More on Politics and Society from The Atlantic Monthly.
The Atlantic Monthly | February 1988
tories 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.
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
by Ethel S. Person
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
alking 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
Lancelot evoked the imaginative possibility of love for each other in Paolo's and Francesca's hearts.
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.
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).
Alma Mahler, who was married to or had romantic liaisons with any number of famous men, including Gustav Mahier, Walter Gropius, Franz Werfel, and Oskar Kokoschka, may have been the beneficiary of male sexual rivalry. Either she was a great femme fatale or the passion she inspired in each of her lovers was mediated by the images of her previous lovers, which were reflected in her and thereby defined her worth as an object of desire (or perhaps both propositions are true). One is reminded of the husband of a woman who had been Lord Byron's mistress, who hung a portrait of Byron in his drawing room. The husband thus elevated himself through his indirect, triangular association with Byron.
Some people can fall in love only with someone already involved with another. Among single women the taste for married men seems to have reached almost epidemic proportions—that is, if the number of magazine articles dealing with this problem are any clue to its frequency. This appetite is sometimes misunderstood as simply the self-defeating wish for someone unattainable or inappropriate and is lumped together with such misguided penchants as those for alcoholics, failures, or men who fundamentally dislike or fear women. But this overneat formulation ignores the specific, natural, and very real preoccupation with triangles as such. Of course, the lover may be drawn to the beloved by her qualities, without any reference to a triangle, but the longing for her may be intensified by knowledge of a rival.
The rival may not even exist in the present; he may simply be fearfully anticipated in the future or vividly imagined from details leaned about the beloved's past. In F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night, Dick Diver, burdened by his marriage, is romantically drawn to the young actress Rosemary. By chance, one of her suitors confides in Dick that she is not as innocent or as physically cold as he might think. In fact, she and a young man once locked themselves in a train compartment and drew the blinds, in order to engage in some furtive lovemaking, but they were interrupted by the conductor. Hearing of this incident causes a profound reaction in Diver:
With every detail imagined, with even envy for the pair's community of misfortune in the vestibule, Dick felt a change taking place within him. Only the image of a third person, even a vanished one, entering into his relation with Rosemary was needed to throw him off his balance and send through him waves of pain, misery, desire, desperation. The vividly pictured hand on Rosemary's cheek, the quicker breath, the white excitement of the event viewed from outside, the inviolable secret warmth within.
From the moment he learns of Rosemary's interrupted tryst, Dick's romantic reveries about her begin with the conversation he imagines in that distant train compartment:
"Do you mind if I pull down the curtain?"
Even in realized love, lovers may have attacks of jealousy in which they minutely scrutinize the past for evidence that an earlier love was grander, fresher, or deeper. Questions multiply: "Do you love me more than you've ever loved anyone else?" "Do you still think of her?" and so on. What is puzzling, if we fail to take account of the stimulating effect of triangles, is that the wrong answer, the answer that fails to reassure us, may intensify our love, our longing, and particularly our sexual arousal. The threat of triangulation, is a jog to passion, whether it is past, present, or merely in the conjectural future. One must also accept that behind one's doubts about the beloved's reliability lurks one's own penchant for wandering. Frequently enough, the impetus to jealousy is not any observable threat on the part of the beloved but a subliminal self-knowledge. Put simply, jealousy is sometimes merely the response to the projection of our own prurient feelings onto the beloved.
"Please do. It's too light in here."
The link between desire and envy becomes especially clear in the long-standing Western preoccupation with adultery. According to Tony Tanner, an English critic, Western literature begins with The Iliad, a tale of war precipitated by an adulterous act, and "it is the unstable triangularity of adultery, rather than the static symmetry of marriage, that is the generative form of Western literature as we know it." Indeed, adultery has remained a prominent theme in Western literature: it is a major theme, Tanner points out, in Shakespeare's last plays and in Restoration drama, and many of the great nineteenth-century novels touch on it. Among these, one thinks immediately of Madame Bovary, The Red and the Black, and Anna Karenina. In these novels the theme of adultery dramatizes issues of authority and transgression not only in individual psychology but in the social order as well. When the adulterous impulse is enacted, it violates the rules of possession in both the private and the public sphere, most often with unfortunate results.
Triangles and the Oedipus Complex
he inexorable pull of the triangle exerts constant pressure throughout the cycle of love. Triangles are often entered into defensively. Either lover may be tempted to introduce a third person to escape the intensity of love, to fend off the threat of self-obliteration implicit in a desire to surrender to the beloved. Some people, too frightened to risk a full-scale loving attachment to another person, restrict their romantic liaisons to a regular series of cameo appearances in triangles.
Triangulation may be used to punish a disappointing lover or to even the score. A husband may believe he has forgiven his wife after she has confessed an affair, only to feel himself drawn into a love involvement of his own shortly thereafter. Triangulation may also be used to reestablish a sense of gender adequacy when one's femininity or masculinity has been damaged by a defeat, erotic or otherwise. For example, a man who has received a shattering blow at work may be more than usually vulnerable to the ministrations of his adoring secretary. Alternatively, triangulation may be used to change one's image in a lover's eyes, by piquing one lover's interest with the existence of the other, in order to coax fading love back to full intensity through the agency of jealousy.
Triangulation may even be used as self-punishment. A lover who is radiantly happy in love may experience guilt at his great good fortune, and may embark on a triangular liaison as a means of destroying this happiness he does not think he deserves. (Embarking on a triangle is often felt to be a crime and, because of the anguish it brings, a punishment as well.)
