Sanctuary for the Abused

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Overcoming Triangulation in Love Relationships

Reginald B. Humphreys, Ph.D. , Kathleen P. Eagan, M.S.

from the book: Detoxifying Love Relationships: Solutions for Couples

Although the term triangulation may at first seem to be highly complex, it has a simple meaning. Triangulation refers to the tendency of certain individuals to become involved in love triangles. The person struggling with triangulation goes through a repetitive cycle of love relationships, in which two or more men are simultaneously involved with the same woman, or in which one man is simultaneously involved with two or more women.

The problem of triangulation in love relationships remains one of the most serious issues confronting modern society. Infidelity in love relationships, often caused by triangulation, destroys the marriages and lives of many individuals, couples, and families each year.

Theological and religious sources would maintain that the answer to this problem is already at hand, and that a strict observation of principles of loyalty and fidelity can eliminate the phenomena and effects of triangulation. However, much of today’s society is beyond the reach of religion, and so society’s growing epidemic of triangulation and infidelity is likely to continue to rage out of control unless solutions are found which transcend the limits of individual religions. Also, clinical experience reveals that even enthusiastic participants in religious activities are often crippled with the same triangulation tendencies of the non-religious.

Overcoming triangulation does require that the individual be grounded in some system of morality or other. However, the main issues in triangulation are inadequately understood by most, and therefore these crucial issues are not usually addressed in any adequate fashion. The two most important issues which should be addressed in order to fully understand and correct triangulation, are:

(1) the tendency of the individual to unconsciously reconstruct and reenact unhealthy love triangles which were present in the individual’s early childhood experiences with parents, and;

(2) repetitive attempts by the individual to symbolically "correct", "resolve", or "master" these historical issues and their ill effects, within current-day love triangles.
Only the well-analyzed person is usually aware of these two critical aspects of triangulation. On initial introduction of these ideas to patients in psychotherapy, it is common for both these notions to be rejected immediately as incorrect or inapplicable. However, the therapist will have to return to these ideas time after time, until the patient finally accepts and works on these two issues as the issues which are in control of the triangulation problem.

Many persons caught up in lifestyles riddled with triangulation claim that they would like to overcome this problem. However, the true motivation for this kind of self-correction rests entirely on the individual’s ability to deal with the two core issues. The more the person expresses opposition or indifference to these key insights, the worse that person’s prognosis for improvement becomes.
The person may protest that no love triangles or infidelity were present in the parents’ marriage. And while this may be factually true, this is where the person must learn to broaden their understanding of the nature of love triangles. The patient must eventually learn that he or she was the third party in the triangle, and that as a child, the individual became trapped in an envelope of triangulation dynamics which has left a life-long and deeply life-altering residual.

Patients often react with great intensity to the first discussion of these issues. The topic becomes controversial, and the patient may express disgust over the idea that it is possible that the child and parents are engaged in love-triangle dynamics. This disgust represent the deep unacceptability to the person of childhood triangulation feelings, and explains why the individual has felt forced to repress and hide these issues throughout life, although symbolically reenacting these in each new attempt at a love relationship.

As therapeutic work progresses, the individual may be even more resistant to the idea that within the early-childhood love triangle involving parents, that one of the parents may be loved obsessively, jealously, and possessively, while other parents may be loathed and hated with intensity that may reach homicidal proportions.

Rather than being in a context where the patient could have loved both parents in an appropriate way, the child is prematurely caught up in adult heterosexual dynamics, in which defenses of splitting may play a primary role. One parent is idealized as perfect, and becomes the repository for the child’s fantasies of perfection and omnipotence, while the other parent becomes the repository of everything that is hated, rejected, and scorned.

Being unable to accomplish the normal developmental task of establishing an integrated perception of parents which includes a realistic sense of both desirable and undesirable parental qualities, the patient also loses the ability to have an integrated perception of self. "Splitting of the self" occurs, and this non-integration of self-identity continues throughout the patient’s life unless this split is corrected in treatment.

Without such correction, the individual is condemned to compulsively repeat and reenact the unhealthy triangulation dynamics in the family of origin. These sexually-toned dynamics, impossible for the child to integrate, are re-enacted with each new person and relationship in life.

