A love triangle (also called a romantic love triangle or a romance triangle or an eternal triangle) is usually a romantic relationship involving three or more people. While it can refer to two people independently romantically linked with a third, it usually implies that each of the three people has some kind of relationship to the other two. The relationships can be friendships, romantic, or familial.
The 1994 book Beliefs, Reasoning, and Decision Making states, "Although the romantic love triangle is formally identical to the friendship triad, as many have noted their actual implications are quite different....Romantic love is typically viewed as an exclusive relationship, whereas friendship is not." Statistics suggest that, in Western society, "willingly or not, most adults have been involved in a love triangle".
Two main forms of love triangle have been distinguished: "there is the rivalrous triangle, where the lover is competing with a rival for the love of the beloved, and the split-object triangle, where a lover has split their attention between two love objects".
History and definitions
The term "love triangle" generally connotes an arrangement unsuitable to one or more of the people involved. One person typically ends up feeling betrayed at some point (e.g., "Person A is jealous of Person C who is having a relationship with Person B who, in Person A's eyes, is 'his/her' person."). A similar arrangement that is agreed upon by all parties is sometimes called a triad, which is a type of polyamory even though polyamory usually implies sexual relations. Within the context of monogamy, love triangles are inherently unstable, with unrequited love and jealousy as common themes. In most cases, the jealous or rejected first party ends a friendship—and sometimes even starts a fight with—the second party over the third-party love interest. Though rare, love triangles have been known to lead to murder or suicide committed by the actual or perceived rejected lover.
Psychoanalysis has explored 'the theme of erotic love triangles and their roots in the Oedipal triangle'. Experience suggests that 'a repeated pattern of forming or being caught in love triangle can be much dissolved by beginning to analyse the patterns of the childhood relationship to each parent in turn and to both parents as a couple'. In such instances, 'you find men who are attracted only by married woman but who can't sustain the relationship if it threatens to become more than an affair. They need the husband to protect them from a full relationship...as women who repeatedly get involved with married men need the wives'.
A common love triangle is one in which the hero or heroine is torn between two suitors of radically contrasting personalities; one of a girl next door or nice guy type, and the other as a physically attractive but potentially hazardous person. Alternatively, the hero or heroine has a choice between a seemingly perfect lover and an imperfect but endearing person. In this case, the "too-good-to-be-true" person is often revealed to have a significant flaw, such as hidden insensitivity or lecherousness, causing the other person to become the more desirable partner.
'In geometric terms, the eternal triangle can be represented as comprising three points – a jealous mate (A) in a relationship with an unfaithful partner (B) who has a lover (C)...A feels abandoned, B is between two mates, and C is a catalyst for crisis in the union A-B'.
It has been suggested that 'a collusive network is always needed to keep the triangle eternal'. This may take a tragic form – 'I saw no prospect of its ending except with death – the death of one of three people' – or alternately a comic one: 'A man at the funeral of a friend's wife, with whom he has been carrying on an affair, breaks into tears and finally becomes hysterical, while the husband remains impassive. "Calm yourself," says the husband, "I'll be marrying again"'.
It has been suggested that if men 'share a sense of brotherhood and they allow a woman into their relationship, an isosceles triangle is created' automatically, as 'in Truffaut's film Jules et Jim '. René Girard has explored the role of envy and mimetic desire in such relationships, arguing that often the situation 'subordinates a desired something to the someone who enjoys a privileged relationship with it'. In such cases, 'it cannot be fair to blame the quarrel of the mimetic twins on a woman....She is their common scapegoat'.
When a love triangle results in the breakup of a marriage, it may often be followed by what has been called 'the imposition of a "defilement taboo"...the emotional demand imposed by a jealous ex-mate...to eschew any friendly or supportive contact with the rival in the triangle' The result is often to leave children gripped by 'shadows from the past...they often take sides. Their loyalties are torn', and – except in the best of cases – 'the one left "injured" can easily sway the feelings of the children against acknowledging this new relationship'.
As to gender responsibility, evidence would seem to indicate that in late modernity both sexes may equally well play the part of the "Other Person" – that 'men and women love with equivalent passion as well as folly' and that certainly there is nothing to 'suggest that a man is better able to control himself in a love triangle than a woman'. Stereotypically, the person at the center of a rivalrous love triangle is a woman, whereas for a split-object love triangle it is a man, due to the same reasons that polygyny is far more common than polyandry.
Those who find themselves tempted to become the Other Man may, however, still find a cynic's advice from the 1930s pertinent on 'the emotional position of the adulterer, and why to avoid it...Did I know what a mug's game was? – No. – "A mug's game," he told me, "is breaking your back at midnight, trying to make another man's wife come'.
Eric Berne termed that conflictual aspect of the love triangle "Let's You and Him Fight"; and considered "the psychology is essentially feminine. Because of its dramatic qualities, LYAHF is the basis of much of the world's literature, both good and bad".
Young Adult literature has seen a rise in the popularity of the love triangle story structure (such as Twilight or The Selection). But the love triangle story structure has been around since before early classic writers like William Shakespeare and Alexandre Dumas. Shakespeare's famous play Romeo and Juliet featured a love triangle between Juliet, Romeo, and Paris. Although more subtle, Dumas's classics The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers also feature love triangles strong enough to seek revenge and start a war.