Our culture is so saturated with Freud that when anyone mentions triangles our thoughts immediately go to the most basic of all triangles—the one that gives rise to the Oedipus complex. Because sexual longing first emerges in the early Oedipal period, we can appreciate why desire may be readily elicited by triangles and why the secondary triangle of husband-wife-lover is easily viewed as derivative of the primary triangle of mother-father-child. But love in the face of any taboo, whether of class, religion, race, or family relationship, is, at least in part, a reworking of the original Oedipal taboo. Indeed, all love bears some relationship to the Oedipal.
However, while all triangles may be Oedipal in some basic sense, we must distinguish between two fundamental perspectives. Depending on a person's position within the triangle, it may be either "rivalrous" or "split-object." The distinction reflects important psychological differences. In the rivalrous perspective, the protagonist is competing for the love of the beloved. In the split-object perspective, the protagonist has split his attention between two objects. Any person may find himself or herself in one or the other of these situations at some point in life, and may even be in both kinds of triangular arrangements simultaneously, as I will elaborate later.
Each of the protagonists in a triangle will, obviously, have distinct hopes, anxieties, and preoccupations. The meaning of the triangle in the psychological life of each will be different. While all these meanings can be related to the Oedipal complex, they represent variants of it. Consider, for example, one of the simplest triangles—a marrieded couple and the lover of one of the spouses. Let's say that an unmarried woman is in love with the husband. From the perspective of the woman (and of the wife, if she knows of the triangle), the tension in the triangle revolves around a rivalry. This is a straightforward "rivalrous triangle," a reincarnation of the Oedipal triangle of early life, and the major emotions accompanying it are jealousy and, sometimes, anger.
From the husband's point of view, however, the triangle has an altogether different makeup. For him, the triangle is a split-object triangle and not a duplicate of the Oedipal triangle of early life. The main tension he experiences is the division in his emotional life between two women, and the principal emotion most often is guilt. The split-object triangle may have multiple purposes, one of the most frequent being to serve as an escape from intimacy. Sometimes triangulation is a late derivative of the child's propensity to play his parents off against each other; seen in this way, the split-object triangle is a power maneuver. And sometimes it is nothing more than the product of the lover's dissatisfaction with his lot and his insatiable quest for ever-elusive perfection.
But the husband's triangle may turn out to be what is best described as a reverse triangle, a specific subcategory of the split-object triangle which has a particular motive behind it. (The term "reverse triangle" was coined by Otto Kernberg, a psychoanalyst.) It is meant to undo the humiliation of having once engaged in (and lost) a rivalrous struggle (whether Oedipal or more recent). In other words, though the form of the split-object triangle and the reverse triangle are the same, the reverse triangle always has a very specific unconscious meaning. Whereas the split-object triangle is meant to be a solution to a current problem or conflict of some kind, the reverse triangle bespeaks lingering resentment at having been an Oedipal "loser" in the past and is an attempt to redress that injustice. The reverse triangle actually reverses the configuration of the Oedipal triangle: one is no longer in competition with a rival but is the object of a rivalry. The underlying dynamic motivation of the protagonist would determine which term—"split-object" or "reverse"—might best apply. In the case of a lover whose erotic career reveals a preponderance of split-object triangles, one must suspect that he had some underlying resentment at "losing" the Oedipal struggle and was prone to enacting scenarios of reversal and revenge.
The vagaries of love may lead to a constant movement from couple to triangle, and back. Some people, owing to their psychology or psychopatholoy, have a tendency to seek out forbidden triangles or to regard any established pairing as incestuous. Others resist the constraints of one-on-one love and seek escape in triangles. Still others are comfortable only in the illusory power position of the reverse triangle. Then, too, some people transfer (or project) their Oedipal fixations onto others, creating triangles with two members of another family. This is a special form of a reverse triangle and might well be regarded as a "displaced incestuous" triangle. Each of the major kinds of triangles generally has certain specific features attached to it. But, as we shall see, a lover may move out of a rivalrous triangle and into a split-object triangle, and vice versa.
n the early stages of romantic liaisons in which the loved one is either married to or significantly involved with someone else, the lover's obsessive preoccupation is nonetheless the same as that of other lovers, consisting primarily of thoughts about the beloved. But in such rivalrous triangles (as these are by definition) an obsessive preoccupation with the rival may gradually come to compete with the erotic longing for the loved one. Both desire and competition play important roles in this erotic configuration, and the lover's relationship with his rival has its own significance.
In the beginning of adulterous relations the claims made on the beloved may be modest: "You may make love with him. I understand you have to. But please, do anything except the very special thing [whatever it may be] that we do together. That is ours." Even so, reveries of love may come to be replaced by jealous fantasies in which the beloved is pictured with the rival. As time passes, the lover becomes consumed with jealousy, visualizing the beloved in the rival's embrace, and he comes to resent the rival. The lover's obsession gradually shifts from the beloved to the rival: what the rival has, over and against what the lover can claim for himself, becomes the focus. That the beloved loves him (or says she does) is not enough, because the rival can claim endless time, holidays, material possessions, and social priority.
The lover's obsessiveness may also take the form of invidious comparisons between himself, or herself, and the rival. The female lover fears that she is not as pretty as the wife. The male lover doubts his ability to look after the beloved as well as her husband does. The lover has a dread of being compared with the rival. The lover may become consumed with self-depreciation and envy of the rival. The lover's unremitting suffering and self-doubt, his jealousy and envy, are sometimes so exaggerated as to suggest that he is masochistic. Indeed, simply to reach for what is someone else's may elicit the fear of retaliation, with ensuing guilt and self-punishing rumination.