It is not difficult to understand why exposing the child to adult triangulation dynamics would have a life-long destructive impact. The child has literally had their childhood stripped away or stolen by the parents’ illness. The traumatic loss of childhood usually has lasting or permanent effects. The premature forcing of the child to cope with disturbing adult dynamics floods the child with unmanageable feelings and reactions, which leave an indelible effect. The child now is eroticized by the triangulation situation or thoughts of triangulation. Over time, only the triangular situation can "turn the person on". Without the psychological presence of a third party, feelings of love and eroticism are unattainable. Eventually, the only way to achieve a feeling of love and excitement requires that there be one person who is idealized, and another who can be rejected and symbolically "murdered" by rejection or elimination.

In the childhood situation either parent may be idealized, regardless of the sex of the child. Similarly, either parent may be hated with unconscious homicidal intensity.

Although few adults remember childhood erotic or retaliatory feelings, a few do have memories. The majority who do not remember the oedipal period of development (which is normal) must do their therapeutic work by reconstruction of events rather than direct recall. Adults may also deny any idealizing of current partners or any destructive motivation towards other partners. These feelings are usually so deeply buried that much work may be required for the person to see that each time they enact a love triangle, they are symbolically winning the idealized parent, and murdering or eliminating the hated one.

Persons with triangulation pathology (oedipal pathology) cut a destructive swath through humanity, retaliating against and symbolically "murdering" one "love partner" after another.

Especially characteristic of the "murderer" in these instances is a cold-heartedness and lack of remorse or sense of responsibility for the "victim" in the triangle. The person, having invested through splitting defenses all their rage toward one parent, can easily enjoy the disposal of the hated parent by disposal of the parental stand-in in the contemporary love triangle. If asked to reverse their infidelity, they may feel an utter coldness and unwillingness to alter their life course. They "must" murder the parent surrogate in order to fully "get off". Empathy or concern for their victim is impossible, and highly irrelevant. To do "what is profitable for oneself" becomes the only remaining remnant of a moral standard. The parent-surrogate is dehumanized and negated, as the child feels is justly deserved by the parent (surrogate) for having put the child through a traumatic loss of their own childhood, and the resulting lifelong ill effects.

Persons with triangulation pathology are often incapable of normal feelings of empathy or responsibility toward their "victims". Therefore, these persons can be easily thought of as being psychopathic, due to their unwillingness to adopt a responsible correction to their acting out, even when confronted. During the symbolic act of murdering the hated parent, their lack of remorse is obvious.

Confronting these behaviors in psychotherapy, the therapist becomes the only possible mechanism for correcting the defects of conscience that can allow the person to harm others in a wanton and indifferent fashion. The technique required in the psychotherapy of such individuals is highly specific. Two case vignettes are provided.

Patient N:

Patient N presented with a history of serial love relationships of varying degrees of duration. These were characterized by a rapid development of physical intimacy, immediate spending of all leisure time with the partner, a fusional quality of interaction, and then abrupt ending provoked by minor causes.

During the unfolding of one of these liaisons, therapist asked patient whether he had any perception regarding the eventual outcome of the current relationship. Patient revealed that he knew that he would eventually terminate the liaison. Over time, it was revealed that patient always had a perception that the relationship would end, but desired to experience whatever could be experienced as long as things could work out.

On questioning as to whether the respective feminine partners had a similar lack of concern over the future, i.e. an equivalent degree of comfort with a "no-strings, no-future" kind of expectation, the patient revealed that the current love object was not comfortable with this at all, and regularly requested a change in the status of the relationship to one with a serious future.

With analysis of new relationships and retrospective review of former ones, it became clear that Patient N was a "heartbreaker" in that each person he romanced experienced the termination of the relationship by him as traumatic and damaging. Patient N had left a string of depressed, brokenhearted women as victims of his psychopathic disregard of their lives and feelings.
Was N psychopathic, or merely neurotic? The answer to this crucial diagnostic question is often revealed by the patient’s response to the therapist’s verbal interventions.

