Triangles: The Agony
& the Ecstasy
by Susan Peabody
Psychologically, triangles are very complicated. Most people don’t
seek them out—at least not consciously. They just seem to
happen. One moment you are happily single. The next thing you
know you are in love with someone who is married. Or you are happily
married and suddenly you realize your partner is seeing someone
get out of a triangles as soon as they realize they are in one.
Love addicts stay engaged hoping things will resolve themselves
in time. This is because love addicts can’t let go. They
have no tolerance for separation anxiety. Once they have bonded
with someone, letting go is like death to them. Some love addicts
in a triangle will die trying to get to a resolution. They kill
themselves or they kill someone in the triangle. The media is
full of Crimes of the Heart.
the reasons love addicts have a high tolerance for the pain of
a triangle is because when they were children the natural triangle
between the mother, father and child, went horribly wrong. Usually
the child was rejected by one of the parents and incested by the
other—not necessarily sexual incest but certainly covert
or emotional incest. The rejection/incest magnifies the triangle.
The Oedipus experience, in which the child adores one parent and
is in competition with the other, is not outgrown with little
impact on the child’s future. Instead it becomes rooted
in the child’s psyche and wounds him or her.
means that the triangle is familiar and in some respects comfortable.
This, in turn, means that the person involved has a high tolerance
for the pain and suffering of the triangle once they get involved
in one. Furthermore some love addicts unconsciously try to resolve
the wound of their childhood by recreating the triangle of their
childhood—over and over again. They are obsessed with the
idea that things will end differently each time. Unfortunately,
this is not how you heal the wounds of childhood. You don’t
go back to the scene of the crime and commit the crime all over
again. You go back to the scene of the crime in therapy with an
enlightened witness to guide you. You go back to grieve, forgive,
let go and move on.
are also those who accept the down side of the triangle for the
ecstasy that often goes with it. Triangles can be like roller
coasters. When one person in the triangle is, momentarily, the
front runner he or she is as high as a kite. But everyone pays
such a high price for the thrill of being chosen at any given
moment—the winner of the competition. This, too, is often
tied in with the early Oedipus experience in which the child is
trying to get the parent she adores to choose her over the other
important thing to know about triangles is that they are unhealthy,
painful, and potentially dangerous. Dr. Phil says this over and
over again and I concur. We are meant to be monogamous for more
reasons than I can recount here. Only hedonists and sex addicts
really defend the agony and ecstasy of the triangle. I also agree
with Dr. Phil when he says there are rarely three willing partners
in a ménagé a trois. Someone is usually unhappy
even if they don’t admit it. So if you ever find yourself
in a triangle get out. Walk away. Cut your losses. Even if you
are married with kids, walk away until your partner gets into
recovery and gives up his, or her, penchant for multiple partners.
John & Sandra
around 2002 a well-known counselor got a call from a woman named
Andrea. She said she wanted to discuss her boyfriend. As soon
as she arrived for her session Andrea began talking about John
and “his” addiction. “I love him,” she
said, “and he loves me, but I can’t get him to stop
seeing this other woman.” The counselor listened for about
twenty minutes and then quickly speculated that John might be
a romance addict—someone who gets high off of the euphoria
of romance. Romance addicts usually have multiple partners and
get addicted to the honeymoon phase of a relationship. They sometimes
have one full time partner to give them a sense of stability,
but one person is never enough for them.
the counselor listened to Andrea she waited for her to pause so
she could get her to begin focusing on herself. She, the counselor
believed, was a codependent love addict—the partner in a
relationship who hangs on for dear life and has a high tolerance
for suffering neglect, and sometimes, abuse. Codependent love
addicts (also known as relationships addicts) are constantly trying
to fix a relationship. Their sensitivity to separation anxiety
makes it impossible for them to cut their losses and move on.
Andrea was not, unfortunately, willing to talk about herself so
the counselor found herself getting drawn into what would turn
out to be one of the most complicated and bizarre triangles of
her career. By “drawn in” I mean that, against her
better judgment, she agreed to see Andrea the next day along with
her boyfriend John. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
next day Andrea and John arrived for their session. The counselor
gave up trying to help Andrea with her codependency and instead
tried to help John with his romance addiction. He became the “identified
had always been a romance addict. He was handsome and intelligent.
He loved women and began cheating on his wife of twenty years
six months into the marriage. After his divorce he dated up to
five women at a time. Five minutes into the session the counselor
asked him why he was there. “I want to settle down,”
he said. “I want to stop being a womanizer.” “Can
you help me?” he asked. “I don’t know,”
the counselor said. “Are you willing to change?” “Yes,”
he said quickly.
counselor outlined a program of recovery for John. It was simple.