If the betrayed spouse knows of the existence of the triangle, he or she, too, experiences jealousy and envy. The spouse may wish the disloyal spouse dead rather than contemplate losing her, or him, to the hated rival. Generally, however, the rival becomes the target for all hatred, so that positive feelings toward the beloved can be preserved.
The mutual jealousy and hatred of lover and spouse can survive even the death of the beloved. For example, a betrayed wife may forbid the appearance of her husband's mistress at his funeral. Such, for example, was one of the unhappy events in her past life that Maggie confides to Quentin in Arthur Miller's After the Fall. Her liaison with a judge was ended by his death, and the family closed her out of the mourning process. And such vengeful feelings can be carried to extreme lengths. One beautiful young woman's rivalry with the other woman outlived her erotic longing for the lover. Preparing to attend a professional convention, where she anticipated seeing her former lover, she groomed herself with unusual attention in order to look particularly stunning. A year before, while passionately in love with him, she had discovered an infidelity, and after a heated confrontation they had split—he to move in with the other woman. Ever since, she had harbored a fantasy of revenge. She no longer wanted him back, but she wanted to do to the other woman what had been done to her. The other woman, not her former lover and betrayer, had become the object of her hatred. She went to the convention and engineered her triumph. She slept with her former lover in his hotel room and managed to pick up the phone when his girlfriend called. The girlfriend acted on cue: she broke off her relationship with her lover. The result the young woman had fantasized about for so long—the end of the detested bond between her old lover and her rival—was achieved. But she had no further ambitions with respect to her former lover, not wishing to resume their love affair or even to have a sexual relationship with him, and also having no conscious wish to hurt him. Her passionate commitment to revenge had outlived her love. However, she did damage her former lover. Though this was not her conscious intent, it may well have played a role in her unconscious motivation.
What generally happens in rivalrous triangles when the lover emerges victorious? If the lover has plucked the beloved from another pairing, he may feel all the expansiveness and exhilaration of an Oedipal victory, and often he lives happily ever after. Such a victory may be easier to enjoy when the love has not been evoked by the triangle per se—that is, when the triangular complication is incidental to the lover's motivation. But on occasion an Oedipal victory may precipitate self-defeating or even self-destructive behavior. This happens most often when the lover has a penchant for triangles, and thus, probably, some fixation on an Oedipal conflict. Such an unconscious fixation when it is coupled with a tendency toward masochism, leads some people to construe love as triangular even when, objectively, it is not. The following quite typical vignette illustrates the link between love invariably construed as triangular and masochistic suffering and self-degradation.
A woman, drunk and almost incoherent, called her beloved, with whom she had quarreled, falsely accusing him of being with another woman. Fearing that she had taken an overdose, he hurried to her apartment. When he arrived, she was still drunk, but her speech was less slurred than it had been on the phone. Now, instead of being confused and incoherent, she became aggressively erotic, pleading with him to make love, begging him to do anything he wanted to her. She was ingratiating to the point of self-humiliation, resorting to crude language and gestures, wheedling and abject, but she was also coercive. Her behavior fell into the narrow range between utter self-degradation and emotional blackmail ("I cannot live without you!";).
Similar episodes repeatedly punctuated their lives together. Always in the background was her sense of being threatened by other women—his former wives or his previous girlfriends. She was obsessed with comparisons. Was his previous girlfriend prettier, more accomplished in bed? She invented triangles where none existed, demeaned herself as she compared herself with past or imaginary rivals, demanded all and promised all, yet pushed her lover away by the nakedness of her hatred of her "rivals," the depth of her need, and her rage at him. In the end, having succeeded in destroying the relationship, she felt abandoned, rejected in favor of his old ties, and was completely unaware that it was she who had undermined the relationship.
In relatively stable triangular relationships, the lover appears to love the beloved without ambivalence, and his resentment and hatred are restricted to the rival. Nevertheless, such a balance is tenuous. What follows is a classic story of adultery triumphant, but embedded within it is a cautionary tale of sorts. This story is not apocryphal; it has been enacted with variations by any number of players.
An aspiring female executive had a long-term relationship with her married boss. They traveled the world together, while his wife was apparently oblivious of their affair. He was loath to get a divorce before his second son went off to college and the mistress grudgingly accepted her lover's decision to continue a split life. He was sincere, however, and when his youngest child went off to college (some five years after the inception of the affair), he left his wife and immediately married the executive. She seemed extremely happy, especially when they had a child. But she was a proud woman, and a troubled one, and she never truly forgave him for the humiliation she had suffered as the other woman. Her underlying resentment and rage surfaced abruptly and took the form of berating him and finding fault. Her anger, which had previously been focused on her rival, was now directed at him. Her ultimate revenge took the form of starting an affair with a man for whom she eventually left her husband. (Her revenge for feeling humiliated in a rivalrous triangle was ultimately to punish her husband by putting him in the same situation. In other words, she moved from a rivalrous triangle to a split-object triangle.) And despite herself, she relished the idea of separating her husband from his new child, remembering how he had put his consideration for his other children ahead of any sympathy he might have felt for her plight as the other woman.
The abandoned husband was dispirited. It is unclear what path his love life would have taken subsequently, for he died within a few years. His first wife, whose hatred had been aimed not at her ex-husband, whom she saw as having been ensnared by an unscrupulous woman, but at the executive, appeared almost radiant at the funeral. She was reborn as the widow, and thereafter regarded herself as such, no doubt convinced that her ex-husband (with whom she had re-established a cordial relationship) would have returned to her had he lived.
