeing, it’s useful to ask questions that engage your thinking and, hopefully, their thinking.
I typically start with the question, “Have you discussed this with the other person?” The answer is always no. (I know this because they are talking to me about the other person. If it were yes, they wouldn’t be talking to me.) Another question I might ask is: “What are the challenges for both of you as you work on this challenge? What will it take to resolve it?” The triangle is not just in congregations and families. It’s in society as well.
Let’s say you’ve been seeing a therapist for a while. Things are going well. You enjoy the sessions. But then one day the therapist makes an observation you feel is inaccurate. As you voice your disagreement, the relationship becomes tense. There will always be wide variation in the degree of tension a disagreement creates and how sensitive people are to the tension. In response to the tension, some clients may decide to quit. They might even find a different therapist. The original therapist may conclude that the departure represents the inability of the client to see the problem. The therapist may not see their part in it. A new therapist is happy to have the business, but may not realize they are part of a relationship triangle between the client, the former therapist, and themselves.
I think this same process happens in just about every area of capitalism and consumerism. People say things like, “I pay good money for this. I’m not going to waste it on this person.” Or, “Someone out there has to know what they are doing.” The market flourishes as consumers move from one service provider to the next. If you don’t like a product or service, you can look around to find someone who does it better and cheaper. If you don’t like the burger joint down the street, you find another one that’s better. If you can’t find one that’s better, you start your own. History is full of stories of people who started their own company because they were convinced they could do it better than a competitor.
Congregations are no different. Denominations were launched by people who left the church of their childhood. If you don’t like what’s happening in your congregation or denomination, move down the street and start your own, or attend a different congregation. Luther, Wesley, Calvin . . . They all started this way. We call them reformers. The American landscape is littered with congregations given birth out of this emotional process.
It should not be a surprise that in the era of Trumpism, Americans find it difficult to engage people on the "other side." If you look at every sector of the American experience (I could probably make a case for the global experience) when people don’t like someone or something, they walk away. It is our long-established history to move on and herd when we don’t like what we see or hear. This is what we do when we are anxious.
In addition to observing triangles, Dr. Murray Bowen observed how people distance from others when they perceive fear. In the short term, distancing serves a valuable purpose: it gives the individual time to step back, calm down, think about what is happening, and strategize a way forward. Without a way forward, people at one end of the spectrum cutoff when anxiety is perceived to be too high to manage. At the other end are people who argue and debate (again, there is variation in the degree to which people distance or argue, and the level of sensitivity to anxiety).
There is a mature, third option for engaging people who feel, think and act differently. It includes both articulating an idea that may not be popular and an effort to keep the relationship warm (other descriptors might be connected, positive, and avoiding being earnest). The best place to practice is in the family. Bowen called this process differentiation of self. And while there are different ways to understand, describe, and apply differentiation of self, here is one way:
- Pick a current event, belief, or idea.
- Spend time getting clear about what you think.
- Identify where your thinking comes from? Did you think of this on your own or have others influenced you? What ideas represent your thinking? What ideas represent the thinking of others?
- Do others in the family share your ideas or do they disagree? Who would agree and who would disagree?
- Do your ideas function to bring people together or keep a distance?
- Consider what idea you can articulate to your family without seeking approval or debate.
- How do you anticipate others will respond to your thinking?
- How will you respond to them? Without agreeing or disagreeing, what might you say in response to their reaction?
- What will you do to stay calmer and not react?
- How will you communicate to others that, as far as you are concerned, the relationship remains open whether they agree or disagree?
In theory and in practice, Bowen described how family members eventually come around and accept this different way of thinking. It is possible if one can avoid reacting back while at the same time staying focused on thinking. Thinking with others is an alternative way of resolving the challenges we face with family, friends, co-workers, therapists, and the local burger joint.