Love Triangles

From our infantile bond with Mother through the Oedipal struggles of childhood to the temptation and pain of adultery, the play between pairings and triangles is lifelong 

Stories of triangles generate almost as much imaginative power as do tales of two lovers. Some of us have pondered Rose Kennedy's reaction to (or apparent lack of one in the face of) the long-standing affair between her husband, Joseph Kennedy, and Gloria Swanson, or Ingrid Bergman's abandonment of her husband in favor of Roberto Rossellini. We may have been deeply affected by the disclosure of Franklin Roosevelt's unfaithfulness to Eleanor, or obsessed with one or another triangle of which we chanced to hear. The intensity of the response to Gary Hart's alleged infidelity to his wife is not unusual; it's simply more vivid because the incident is more recent. We may be fascinated, horrified, even threatened, as we relate such episodes—seen from the viewpoint of any one of the participants—to our personal situation, and imaginatively play out the possible future scenarios in our own lives.

We have an immense curiosity about triangles. And why not? Given our developmental history, this should not be surprising. Triangles are intimately connected with our early lives, and are imbued with profound desires and fears. Our first triangular (Oedipal) involvement marks the end of an excessive infantile dependency on Mother, our entry into the world as independent contenders. The love dialogues of development take us froth the blissful mother-child pairing of infancy through the triangular Oedipal complex, which is reactivated in adolescence and resolved only when we achieve the glory of first love and thereby have restored the psychological centrality of the original love connection. In fact, the play between pairings and triangles, whether enriching or depleting, realized or fantasized, is lifelong.

Romantic love has been described as a religion of two, but love pairs can be infected by triangles and may even be wholly contaminated by them. Or, more positively, triangles may sometimes help love along: Some pairings first crystallize in the context of a triangle. Others, especially those of older, more established couples, may be re-energized by a triangle. And, as we know, many of the most celebrated lovers were adulterous: Tristan and Iseult, Lancelot and Guinevere, Paolo and Francesca. Moreover, some triangles are not mere way stations into or out of love, nor are they intended to protect against intimacy or revive intensity, but they are themselves the main event: the lover is fixated on triangles and can achieve some of the gratification of love only within a triangular configuration.

Envy and Desire

Walking alone, seeing the world go in pairs, one can abruptly feel bereft, lonely, and disconsolate. One may feel afflicted by some unnamed deficiency. "Why not me? Am I the only one alone?" One senses that one's full potential and pleasure can be realized only in love. If one is a partner in a perfunctory couple whose union never blossomed into love or whose love has long since faded, one may feel more than envy. One may feel hopelessness or a bitter rage at having life's possibilities perhaps permanently thwarted.

Envy runs deep in the psyche; it is the twin of desire. Perceiving or imagining that two other people are together sexually or romantically incites us to find a love of our own. Reading or watching a love story, we are imaginatively engaged: we want that story, or one like it, to happen to us. So it was with Francesca and Paolo, who was the brother of her husband. Descending into the second circle of Hell, Dante inquires of Francesca how she came to fall in love with Paolo, and she replies,

On a day for dalliance we read the rhyme
of Lancelot, how love had mastered him.
We were alone with innocence and dim time.
Pause after pause that high old story drew
our eyes together while we blushed and paled;
but it was one soft passage overthrew
our caution, and our hearts. For when we read
how her fond smile was kissed by such a lover,
he who is one with me alive and dead
breathed on my lips the tremor of his kiss.
That book, and he who wrote it, was a pander.
That day we read no further.

Lancelot evoked the imaginative possibility of love for each other in Paolo's and Francesca's hearts.

For the fortunate, desire is awakened in response to the characteristics of the other, and a pairing comes into existence without any direct reference to a third person. But for many, as for Paolo and Francesca, desire is mediated through the perception of oneself in relationship to a couple. In other words, we desire what another like us has, or what a couple appears to share. But envy and emulation may take another form—literally to want what another has rather than simply to crave something similar. Then our desire erupts as the impulse to cut through an envied couple and to replace one of the protagonists. At such times desire seems almost to have been created (or intensified) by the fact that its object is already spoken for, desired by someone else. The aim may be to capture the beloved, but a competitive element also appears to be at work. In such cases we may say that love's purpose is dual: erotic longing for possession of the beloved is coupled with the wish for triumph over a rival.

Many professional women have noticed that they seem to become sexually and romantically more appealing to their male colleagues after they marry. Part of the reason for this may be that some men feel protected by the new built-in limitations. But, just as important, the husband-rival is always in the background, and through him the desirability of the beloved is established. Women may appear more alluring in this light, though sometimes they are little more than prizes that establish the challenger male's priority in a "phallic narcissitic" competition.

Moreover, in such a situation any rebuff of the would-be lover can be rationalized away. In Anna Karenina, Vronsky, at the stage when he is still lovesick over Anna and not yet successful in his pursuit of her, reflects on his own rather disingenuous apologies to a friend for what must seem the ridiculousness of his passion for Anna:

He was very well aware that he ran no risk of being ridiculous in the eyes of Betsy or of any other fashionable people. He was very well aware that in their eyes the position of an unsuccessful lover of a girl, or of any woman free to marry, might be ridiculous. But the position of a man pursuing a married woman, and, regardless of everything, staking his life on drawing her into adultery, has something fine and grand about it, and can never be ridiculous. . . .

The strength of the impulse to desire what is someone else's, and its competitive implications, are revealed in a common adolescent male taboo. Although young males may share sexual exploits, they usually respect one another's territorial rights and do not have sex with one another's girlfriends. However, some men appear to be fixated at the level of defying this taboo; for them, such competitive behavior continues throughout adulthood, the real goal in such cases being destruction of a rival male. Men who respect the taboo have replaced competition with identification; they have accepted the laws of rightful possession. For many of them, however, the sense of loyalty to their male friends transcends loyalty to their wives. Although horrified by the thought of sleeping with a good friend's wife, they may feel quite comfortable with the idea of sleeping with their own wife's best friend. Their moral code is fundamentally tied to male solidarity (a code I believe to be a resolution of fears engendered in the childhood Oedipal rivalry with Father).

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