Derivatives of Oedipal rivalry can be observed even where there is no overt erotic rivalry. In stepfamily rivalries the intensity of the resentment between stepmother and stepdaughter, or stepfather and stepson, may be so intense and corrosive as to alienate the affections of the husband, or the wife, or to destroy the lover's own feelings. I believe this form of Oedipal rivalry is a major source of conflict in second marriages (a conflict often played out in terms of the allocation of financial resources). In stepfamilies we can see the overt expression of tendencies more often kept covert in "natural" families. In general, people who experienced intense Oedipal struggles with their parents are apt to duplicate these struggles with their stepchildren—or their own children. Not Just Oedipal rivalry but pre-Oedipal envy is commonly expressed in Oedipal terms. One woman I know ultimately divorced her husband because of her conviction that he favored his sons (her stepson) over her. The quarrel was centered on the allocation of money and time, not eroticism.
Now, as I have already said, many people will find themselves in rivalrous triangles at some time in their lives, either through longing for someone who is committed elsewhere or as the hapless spouse or lover of someone who, while still manifestly committed, embarks on a love affair. But for most people these rivalrous entanglements, painful as they are, are transient episodes—though sometimes crucial ones—in their erotic histories. Even where triangular involvements are the enactment of unresolved Oedipal conflicts, these conflicts may be worked through in their very enactment or, alternatively, experienced as so cruelly painful that they are henceforth assiduously avoided.
In contrast are those people whose entire erotic careers, or, at least, long parts of them, consist of triangles. Such was the case with Ivan Turgenev. Paramount in his personal life, the triangle also found its way into his fiction, where it appeared as a major theme—a parallel eloquently demonstrated by the scholar Leonard Schapiro, in a critical essay about Spring Torrents. In 1843, when he was twenty-five and not yet an acclaimed writer, Turgenev met Pauline Viardot, twenty-two, already famous, married, and making her operatic debut in Russia. Despite all that was to happen between them, Schapiro wrote, Turgenev "loved her deeply and all-absorbingly for forty years, literally until his death." In the beginning all was well. He fell in love with her at first sight, and she responded; they loved each other for some seven years. But then she broke away and effected a reconciliation with her husband. Apparently Turgenev and Viardot never resumed their relationship at the same level of intensity, but except for two years (1857-1859) he was always in touch with her. In 1863 he took up residence in Baden-Baden to be near her, her husband, and their children, and from then on the Viardot household was his main emotional preoccupation. Viardot is thought to have been the dominant force in their relationship; she seems to have possessed the will to command that he so admired (apparently first in his father) but that he lacked. Despite Turgenev's apparent happiness, Schapiro notes, Turgenev constantly made remarks to the effect "that he had failed to 'weave himself a nest' in life and had been forced to perch on the edge of strange nests."
In Spring Torrents, Sanin (the Turgenev figure) betrays his betrothed, Gemma, for the femme fatale Maria Nikolaevna. Turgenev described Maria as "cast in the image of a young female creature who simply radiated that destructive, tormenting, quietly inflammatory temptation with which union with Slav natures alone . . . know how to drive us poor men, us sinful, weak men, out of our minds." But Maria is married. Ultimately she humiliates and then banishes him, but his triangular preoccupation is not exhausted. Years later, alone and feeling depressed and depleted, he finds a garnet cross of Gemma's and begins to reminisce about the pure love he and Gemma once shared. He sets out to find her, learns that she has married and gone to America, and at the story's end sets sail, no doubt to install himself as friend and family intimate—like Turgenev himself, to perch on the edge of a strange nest.
Rivalrous triangles may serve some secondary purposes. They may afford the lover a safeguard against forbidden impulses. If derived from an incestuous desire, for example, they may guard against the prohibited impulse, by deflecting it onto someone largely unavailable. Triangles may also protect the lover from his fears of falling in love, particularly from a fear of engulfment. They allow the lover to yield enough to fall in love, but they simultaneously guard against the loss of the self which is feared, because complete union with (or commitment-to) the beloved is averted by circumstance.
One middle-aged man, judged by his professional peers a force to be reckoned with, felt quite differently about himself. He experienced his public persona merely as a protection against long-standing, deep feelings of an altogether different nature. As a child, though doted on by his mother, he had been intimidated by his rigidly authoritarian father—typically Teutonic, as the son described him. Next to him, the boy had felt helpless, inferior, and unmanned—feelings that were intensified by growing up Jewish in a virulently anti-Semitic country. He remembers with amusement that, as a boy, he felt elevated when by chance he had a casual conversation at a box office with one of the local aristocrats. He married quite conventionally and lovelessly. As his success in the world increased, he ventured more and more away from home, indulging in sexual affairs, though they were essentially casual. His position, and the fact that he often traveled, assured him of easy access to women.
Almost by accident he stumbled into an affair that evolved into the great love of his life. The woman thought about and judged the world much as he did, and she seemed to him both exotic and imperious. On their first meeting he told her that he found her interesting; instead of thanking him, she accepted this homage as her due. His interest was piqued—all the more so when she said that she could not see him, since he was already married and she was looking for a younger man to marry and have children with. Nonetheless, she deigned to be courted, and he promised a good many things he may or may not have meant, the promises interspersed with flowers and gifts and trips. Their affair provided him with what he needed, and he probably would have remained satisfied in a split-object triangle, gradually losing interest in his newfound love, except that she asserted her power. What tipped the balance was her precipitate marriage to someone else—which came as a shock to him. Only then did his love reach the boiling point, and he suddenly felt that life would not be worth living without her. After much Sturm und Drang, she essentially took her lover into the marriage with her (for reasons I will return to, in the discussion of the split-object triangle). Over time he separated from his wife but could never move out of the sphere of influence of his beloved, where he remains to this day, having renounced his lifelong propensity for split-object triangles in favor of participation in a rivalrous one, paradoxically achieving the first intense and enduring love affair of his life.
