Triangles And The Oedipus Complex

The profound pulls of the triangle exert constant pressure throughout the cycle of love. Lovers who come together originally through a desire unmediated by the presence of a third party, and who wish only to establish a glorious dyad, may still be vulnerable to the process of triangulation.

Triangles are often invoked defensively to protect against the hazards of dyads. 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. Other individuals, too frightened to risk full-out one-on-one dyadic love, restrict their romantic liaisons to a regular series of cameo appearances in triangles.

Triangulation may be used to punish a disappointing or errant lover, or to even out the score. A husband may believe he has forgiven his wife after she confesses a prior affair, only to feel himself drawn into a love affair of his own shortly thereafter. Triangulation may also be used to re-establish a sense of gender adequacy when one's femininity or masculinity has been damaged by a competitive defeat, either erotic or non-erotic. 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. Alternately, triangulation may be used to alter not one's own self-image, but one's image in a lover's eyes, with one lover hoping to pique the other's interest and coax fading love back to full intensity through the agency of jealousy. Triangulation may even be used as a self-punishment. A lover who is radiantly happy in love may experience guilt at his great good fortune, and he too 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 alludes to triangles, our thoughts immediately go to the most basic of all triangles, the Oedipus complex. Because erotic and sexual longing first come together in the early Oedipal period, we can appreciate why desire may be readily elicited by triangles, and why the secondary triangle of wife-husband-lover is easily viewed as a derivative of the primary triangle of mother-father-child. But, love in the face of any taboo, whether of class, religion, race, or incest, is, at least in part, a reworking of the original Oe-dipal taboo. Indeed, all love bears some relationship to the Oedipal.

However, it will not do simply to declare that triangles are basically Oedipal in nature and leave it at that. We must distinguish two primary kinds of triangles: "rivalrous" triangles and "split-object" triangles. The distinction is important because each type is wrapped around a fundamentally different psychological core. In the rivalrous triangle, the protagonist is competing for the love of the beloved. In the split-object triangle, the protagonist has split his attention between two objects.

Any individual may find himself or herself in one or the other triangle at different points in life, and may even be in both kinds of triangles simultaneously, as I will elaborate later.

These two types depict the different perspectives inherent in any triangle, and their different psychological substance. Each of the protagonists in a triangle will obviously have different hopes, anxieties, and preoccupations. Though they inhabit the same objective triangle, their subjective triangles (the meaning of the triangle in their psychological lives) will be different. While all these meanings can be related to the Oedipal complex, they represent different variants of it.

Consider, for example, one of the simplest triangles, a married 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 other 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. (It should be noted that this configuration may sometimes bring not just pain but also increased intensity.) Participation in a rivalrous triangle is sometimes a transient phenomenon in the lover's life, but some lovers may be fixated on such participation.

From the husband's point of view, however, the triangle has an altogether different make-up. For him, the triangle is a split-object triangle and it is 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; the principal emotion most often guilt. The split-object triangle may have multiple purposes, perhaps 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; from this perspective, the split-object triangle is a power maneuver. And sometimes it is nothing more than the product of the lover's dissatisfaction with the reality of 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. The reverse triangle is a split-object triangle that has a particular motive behind it. It is invoked as an attempt to undo the humiliation of once having 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 invoked as the solution or pseudo-solution to all kinds of current prob lems and conflicts, the reverse triangle bespeaks a 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 play on the constant movement from dyad to triangle and back. Some individuals by virtue of their individual psychology or psychopathology have more propensity to seek out forbidden triangles or to feel any established dyad as incestual. Still others are prone to experience the constraints of dyadic love and seek escape in triangles. Some are only comfortable 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.

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