Understanding Triangulation: LMSW Exam Prep

By Emily Pellegrino on November 15, 2012

Three paper clips forming a chain

What do you need to know about triangulation for the LMSW exam?

The term triangulation is most often associated with Bowen and his Family Systems Theory. Family Systems Theory suggests that individuals cannot be understood in isolation from one another, but rather as a part of their family. Family members are driven to achieve a balance of internal and external differentiation which causes anxiety, emotional cutoff, and triangulation. Both triangulation and Family Systems Theory are important to know for the LMSW exam, so let's get started with a sample question.

Sample Question:

Which of the following BEST defines triangulation?

A. Avoiding sensitive issues by limiting contact with one's family.

B. One's ability to separate one's own intellectual and emotional functioning from that of the family.

C. When one individual feels distressed or powerless in relation to another person, they bring in a third person to act as a buffer.

D. The transmission of emotional problems from a parent to a child.

Triangulation occurs when two people have problems with one another and one person may "triangle in" a third family member or individual who acts as an ally. Bowen states that people respond to anxiety between each other by moving the focus to a third person which helps to decrease anxiety. While this may decrease anxiety though, it doesn't fully resolve the source of the anxiety. Instead, it works as a distraction. One example to help you remember this term for the LMSW exam is when a wife is frustrated with her husband. Instead of telling him, she may instead focus her attention towards her daughter. The wife therefore decreases her anxiety by ignoring the source of it (her husband), and making him an outsider while the wife and daughter are on the inside.

The Social Work Dictionary defines triangulation as, "The process in which one individual who feels pressured, distressed, or powerless in relating to another individual brings into the relationship a third person to act as an ally or a distractor. For example, a mother who feels she has too little control over her children brings her father or a grandparent into the scene" (Barker, 2003).


The best answer here is C. The other terms encompass other family systems theory concepts which are also good to study for the LMSW exam. They include: (A) Emotional Cutoff, (B) Differentiation of Self, and (D) Family Projection Process.

Coming up next week: Unconscious Motivation

Think our straightforward, sensible approach could help you PASS your LMSW exam? If you're preparing for the social work exam, check out our LMSW Study Materials. Learn more about our exam prep at the The Therapist Development Center home page.

Looking for more practice questions and some study tips? Check out our new Social Work Exam Study Guide:

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