Perhaps a metamorphosis like his cannot be fully understood, for it draws on too many complexities of character. In part, though, I believe the shift in his adaptation to the world was facilitated by his success: this strengthened his sense of self and thereby allowed him to acknowledge his deep longing for passivity and his fatal attraction to someone of strong will. At the same time, the triangular configuration he finally entered into afforded him some protection against total submission and both gratified and checked the passivity that was so fundamental to his nature.
married woman or man who takes a lover may be only indulging in a dalliance, in which case he or she may view it as irrelevant to the marriage. But when an adulterous affair becomes a passion rather than a diversion, a split-object triangle develops, with a split in valuation between the spouse and the lover, the marriage and the affair. The spouse, if not actually loathed, comes to be seen as limited, at the very least. The marriage, if not bad, is experienced as stultifying. The lover comes to equate the unsatisfactory spouse with an impoverished marriage, and the new beloved with a rich affair. This split in the lover's evaluation is commonly simplified to a "bad" situation on the one hand, and a "good" one on the other. Even so, the lover is often consumed by guilt for what he experiences as a betrayal of his obligations.
One should not, however, be too quick to assume that one has understood the true motivation for any given split-object triangle. The impulse for a spouse to fall in love with someone other than the marriage partner may be eminently sensible. Some marriages are dead and others are dreadful. But sometimes the impulse to run away from home, so to speak, reflects an inability on the part of the spouse to stay in love or to sustain ambivalence within the context of a loving relationship. Some lovers are simply incapable of risking a one-on-one commitment. In a formally committed relationship like marriage, they experience a threat to their autonomy or feel consumed by anger.
When love flowers in an adulterous situation, what normally occurs in falling in love is, often, exaggerated. The lover's obsession with the beloved must now extend also to an obsession with the logistics of the affair. The lover is simultaneously rearranging time and concocting explanations of his absence for his spouse—delays, longer working hours, unavailability. The attempt to conceal anaffair from one's spouse takes on gargantuan—and sometimes ludicrous—proportions. To some extent, the lover's obsession with arrangements becomes the expression of his love; it serves as a release from the monotony of life away from the beloved, because it appears to serve the purpose of love to bring them together. (It may also become a source of discontent. So much arranging, when not sufficiently appreciated by the beloved, can itself become just another duty or obligation.)
The lover often feels the anguish of needing to make a choice. He may be torn between the guilt he feels toward his wife and children and the guilt he feels for failing to cement his tie to his beloved. He is consumed with longing for her. Uncertainties as to whether he is really in love and doubts about whether the beloved really loves him are intense; especially when the lovers are separated. The lover reproaches himself, worrying about his children and his wife. Sometimes he will still desire his wife, and sometimes he will resent his children: they stand between him and his new love. Perhaps, if he is introspective, he may also intuit that earlier they might have come between him and their mother, causing the first breach in his marriage. He wants to spare the children and yet he wishes them out of the way. He also worries about the beloved, fearing that he may be harming her by using up her best years.
Thus far, a split love object appears to be the problematic dynamic. However, the lover may find that his concerns shift abruptly, such that he obsesses about whether or not his beloved is abandoning hope and considering an affair with someone else. The guilty, despairing lover will now be transformed into the jealous lover, the triangle converted into a rivalrous one.
Just as the protagonist in a rivalrous triangle may use anger to counteract unbearable jealousy and anxiety, so, too, the protagonist in a split-object triangle may try to evoke anger in the betrayed spouse in order to feel legitimately angry in return and thereby surmount the sometimes overwhelming sense of guilt. One betrayed husband declared that had he, rather than his wife, been having an affair, he would have been unusually nice to her, rather than mean, as she was being to him. But he failed to understand the dynamics of guilt. (His wife always held that his psychological naivete was at the heart of the failure of their marriage.)
One man who was involved in a passionate affair stopped sleeping with his wife. Curiously enough, she never suspected any infidelity but thought he was depressed. He began to find fault with her, and she retaliated in kind. Their marriage deteriorated into little more than continual bickering. Feeling misused, she demanded more and more material things. By this time the husband felt quite justified in his affair: he was, after all, married to a shrew. He divorced his wife, married his mistress and blamed his wife for the demise of the marriage. According to his interpretation of past events, had she been good-hearted and patient he would never have made a final break. As is often said, short memories preserve good consciences.
In general, it is hard to predict what any particular adulterous lover will do—stay in his marriage or leave. Even if he loves his mistress, the strength of his attachment to his wife may preclude his leaving her. Then, too, in some triangles the real love affair exists between the married couple. Their love may be submerged in routine, disguised for the time being as mere attachment, but when threatened it can be reawakened. In the movie The Women,based on the play by Clare Boothe Luce, the mother of the betrayed wife explains to her daughter that her husband still loves her and is not tired of her but tired of himself, and therefore in need of seeing himself reflected in another woman's eyes. Women, she explains, when they feel tired of themselves, renew themselves by buying new clothes or changing their hair but men don't have enough imagination to do that, so they look for another mirror in which to view themselves, rather than changing the image in the mirror.
