Understanding how We Filter Our Thoughts

Insights from the triangle of conflict

Posted Feb 07, 2012

I was trained mostly as a cognitive behavioral therapist. Although CBT is a useful approach, I believe that to effectively see the whole person, psychotherapists also need to integrate other approaches, including modern humanistic (e.g., emotion-focused), systems, and psychodynamic perspectives. One frame that I learned from psychodynamic therapists that is especially useful is represented in the Malan1 Triangle of Conflict. Much as CBT therapists understand people's problems through the lens of dysfunctional thoughts, many psychodynamic theorists use the Malan Triangle as a basic framework to understand the defensive system.

Modern psychodynamic theory considers self-consciousness like a justification system. That is, it posits that people adopt beliefs about themselves and the world in a way that makes what they do seem as justifiable as possible (to both themselves and others). If you are skeptical of modern psychodynamic theory because you don't think it is scientific, I would point you in the direction of social and cognitive research on cognitive dissonance, self-serving biases, and implicit and explicit attitudes. There is a huge amount of evidence that people engage in many mental gymnastics to maintain a consistent, coherent and enhanced view of themselves.

The Malan Triangle frames the key elements of the process. The idea is that as (a) impulses, images or feelings that are painful, problematic or socially unjustifiable begin to emerge into full consciousness the result is (b) signal anxiety, which in turn activates a (c) defense mechanism like repression or rationalization to avoid the threat and restore psychic equilibrium.

To help clarify how the relationship between unjustifiable images and emotionally laden experiences, anxiety, and defenses consider the following imaginary exchange between husband and wife:

Dan is a 43-year-old high school football coach who has a masculine identity and beliefs about the importance of self-reliance, mental toughness, and self-assurance. Despite this conscious identity, it is also the case that Dan's mother died when he was 8, and he struggled with unmet dependency needs during his early years. Fifteen years ago, Dan married Janice, and they had a fairly traditional marriage, where Dan worked and Janice raised their two kids who are now 12 and 10. However, six months ago, Janice began a new job in marketing, which Dan initially supported. She is currently traveling to make her first major marketing pitch and is away for four days. She calls him after the first day to share her excitement that her portion of the presentation went well.

Janice excited, "Hi, Dan. You are not going to believe this, but I did it and did it well! I am serious, I really impressed them."

Dan, in a monotone voice, "That is great, honey. What time did you say you are coming home Thursday?"

"Around 5:00 pm. Anyway, I gave them the idea about nature and connecting the materials to the green revolution, and they thought that it was an excellent idea that I should definitely develop further. Isn't that great? Oh that reminds me, could you water the plants I just seeded? I am worried they will die if they don't get water every other day."

"If I think about it," Dan replies vaguely.

"What is that supposed to mean?" Janice says, her tone of voice changing to anger. "It is important. Actually, my presentation was important! What is wrong with you?"

"Nothing at all." Dan responds, in a somewhat irritated tone.

"I don't know what it is, Dan, but I swear you undermine me sometimes."

"Whatever..." Dan says, dismissively.

"Fine, and thanks for all your support." Janice says sarcastically and hangs up.

Dan gets off the phone, thinking that Janice was in a lousy mood.

With this vignette, we can readily imagine the dynamics that are taking place in Dan's intrapsychic system. On the one hand, Dan has an image of himself as self-reliant and self-assured and thus when Janice started to go back to work, consistent with his own identity, he said it was fine. However, her redirecting her time and energies elsewhere activated in him some subconscious feelings connected to the unmet dependency needs prominent in his childhood. Yet, these memories were both painful and challenged his own private justification system for who he was and how he should be. Consequently, as these images and affects began to take form in his consciousness they were associated with signal anxiety, which led him to avoid and repress (defense mechanisms) them.

The conflict begins to boil on the phone because Janice is reporting success in her job, which Dan subconsciously knows will mean more time away. And yet, given that she is his wife, that he supported her decision to go back to work, and that he sees himself as a self-assured and self-reliant man, he consciously feels he should be happy for her, and the anxieties that her success activates in him cannot be explicitly justified. And yet his underlying feelings of unmet dependency move him to want to avoid supporting her success. Thus his attention shifts, initially landing on when she is coming home. When she continues and asks him to do something for her, he is vague and noncommittal, although he doesn't say he won't do it because that would not be justifiable. Sensing something amiss, she asks him if something is wrong. Dan, of course, cannot even tell himself what is wrong, and so certainly cannot publicly share his thoughts with Janice. Consequently, he engages in denial and implicitly suggests Janice is seeing things that aren't there. Janice attempts to call him on his lack of support but because he has been vague, he can deny that accusation and attribute the bad turn the conversation took to Janice being in a bad mood, projecting the negativity on to her and explaining away the conflict.

Processes such as those described here are abundant. The Malan Triangle is an important psychological tool that helps us achieve insight into ourselves and others.


1Malan did not actually invent this formulation, but he popularized it.

Dr. Gregg Henriques is Director of the Clinical-School Doctoral Program at James Madison University, and author of A New Unified Theory of Psychology.