Over time, the therapist asked N to recognize and acknowledge his destructive romantic patterns, and to come to terms with what it would mean about his character if he were to be willing to continue to inflict psychic pain and damage upon each new lover.
Although N may have always had a subliminal awareness of the implications of his relationship conduct, once it had been named and discussed in psychotherapy, the entire context could begin to shift. With his pattern now "on the table", patient could be asked to reverse his pattern and to adopt responsible conduct during new liaisons. N failed to do this, while acknowledging "I know that I should".
Triangulated patients can be expected to reject the therapist’s encouragement for them to give up exploitive relationships. These individuals are at the very brink of their developmental deficit, and need help to "bridge the gap" up to the next level of maturational sophistication.. At this juncture, the interventions of the therapist are critical. If the patient’s conscience development is ever to be solidified, there is no alternative except to succeed with the patient at this point. The therapist can no longer be a passive witness to the spectacle of abuse, but must now begin to operate according to the maxim that if the therapist cannot be part of the solution, they have become a part of the problem.

During the unfolding of one of N’s liaisons, at a highly opportune moment, the therapist asked N if he was planning on continuing with the relationship pattern as usual, and if so, inquired whether N would mind terminating therapy first, so that therapist could be saved from again witnessing the savage destruction of an innocent human being. Along with this, therapist acknowledged the fact that since N had continued his harmful conduct without interruption, that the therapy should now be considered to be failing anyway, further strengthening the appropriateness of terminating therapy at the current juncture.

Patient N’s subsequent choice to alter his relationship conduct was motivated by his desire to retain the therapeutic relationship, and to regain acceptance by the therapist. This factor works exactly in psychotherapy as it works in raising children. Children develop a conscience in order to retain parental acceptance, and if parents are flawed or passive in their teaching of conscience, or have deficient conscience themselves, then significant deficiencies in the child’s conscience development usually occur. To reverse the ill effects of this deficient parenting, the therapist assumes a parenting role in requiring the patient to either progress morally or exit treatment.
Beginning with Freud’s earliest observations regarding childhood oedipal issues, successful resolution of oedipal issues has been regarded as the fundamental cornerstone of conscience development. Without renunciation of the forbidden oedipal love object (parent), conscience formation is incomplete, and moral deficiency is inevitable and pervasive.

To correct the deficient adult conscience, the adult patient is always asked to renounce the inappropriate love object. If they choose to do so, even if with complaints, then they may be assumed to have occupied the neurotic spectrum of psychopathology. The more the patient resists the renunciation of the inappropriate love-object, the more the diagnosis should be psychopathic personality.

To expand on this important idea, it should be recognized that the neurotic triangulator can be persuaded to renounce inappropriate conduct, and feel remorse when the usually-repressed implications of their conduct are illuminated. No similar remorse or motivation for self-correction can be evoked in the psychopathic triangulator, who remains apathetic about the injury done to others, and never renounces the illicit love-object.
It is always tragic if the patient refuses to renounce the illicit partner in the current triangulation. Before the therapist brings this issue to the forefront, there always remains the possibility that the individual might choose a moral alternative. However, once the patient identifies with the psychopathic choice, then their personality becomes crystallized in alignment with a psychopathic orientation. At this point, the prognosis for the future begins to approach zero. However, occasionally the patient may leave therapy and return months or years later, as the "lessons" from the work on triangulation become gradually integrated. The patient returns to now deal in earnest with the issues previously analyzed.

Persons suffering from borderline personality disorder (BPD) also exhibit triangulation in their close relationships. These individuals are easily differentiated from oedipal neurotics by the pervasive presence of many other regressed symptoms, including profound depression, rage, poor impulse control, among others. In contrast, the neurotic is characterized by the central role which oedipal concerns take in the individual’s daily existence, along with a relative absence of other major symptoms.

Triangulated relationships and dynamics are sometimes suggestive of schizophrenia. A tipoff to the presence of an underlying schizophrenic process may be found in the degree of chaoticism of the triangulation patterns. For example, if a situation is already complicated by the presence of several love triangles, the most chaotic thing that could happen might be for the schizophrenic individual to add yet another triangulation to the situation by recruiting a new liaison. The more unpredictable, bizarre, or unfathomable a triangulation acting-out behavior seems, the more a schizophrenic process might be indicated. A diagnostic hypothesis of schizophrenia would of course require corroboration on other traditional diagnostic grounds.