Frequently the mistress hopes against hope that her lover will eventually free himself, while the wife consoles herself with the belief that her husband will eventually tire of his mistress. Apparently, one or the other must ultimately be proved correct. But the split-object triangle may last, unresolved, a very long time—sometimes until one of the participants dies (as was the case, for example, with Victor Hugo, Adele Hugo, and Juliette Drouet). In such long-term situations the split-object triangle is likely to seem important to the lover in and of itself. In fact, it serves the psychological function of a reverse triangle and protects him from fears of abandonment or humiliation.
And sometimes, to the absolute horror of mistress and wife, the lover breaks with both, only to take up with still another woman, whom he eventually marries. One man, apparently exasperated by his wife's utter lack of interest in his work, began a long romantic liaison with his assistant. He experienced the resulting split in his life as increasingly debilitating and managed to bring it to' resolution by arranging (unconsciously) for his wife to come upon an incontrovertible piece of evidence pointing to his long-standing infidelity. Unable to deny the situation any longer, she asked him to leave, and he did. But strangely enough, he did not move in with his assistant—perhaps, he now thinks, looking back, because he did not want to merge both his personal and his professional life with one person. Or perhaps he was already too angry at his lover-assistant for the relentless pressure she had brought to bear on him to leave his wife, or perhaps her increasing professional eminence posed a competitive threat. Perhaps, in part, he felt she had used him to further her own career. Whatever the reason, within a year he was utterly enraptured by still another woman, whom he had met on a business trip and whom he subsequently married.
It is not only men who engage in split-object triangles. A colleague asked me to read her paper on the subject of the professional woman, prior to its publication. In it she commented that all her professional women patients had had at least one significant extramarital affair. I advised her against publishing the paper, because it could cause considerable trouble in her patients' lives should they or their husbands ever read it (not to mention the possible legal ramifications). And so it happened that a very interesting paper was never published. Despite her data and my own clinical experience, which verifies the frequency of adulterous affairs among married women, nonetheless it still appears that men are more likely to form reverse triangles, not because women are either more timid or more moral but for developmental reasons.
Some people engage in what I would consider imaginative split-object triangles. They lead conventional monogamous lives but hold to the belief (sometimes articulated, sometimes not) that they are still deeply in love with someone with whom they once shared a great love. One elderly gentleman, in a marriage that most of his friends regard as exemplary, will occasionally confide that he loved someone else early in his marriage but that because he was an honorable man, he stayed the course and gave up his one true love. Of course, he regards his wife as a most remarkable woman, but his true feelings, he assures his listener, are on a different plane. One sometimes senses a twofold purpose in such confidences. Often the feelings articulated are deeply authentic ones and serve the same goals (in a safer way) that enacted split-object triangles do. But sometimes they are tentative feelers to explore new imaginative possibilities-depending, of course, on the response of the confidant.
One important variant of the split-object triangle brings many people (men more often than women) into therapy. In these triangles the spouse is gradually but invariably transformed from the beloved into an ogre. The wife is not overtly regarded with guilt; she is hated and feared. She is perceived ambivalently as hostile and potentially threatening, yet also as the embodiment of stability—providing safety through constraints. She serves the role of the jailer, the woman assigned to protect the husband from himself. In contrast, the beloved is perceived as a paragon of freedom and spontaneity, though perhaps not someone sturdy or mature enough to be relied upon. Freud spoke of the madonna-whore complex, in which a man might love his wife and yet, in order to spare her his sordid sexual urges, transfer his sexual longings to the "whore." The triangles I am describing here are quite different. The spouse is not metamorphosed into an asexual madonna; on the contrary, she is viewed as an overcontrolling, intense, all-powerful mother figure. She comes to be experienced as menacing, and is resented because of her right to make demands and place strictures on her husband. The more dependent he is on her, the more he will resent her.
The protagonist in these triangles may gradually become aware that history repeats itself, and he will find this alarming. He will discover that as soon as he achieves his freedom from his tyrannical wife and commits himself to his mistress, she will be transformed into a locus of duty and hostility and he will have duplicated his marriage. Then he will once more be drawn to a younger, simpler, and apparently less demanding woman. To his dismay—if he has any self-awareness—it will gradually dawn on him that the succession of women he has loved did not undergo malevolent transformations of their personalities as a consequence of marriage but rather were transformed by his withdrawal and hostility or, even worse, were transformed only in his imagination. In another variation on the theme of history repeating itself, the mistress may fear that her adulterous lover, having betrayed his wife, will betray her in turn. Francoise Gilot, contemplating her predecessors with Picasso, observed that neither independence nor compliance spared them his disenchantment, and so she was better prepared for the inevitable transformation of his perception of her, too.
Sometimes a lover appears to have an underlying psychological need to depreciate and ultimately betray his beloved. But most of us are loath to come to such a conclusion about ourselves. We prefer to rationalize the causes of those rejections we initiate and those we witness and benefit from in the role of the newly beloved: "I had to leave him before his dullness destroyed me" or "He couldn't stand her because she had become a prattling, bourgeois housewife," and so forth. Yet whether we acknowledge it or not, some people are psychologically predisposed to betray those who love them. Usually, such a person has felt betrayed himself (whether the betrayal actually occurred or was merely a fantasy, recently or in early life), identifies with the aggressor, and is prepared to disrupt the lives of successive lovers in the search for reparation for past wrongs. (The original betrayer from whom the person learns betrayal is most often a figure from childhood.)