Love triangles can either be relatively balanced, in which the two candidates each have a fair chance of ending up with the protagonist, or they can be lopsided, in which the hero or heroine has an obvious romantic interest in one of the candidates, and considers the other candidate as "just a friend", but withholds a confession to avoid hurting feelings. An example of this is in the Broadway hit musical Wicked, in which dim-witted Fiyero first displays affection for Glinda the Good Witch, but then falls for Elphaba, the supposedly Wicked Witch. But in this latter case, to provide necessary tension and drama, the second platonic candidate is also very often the hero or heroine's long-term boyfriend or girlfriend.
A less permanent love triangle occurs when a former lover of the main character makes an unexpected appearance to win back the character's heart, provoking feelings of jealousy from the main character's steady partner. However, this situation is usually not considered an actual love triangle since there is little possibility of the main character breaking up with a longtime partner to pursue a just-introduced character, and it is often used as only a test of the true depth of the main character's devotion to their partner. In these cases, the long-term partner has usually been guilty of neglect toward the main character and in the end the relationship remains intact with the long-term partner having learned some valuable lesson.
Usually, a love triangle will end with the hero or heroine confiding their feelings in the suitor they feel is most virtuous or has the most interest in them. (As in Twilight.) The other suitor usually steps aside to allow the couple to be happy, or comes to terms with their feelings, often claiming they could not love the main character as much. Sometimes they are written out of the love equation entirely by falling in love with someone else, or being killed off or otherwise eliminated. While love triangles can be accused of being clichéd, if done well, they provide insight into the complexity of love and what is best to pursue in a romantic relationship.
In television shows, a love triangle is often prolonged, delaying final declarations of love between the pursued character and suitors that may prematurely end this dynamic or displease fans. Some examples of these include 90210, Friends, The O.C., How I Met Your Mother, The Vampire Diaries and Grey's Anatomy. Love triangles also featured prominently on soap operas, and can span more than a decade, as famously shown by Taylor Hamilton, Ridge Forrester and Brooke Logan on The Bold and the Beautiful. Another famous soap opera love triangle was the one that occurred on General Hospital between Luke Spencer, Laura Spencer, and Scotty Baldwin. Similarly, romance films also sustain this set-up until near the film's end, although they tend to establish a more clear-cut conclusion to the romantic entanglements than in long-running TV shows.
The love triangle has been a recurring subject in many popular songs through the years. These "love triangle songs" include, but are not limited to:
- "You Ain't Woman Enough" by Loretta Lynn
- "Fist City" by Loretta Lynn
- "The Girl Is Mine" by Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney
- "The Boy is Mine" by Brandy and Monica
- "Make No Mistake, She's Mine" by Kenny Rogers and Ronnie Milsap
- "Does He Love You" by Reba McEntire and Linda Davis
- "Bizarre Love Triangle" by New Order
- "El Paso" by Marty Robbins
- "Jolene" by Dolly Parton
- "She's All I Got" by Johnny Paycheck
- "The Girl of My Best Friend" by Elvis Presley
- "U.S. Male" by Elvis Presley
- "Torn Between Two Lovers" by Mary MacGregor
- "Don't Go Out" by T. Graham Brown and Tanya Tucker
- "My Toot Toot" by Rockin' Sidney
- "Against All Odds" by Phil Collins
- "Hey, Joe" by Carl Smith
- "Tell Her No" by The Zombies
- "Tennessee Waltz" by Patti Page
- "Jessie's Girl" by Rick Springfield
- "He Don't Love You (Like I Love You)" by Jerry Butler
- The Bloomsbury Group often produced some unusual forms of love triangles, as with that involving Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and the latter's lover, David Garnett.
- Warned off a love triangle by one of his prospective partners, Einstein conceded to her that "You have more respect for the difficulties of triangular geometry than I, old mathematicus, have."
Ménage à trois
A love triangle should not be confused with a ménage à trois, a three-way relationship in which either all members are romantically involved with each other, or one member has relations with two others who are reconciled to the situation instead of being in conflict. Ménage à trois is French and directly translates to "household for three" meaning it is usually composed of a "married couple and a lover...who live together while sharing sexual relations". This differs from a love triangle because each participant is equally motivated purely by sexual desires. The ménage à trois may be considered a subset of 'The Sandwich...a straight three-handed operation...which may be operated with any assortment of sexes: three men, three women, two men and a woman ("Ménage à trois"), or two women and a man ("The Tourist Sandwich")'.
- R. P. Abelson/R. C. Schank, Beliefs, Reasoning, and Decision-Making (1994), p. 223.
- A. Pam/J. Pearson, Splitting Up (1998), p. 149.
- Deidre Johnson, Love: Bondage or Liberation (London, 2010) p. 6.
- David Cooper, The Death of the Family (Penguin 1974) p. 49
- Johnson, p. 6
- Robin Skynner/John Cleese, Families and How to Survive Them (1994) p. 268-9
- Pam/Pearson, p. 148
- Pam/Pearson, p. 166
- Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond (1990) p. 66
- G. Legman, Rationale of the Dirty Joke Vol II (1973) p. 400
- Rebecca L. Copeland ed., Woman Critiqued (2006) p. 228
- René Girard, A Theatre of Envy (Oxford 1991) p. 4
- Girard, p. 323-4
- Pam/Pearson, p. 168
- Virginia Satir, Peoplemaking (1983) p. 181-4
- Copeland, p. 47
- Legman, p. 432-3
- Eric Berne, Games People Play (Penguin) p. 108
- Neil Corcoran ed., Do You, Mr Jones? (London 2002) p. 55
- Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf (London 1996) p. 381 and p. 540
- Quoted in W. Isaacson, Einstein (2007) p. 361
- Eric Berne, Sex in Human Loving (1970) p. 173
- Belinda Sterling, The Journal of Dora Damage (London 2007) p. 190