In summary, triangulation phenomena are seen in small amounts in most relationships. Seriously harmful triangulation phenomena may occur in neurotic individuals, in psychopathic and borderline personalities, and in schizophrenia. Individuals at the treatable end of the spectrum, the neurotic end, are distinguished by the individual’s willingness to recognize and reverse the triangular acting-out, through renunciation of the illicit love-object (the triangulated relationship partner). The psychopathic patient refuses to revise their conduct, and becomes solidified in a non-empathic stance of willful abuse to the "victim" in the love triangle. The intractable patient refuses to stop reenacting the symbolic pattern of possession of the idealized parent, and "murder" or elimination of the opposing parent.

Patient Y:

Patient Y was a woman involved in a relationship which was fairly long-term, but unsatisfying. Patient Y had recently met another man who was desired, and the possibility of a liaison seemed of interest to both. Patient Y discussed her plans to see the new interest socially, citing her enhanced interest and feeling as compared to her current relationship.

Therapist advised the patient that since her feelings of new interest occurred before she had announced or decided upon leaving her current involvement, that her feelings of attraction could not be trusted as valid. Any feelings for a new person would tend to be idealizing as compared with her feelings for the individual in the more lasting relationship, which would tend to be more reality-based and less contaminated with idealizing fantasy. Only new, shallow relationships allow for deep idealization fantasies, and often promote splitting of toxic projections into the partner who has greater longevity of relationship with the individual.
Patient Y asked if the new love interest might not "work out" in spite of its inappropriate beginnings. The patient was advised that personal relationships which are built on the abuse and misfortune of others cannot later result in a valid relationship. The moral stain attached to the relationship from its inception is permanent, providing a built-in nullification of the validity of the relationship in all futures to come.

Patient was further advised that if the therapist were to witness the patient abusing her relationship partner in this fashion, that the therapist would be obliged to resign as therapist, as the commission of such actions by the patient would have profound implications that would tend to disqualify her as a valid candidate for future success in psychotherapeutic activities with that therapist.

Striking about the case of Y is that as soon as the barrier of resistance to renouncing the illicit love-object had been transcended, the patient was flooded with many critical perceptions of the new love interest, including an acute perception of severe flaws in the new person which had been obscured or repressed under the influence of intense idealization and idealizing defenses.

Patient Y’s gratitude to the therapist for "rescuing" her from the use of idealizing defenses with men she barely knew was profound. Her subsequent ability to succeed in her already-existing love relationship was attributed by her to her acquired ability to ignore and contain triangulation impulses, rather than being tempted to act on them.

In the cases of both patients N and Y, appreciation was eventually shown to the therapist for insisting that each patient achieve moral advancement when the patient was otherwise uninclined to advance. Each patient showed moral advance in other areas as well, as the generalized benefits of conquering triangulation dynamics began to accrue. Both preferred their developmental advances over their former acting out, and both went on to achieve fidelity and success in their respective love relationships.
In couples where neither party is in psychotherapy, the process is similar. The triangulating partner is usually confronted with their disloyalty by the other partner, and asked to renounce the illicit (triangulated) third party. However, the spouse, lover, or suitor of an individual rarely has the leverage and influence which are available to the therapist, and therefore rarely get a positive response to their request. Without the needed influence from a psychotherapist, the neurotic’s underlying potential to mature and transcend triangulation may never be fully realized.

Rationale for Interventions:

What is the nature of therapeutic change in these clinical examples? Why are these specific interventions indicated, and how may their effects be understood?
The original reason the individual acquired developmental arrest within the oedipal phase is that the child’s parents did not shield or protect the child from exposure to adult triangulation dynamics. Instead of being allowed to devote their inherent maturational capacities to the task of resolving their personal oedipal issues, the child’s life sphere is contaminated or saturated with the unfinished oedipal issues of each parent. The child automatically takes on the unfinished oedipal issues of each parent, as well as a new contamination that has to do with the way the particular childhood experiences originally unfolded. For example, if a child was used by one parent as a shield and buffer against the other parent, then the child’s oedipal disturbance will reflect this problem as well as each of the parent’s unresolved oedipal issues.