A typical example is the young woman, previously mentioned, who took her distinguished older lover into her marriage. As a child, she. had been morbidly ashamed of her ungainly mother and inordinately proud of her charming, virtuoso father. But her relationship with him was marred by her perception that he preferred her older and less gifted sister. Nonetheless, she looked for validation and for succor from a series of nurturant men. Her first serious love affair proved disappointing, and she sought something more intense in the affair with the married man for whom she worked. That adulterous affair awakened her to the profound joys of truly passionate love, though it failed to become a permanent relationship. Her latent anger toward her father (he had dared prefer her sister!) now found expression in the disappointed and angry feelings aroused by her lover's failure to marry her, and caused her to be on her guard with all men. She solved this problem—the conflict between her need for male nurturance and her basic distrust of men—by entering into a series of split-object (reverse) triangles. Consequently, it seemed natural to her to continue her affair with the older, caretaking lover even after she married—and she did indeed seem to thrive on the emotional largesse of two devoted men. Though she, as the dominant force in the split-object triangle, might appear to have been in the power position, she (like others in similar situations) clearly suffered from a fundamental weakness—the inability to risk all and to love full out.
While the suffering lover in rivalrous triangle may envy the apparent invulnerability of the lover in a split-object triangle, the latter has plenty of woes of his own, some of them profoundly debilitating. The guilt generated in the split-object triangle is itself corrosive and antagonistic to the goodness the lover feels (and aspires to) in happy love. Complications abound, and the fragmented lover may come to feel depleted, longing not for love but for solitude. At this point the lover may abandon both relationships and enact one or another of the standard fantasies of escape into splendid isolation (for example, retreating to a secluded cabin or to some contemporary equivalent of the French Foreign Legion). Such was the fate of the protagonist in the Isaac Bashevis Singer novel Enemies, A Love Story. This man, a survivor of the Holocaust, marries the Christian woman who, at great risk to herself, saved him. He acquires a mistress and is suddenly brought up short by the appearance of his first wife, whom he had believed dead. With his life split into too many pieces, he has little choice but to disappear. For some of us, life is an endless process of shuttling back and forth between the solitary state and pairings, pairings and triangles, triangles and the solitary state, never finding our preferred place of rest.
isplaced-incestuous triangles do not involve love (or sex) between members of one family; rather, two family members share a lover, either simultaneously or sequentially. Woody Allen's movie Hannah and Her Sisters is a virtual celebration of interlocking triangles and emotions. Two of the key triangles in the film involve Hannah (Mia Farrow), who is portrayed as happy and mature, and is envied by her two sisters. Hannah's husband (Michael Caine) lusts after her beautiful and sexy sister Lee (Barbara Hershey), who succumbs to his advances. (In the end he reveals that he really loved Hannah all along, and he stays with her.) Hannah had once fixed up her previous husband (Woody Allen) with her coked-up, discombobulated sister Holly (Dianne Wiest), with disastrous results. This misadventure is redeemed when Holly and Hannah's ex-husband accidently meet again, fall in love, and decide to marry. Each of Hannah's sisters, then, sleeps with one of her husbands. (There are still other triangles in this film. One involves the request by Hannah and her first husband, who is apparently infertile, that a good friend of theirs donate sperm so that she might get pregnant.)
The strength of the film lies in its portrayal of the rich emotional mix characteristic of real life: the sisters are competitive and erotically rivalrous, but they are also affectionate, helpful, and compassionate toward one another. By passing on a discarded husband to her sister, Hannah is denying feelings of sibling rivalry (and Oedipal competition, from which sibling rivalry in part derives). Sometimes such an act may conceal— and covertly reveal—a homosexual urge, which is being symbolically mediated through a shared man.
But what of the triangles from the point of view of Hannah's husbands? What is the impulse that leads some people to involve themselves emotionally and erotically with more than one member of a family? In a general way, the desire reflects a taste or tendency for complexity and density. Such complexities may be necessary to a piquant emotional life. More particularly, the urge is a variant of the one that results in a split-object triangle in which the lover displaces, unresolved incestuous fixations onto the objects of his affection. When displaced-incestuous triangles form a large part of a person's erotic preoccupation, they derive from Oedipal fixations and longings that may present themselves in other ways as well. Clinically one often observes a predilection for the exotic and forbidden (as an alternate form of displacement of Oedipal desire) along with the displaced-incestuous preoccupation. For example, a woman I know, a proper Anglo-Saxon Protestant, was never attracted to men of her own background but always to Asian men. (Her father had been stationed in the Orient during the Second World War, when she was a child, and apparently Asian men were both a protection against her fantasies about him and a symbolic stand-in for him.) The single exception to this predilection was an instance in which she was simultaneously attracted to two Caucasian brothers.
Part of the appeal of the movie The Graduate may have been that it was one of the first films to deal with the fairly common male fantasy of being involved with both a mother and her daughter (an intense reverse triangle of the first order, in which the man is not competing with his father for his mother but the mother and daughter are competing for him). The incestuous preoccupation has been externalized, and the protagonist "plays" with it at some remove. Sometimes mothers and daughters have love affairs with the same man, just as fathers and sons may love the same woman. I have known two men who married the daughters of former mistresses—or, to put it the other way around, two daughters who married their mothers' former lovers. In Judith Krantz's novel Mistral's Daughter, Maggy, who is the painter Julian Mistral's model-mistress and the inspiration for some of his best work, loses him to another woman. Later her own daughter, Teddy, has a love affair with Mistral (for Teddy, a thinly disguised case of re-finding the rivalrous Oedipal triangle) and has a child by him.
The Erotic Appeal of the Rival and the Attraction to Couples
ccasionally, participants in triangular love relationships discover something shocking within themselves: a deep sexual attraction to their rivals. This may be manifested only in apparently inexplicable dream fragments or flashes of fantasy. The negative Oedipal complex—which is founded on sexual desire for one's parent of the same sex—and a homosexual longing for the rival often come into play in love triangles.