Recovery for romance addicts is monogamy. “Choose the woman
you want to settle down with,” she told John, “and
we will work through the anxiety you feel when you commit to just
one woman.” John agreed to this plan and made an appointment
for the next night.
next night John arrived promptly at 8:00 o’clock with a
woman named Sandra. He introduced her to the counselor as the
woman he truly loved and wanted to settle down with. The counselor
felt a little uncomfortable and wasn’t quite sure what to
do. She had assumed, for some reason, that John would come back
the next night with Andrea.
was nice. John was nice. They were obviously in love. They held
hands during the session and looked adoringly into each other’s
eyes. So what was the problem? Unfortunately, as the counselor
was soon to learn, John was just as much in love with Andrea and
had the innate ability to be in the moment with each of these
women. When he was with Andrea she had his full attention. When
he was with Sandra she was the only one for him. The counselor
was not sure whether she should categorize him as a good con artist
or a sick man, but since she tended to be a compassionate person
by nature, she decided that what she was calling John’s
romance addiction was not the result of narcissism per se but
a deep-seated fear of intimacy with any one woman.
counselor recommended some books to John and Sandra and sent them
on their way. “Get into couples therapy,” she said
“and go to some workshops.” She also asked John to
come back if he felt himself backsliding from his commitment to
Sandra and the monogamous lifestyle. Little did she know what
she was saying.
days later John called the counselor. “I have to see you,”
he said, “it is urgent. I have changed my mind. Andrea is
the one I want to be with. I love her.” Against her better
judgment (for the second time but not the last), the counselor
agreed to see John and Andrea. Right off she confronted John about
his ambivalence. “I don’t want to get caught up in
this triangle,” she declared. “You have to choose
one woman here.” “There is no doubt about it,”
he declared. “Andrea is my choice.” “OK,”
she finally said. Then she repeated the same advice she had given
him and Sandra. “Get into couples therapy and go to some
workshops.” For good measure she added, “Get into
individual therapy too, and read some books.” Finally, as
an afterthought she threw in “Stay the course.”
week later Andrea called the counselor. “John is cheating
on me,” she said. I caught him with Sandra. I am following
them now. They are just leaving the hotel. What shall I do?”
“Go home,” the counselor suggested. Call me tomorrow.
I need some time to think about this.”
wish I could say the counselor threw in the towel at this point,
but she was a bit of a drama queen herself and really thought
she might be able to help. Talk about denial. So for a couple
of weeks she continued to see Andrea, Sandra and John. She continued
to declare that John had to choose. Finally, she did an intervention.
She told John that the sessions were going nowhere and that he
needed to choose between Sandra and Andrea once and for all. Then,
in separate sessions, she suggested to Andrea and Sandra that
they both leave John if he did not make a choice and stick to
it. Of course, all three members of the triangle were seriously
addicted by this time and so the women continued to enable John
and he continued to be ambivalent. The counselor refused to see
them anymore and thought that was the end of it.
few months later Andrea called the counselor to say that John
had chosen her the night before but that now he was in the bathroom
crying. She felt he was having a nervous breakdown because he
was giving up the other woman. The counselor thought that perhaps
this time John really was trying to choose and was now in full
blown withdrawal because the other relationship was over. The
counselor knew, by this time, that she was in over her head so
she suggested that Andrea find a clinic where she could take John.
Andrea quickly made arrangements to take John to a rehab center
in the Mid-West that specialized in treating love addicts. For
a moment the counselor thought they were actually making progress.
it turned out the professional therapists at the clinic did no
better than the counselor. After three weeks at the center John
was supposed to bring Andrea to family week (because she was,
supposedly the one he had chosen and, by the way, was paying the
bill). Well he did bring Andrea, but a week later he talked his
primary therapist at the center into letting him bring Sandra
for another family week because, after all, he was still was not
sure who he wanted to settle down with. So John turned the clinic
upside down by having both women come visit him. As Andrea was
leaving she almost ran into Sandra in the parking lot. Then to
make things worse John took off for the weekend with Sandra and
when he returned on Monday he was asked to leave the center. Everybody
admitted defeat and sent John packing.
awhile the counselor received some emails from the three of them.
John decided to marry Andrea and Sandra started stalking the two
of them. She sent threatening emails and then called John’s
boss and told him what was going on. John was fired from his job.
Then John decided to go back with Sandra and Andrea kicked him
out of the house. The counselor, who lived to tell the story,
eventually lost track of my three clients and for all she knows
the triangle could still be going on. Which is the point of this
story. Triangles are extremely toxic and can be very addictive.
final note about triangles. There is a lot of role playing and
everyone’s role changes from time to time. The three major
roles in any triangle are the Victim, the Narcissist and the Rescuer.
One player may start out as a victim and end up becoming the rescuer
the case study above, Andrea, was the first woman to meet John
so when he started cheating on her she was the victim and he the
narcissist. Sandra was initially a victim because John said he
was not seeing anyone else. When Andrea and Sandra found out about
each other, and made the decision to stay, and “work things
out,” they both stopped being the victim and became willing
(the more codependent of the two) decided the best way to resolve
the situation was to become John’s rescuer so she brought
him to me for help—and later the clinic. When John willingly
came to me for help he stopped being the narcissist for awhile,
and became (because his romance addiction was rooted in some deep-seated
childhood trauma) a victim. When John brought Sandra to the rehab
center he became the narcissist again. His self-gratification
was all that mattered to him. Then, both women, by coming to family
week, began to compete for who was the best rescuer. Finally,
when John married Andrea, Sandra became the narcissist by stalking
can't be said enough. If you are in a triangle get out. Don’t
play the game hoping to win. It is not worth it.
is a true story from the files of an anonymous source.
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