The adult with triangulation pathology cannot seem to take a stand based on conscience, fairness, and morality. The reason is clear: the child’s parents were unable to take a protective, empathic stance toward the child, by protecting the child from adult triangulation dynamics. The child therefore cannot take a protective stance toward anyone else whom they may harm within a love triangle. Empathy for the "victim" is impossible, as modeling of moral conduct by parents was inadequate.
Before the individual can take a empathic, moral stance which may be personally costly, this behavior must be modeled within the therapeutic relationship. The therapist must take a moral stand risking great cost (loss of the patient’s therapy) for the sake of the patient’s evolution. Also, the therapist must model a distaste and unwillingness to be a silent participant or accomplice in the degradation, harm, and destruction of any human being. In this special clinical circumstance, the therapist must momentarily shift into modeling empathy for the victim (of the love triangle) instead of empathy for the patient. In so doing, the therapist is not truly losing empathy with the patient, but has refocused the empathic connection on attempting to resonate with the patient’s latent capacity to function empathically and with conscience. Not until the patient is convinced regarding the necessity of maintaining empathy for all individuals at all times can the solidification of the individual’s conscience development be regarded as complete.

Parents use this same approach when they have empathy for a pet which a child has carelessly harmed, or for any sibling or other child whom their child may have hurt. Parents, like therapists treating adults with triangulation pathology, must ally themselves with the individual’s latent potential to function empathically if they hope to promote evolution of the empathic capacity of the individual. Without continuous functioning of the empathic faculty, conscience development remains arrested at the oedipal level.

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shared by Barbara at 12:40 AM



Unbelievable. This article. Another one that makes me want to scream. How their over use of "big" words and condescending/talking down to all. Why would ANYONE with a heart or conscience seek help from these people? I wouldn't. I'd feel too dumb and unworthy. It feels again like these people are trying to PASTE on a diagnosis so they can then use you/me as an example of success or failure in their next book/article or weblog.

Can you see how we need to first start with an MRI checking for psychopathy AND THEN truly help the victims and not waste precious time and energy on pretending there is anyway to engage with a psychopath?

In her book "Dangerous Liaisons" by Claudia Moscovici she gives much clearer examples of triangulation. Not all these overbearing terms and complex descriptions like in this article. She's using pablo picasso's mistress Françoise Gilot's life with him as an example. (I can't help but again think how we worship and cater to psychopaths. Picasso's "art" is worth millions yet he was a hurtful abusive psychopath.)

11:45 AM  

I don't think Freud was very good at explaining these things. I think Alice Miller did a much better job in articulating parental dysfunction and the effects of children. I strongly suggest that people look up her work and read several of her books, most notably, "For Your Own Good" and "Thou Shall Not Be Aware". Plus google "triangulation" and her name, "Alice Miller" and you will find a better explanation.

12:04 PM  

Barbara - In my recovery over the last year or so from abuse by a narcissist, this is truly one of the most revealing articles I've encountered; one which has left me saying wow wow wow in all the right ways. All my cumulative reading and learning has helped tremendously, but this one, well, this one brings all the pieces together with a literally crystal clear "PING!" I will refer to it over again as the single most valuable article that has lifted the veil for me...Things I more or less knew and have learned are organized here and validated. This reinforces to me that my abuser's choices are the result of terrible abuse he suffered himself. It can't ever change what I went through, no, or the hideous things he did as a result of his awful parents....I understand it's up to me to do the work to avoid any similar dynamics; but it does open my eyes to fully letting him go intentionally, I can't help him or save a man who chooses to drown-I choose to swim, I choose life. This excerpt prepares me though through "bird's eye" awareness for the next stages I ned to heal myself, empathy and I hope, forgiveness. Thank you so much for sharing it!

11:21 AM  

Thank you for sharing this eye-opening article!

3:03 PM  

This is probably one of the most ridiculously arrogant articles i have ever had the misfortune to read. Talk about loving the sound of your own voice! Also, get an editor. For some one who knows BIG WORDS, your ability to string them together is exceptionally poor.

5:51 AM  

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