A masterly account of the complexities of triangular love can be found in Milan Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being. In that novel Tereza reads the mail of her lover, Tomas, and discovers his ongoing infidelity with Sabina. She then has a nightmare in which the three of them are in a room together and Tomas orders her to watch him make love to Sabina on a raised platform bed. She awakens and tells Tomas of her nightmare. The next day Tomas goes to his desk and finds this passage in one of Sabina's letters to him: "I want to make love to you in my studio. It will be like a stage surrounded by people," whereupon he realizes that Tereza has read his mail. He forgives Tereza for this, but she is unable and unwilling to forgive him for his transgression, though she is equally unable to give him up. She remains tormented by his infidelity. Later she incorporates the image of the raised bed and Sabina into her lovemaking with Tomas. "As time passed, the image lost some of its original cruelty and began to excite Tereza. She would whisper the details to him while they made love." Still later Tereza and Sabina have an encounter, in Sabina's studio, with distinctly sexual overtones. It excites them both, though both ultimately draw back from it. More interesting still, Tereza ultimately models her professional identity on what she has learned from Sabina.
While the knowledge of betrayal by one's lover causes pain, it may also generate considerable sexual excitement. This fact, as well as the occasional manifestation of a deeply buried sexual longing for one's rival, point to the contamination of a love affair by unresolved Oedipal material. In particular, homosexual longing for one's rival suggests the ongoing influence of a highly developed negative Oedipus complex, along with the positive one. (This is a manifestation of bisexuality, a universal propensity.) In this case the lover is simultaneously attracted to and jealous of both partners in the couple, just as he once was with his parents.
Some lovers do manage affectionate relationships with their rivals, and treasure ongoing relationships with them. While some wives use the occasion of a spouse's death to exact revenge on a rival, others initiate closer ties with the mistress. Together they share memories of their lost love.
There are also those who attach themselves amorously or half-amorously—sometimes even asexually—to both partners in a couple. An example, it seems, would be David Diamond's intense friendships with both Carson McCullers and her husband, Reeves McCullers. Diamond, a composer, was drawn to both of them from their first meeting, and his diary entries—excerpted by Carson's biographer Virginia Spencer Carr—are explicit about his dual inclinations: "Now I have met this love—this lovable child-woman—whose loneliness hit me the moment I entered Muriel Rukeyser's apartment . . . . I met her husband, whom I know I love." "What has happened to me since meeting Carson and now Reeves, her husband. Carson, whose magnetism and strange sickly beauty stifles me, gnaws at me, and I know it is that I love these two human beings. It is a great love I feel. It will nourish me or destroy me." At first the McCullerses drew him into their marriage. But the marriage was disintegrating, and Diamond, pulled into the maelstrom, yearned for a passionate attachment first with one, then with the other, and did live for a time with Reeves. Carson, who previously had championed the legitimacy of homosexual relationships, was nonetheless devastated by this turn of events and the sense of exclusion she felt. Carr believes that Carson's triangular relationship with Reeves and Diamond figure heavily in her fascination with the "we of me" that became the central motif in her novel The Member of the Wedding. The triangle that haunted her fictional character Frankie haunted the author in reality. According to Carr, Carson found the idea of an exclusive permanent relationship between these two men distasteful. Carr goes on to say: we of me relationship was good only as long as it suited Carson—and included her—but it was devastating if it left her out." Ten years later, after Carson and Reeves were back together, Diamond saw them again, but with trepidation and hesitation: ". . . I feel they may still be able force me to accept their helplessness and loneliness as a part of my own." Diamond did not, however, become hopelessly stuck in his role as an adjunct to a couple. He eventually found a meaningful and lasting liaison one-on-one.
Sometimes it is altogether unclear whom the lover regards as the object of desire and whom as the rival. One encounters men (and some women) whose preferred masturbation fantasy is the image of a couple making love. In this fantasy the protagonist is present merely as a voyeur. Now, clearly, the same fantasy does not always have the same meaning for everyone, but in some cases this fantany represents a fixation on the parental couple, in which it is the very exclusion from the parental bedroom and the fantasized primal scene that has itself been eroticized.
o love pairing is immune from traidic components. Most often, these can be incorporated into the couple's relationship and need not be corrosive. Particularly when they take form only as fleeting fantasies, such triangles may even be enriching to love.
To the degree that triangular preoccupations are actualized in extramarital love affairs (or merely sexual ones, for that matter), they are likely to be destructive, containing, as they do, inherent fault lines and dangers. The intrinsic problems of such triangles derive from their instability, their hidden agendas, their connection with power pIays, and the inevitable frustrations and insecurities they engender in each of the three principals. This is not to say that a couple that cleaves to form a triangle may not ultimately survive as a couple, but their love may be fractured. The lovers' sense of mutual priority and trust will have been violated in such a fundamental way that it may not be entirely reparable.
Yet in some instances triangles prove adaptive or adulterous love proves life-sustaining. Then, too, the original pairing may be dissolved and replaced by a new one.
But while for some people triangles are merely temporary arrangements in response to circumstances or dissatisfactions, for others they are the primary focus. To the extent that a person is fixated on triangular relationships (for example, when a woman falls in love only with married men), that person is engaged in self-defeating behavior and is eroding the pleasures of love.
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Ethel Person is a
Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University, a
Training and Supervising Analyst at the Columbia University
Psychoanalytic Center, and the author of Feeling Strong: The Achievement of Authentic Power.
Copyright © 1988 by Ethel Person. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; Volume 210, No. 1; pp. 48-51.