Triangles: The Agony and Ecstasy
by Susan Peabody
Bookshelf Author Susan is
back! More excellent stuff on an excellent topic, all too common for too many of our
readers. Thanks Susan! Dr. Irene
June 26, 2006
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 else.
Sane people 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.
One of 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.
All this 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.
There 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 parent.
The most 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.
Andrea, John & Sandra
Sometime around 2002 I got a call from a woman named Andrea. She said she had read my book Addiction to Love and wanted to talk to me about 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.” I 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.
As I listened to Andrea I waited for her to pause so I could get her to begin focusing on herself. She, I 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 I found myself getting drawn into what would turn out to be one of the most complicated and bizarre triangles of my career. By “drawn in” I mean that, against my better judgment, I agreed to see Andrea the next day along with her boyfriend John. All I can say is that it seemed like a good idea at the time.
The next day Andrea and John arrived for their session. I gave up trying to help Andrea with her codependency and instead tried to help John with his romance addiction. He became the “identified patient.”
John 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 I asked him why he was here. “I want to settle down,” he said. “I read your book and I want to stop being a womanizer.” “Can you help me?” he asked. “I don’t know,” I said. “Are you willing to change?” “Yes,” he said quickly.
I 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,” I 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.
The next night John arrived promptly at 8:00 o’clock with a woman named Sandra. He introduced her to me as the woman he truly loved and wanted to settle down with. I felt a little uncomfortable and wasn’t quite sure what to do. I had assumed, for some reason, that he would come back the next night with Andrea.
I am not a licensed therapist and this is probably the point at which I should have bailed out, but I really thought John was serious about getting help so I continued on with the session.
Sandra 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 I 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. I am not sure whether I should categorize him as a good con artist or a sick man, but since I tend to be a compassionate person by nature, I decided that what I 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.
I recommended some books to John and Sandra and sent them on their way. “Get into couples therapy,” I said “and go to some workshops.” I asked John to come back if he felt himself backsliding from his commitment to Sandra and the monogamous lifestyle. Little did I know what I was saying.
Two days later John called, “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 my better judgment (for the second time but not the last), I agreed to see John and Andrea. Right off I confronted John about his ambivalence. “I don’t want to get caught up in this triangle,” I declared. “You have to choose one woman here.” “There is no doubt about it,” he declared. “Andrea is my choice.” “OK,” I finally said. Then I repeated the same advice I had given him and Sandra. “Get into couples therapy and go to some workshops.” For good measure I added, “Get into individual therapy too, and read some books.” Finally, as an afterthought I threw in “Stay the course.”
A week later Andrea called. “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,” I suggested. Call me tomorrow. I need some time to think about this.”
I wish I could say I threw in the towel at this point, but I am a bit of drama queen myself and I really thought I might be able to help. Talk about denial. So for a couple of weeks I continued to see Andrea, Sandra and John. I continued to declare that John had to choose. Finally, I did an intervention. I 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, I 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. I refused to see them anymore and I thought that was the end of it.
A few months later Andrea called 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. My take on this was that John really was trying here to choose and was now in full blown withdrawal because the other relationship was over. I knew, by this time, I was in over my head so I 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 I thought we were actually making progress here.
As it turned out the professional therapists at the clinic did no better than I. 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. I for one decided to pray for them all.
For awhile I 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. I, who lived to tell the story, eventually lost track of my three clients and for all I know the triangle could still be going on. But this leads me to the point of this article. Triangles are extremely toxic and can be very addictive.
One 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 or narcissist.
In 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 participants.
Andrea (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 them both.
I can’t say this enough. If you are in a triangle get out. Don’t play the game hoping to win. It is not worth it.
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Susan Peabody has been writing about love addiction since 1985. Her books include Addiction to Love: Overcoming Obsession and Dependency in Relationships, and The Art of Changing: Your Path to a Better Life. For more of Susan’s writings see her website http://brightertomorrow.net/