Triangles: The Agony & Ecstasy
This is a true story.
Sometime around 2002 I got a call from a woman named Andrea. She said she had read my book Addiction to Love and wanted to talk to me about her boyfriend. As soon as she arrived for her session, Andrea began talking about John and “his” addiction. “I love him,” she said, “and he loves me, but I can’t get him to stop seeing other women.” I listened for about twenty minutes and then quickly speculated that John might be a romance addict—someone who gets high off of the euphoria of romance. Romance addicts usually have multiple partners and get addicted to the honeymoon phase of a relationship. They sometimes have one full time partner to give them a sense of stability, but one person is never enough for them.
As I listened to Andrea I waited for her to pause so I could get her to begin focusing on herself. She, I believed, was a codependent love addict—the partner in a relationship who hangs on for dear life and has a high tolerance for suffering neglect, and sometimes, abuse. Codependent love addicts (also known as relationships addicts) are constantly trying to fix a relationship. Their sensitivity to separation anxiety makes it impossible for them to cut their losses and move on. Andrea was not, unfortunately, willing to talk about herself so I found myself getting drawn into what would turn out to be one of the most complicated and bizarre triangles of my career. By “drawn in” I mean that, against my better judgment, I agreed to see Andrea the next day along with her boyfriend John. All I can say is that it seemed like a good idea at the time.
The next day Andrea and John arrived for their session. I decided since Andrea would not let me help her with her codependency, I would try to help John with his romance addiction. He became the “identified patient.”
John had always been a romance addict. He was handsome and intelligent. He loved women and began cheating on his wife of twenty years six months into the marriage. After his divorce he dated up to five women at a time. Five minutes into the session I asked him why he was here. “I want to settle down,” he said. “I read your book and I want to stop being a womanizer.” “Can you help me?” he asked. “I don’t know,” I said. “Are you willing to change?” “Yes,” he said quickly.
I outlined a program of recovery for John. It was simple. Recovery for romance addicts is monogamy. “Choose the woman you want to settle down with,” I told John, “and we will work through the anxiety you feel when you commit to just one woman.” John agreed to this plan and made an appointment for the next night.
The next night John arrived promptly at 8:00 o’clock with a woman named Sandra. He introduced her to me as the woman he truly loved and wanted to settle down with. I felt a little uncomfortable and wasn’t quite sure what to do. I had assumed, for some reason, that he would come back the next night with Andrea.
Sandra was nice. John was nice. They were obviously in love. They held hands during the session and looked adoringly into each other’s eyes. So what was the problem? Unfortunately, as I was soon to learn, John was just as much in love with Andrea and had the innate ability to be in the moment with each of these women. When he was with Andrea she had his full attention. When he was with Sandra she was the only one for him. I am not sure whether I should categorize him as a good con artist or a sick man, but since I tend to be a compassionate person by nature, I decided that what I was calling John’s romance addiction was not the result of narcissism per se but a deep-seated fear of intimacy with any one woman.
I recommended some books to John and Sandra and sent them on their way. “Get into couples therapy,” I said “and go to some workshops.” I asked John to come back if he felt himself backsliding from his commitment to Sandra and the monogamous lifestyle. Little did I know what I was saying.
Two days later John called, “I have to see you,” he said, “it is urgent. I have changed my mind. Andrea is the one I want to be with. I love her.” Against my better judgment (for the second time but not the last), I agreed to see John and Andrea. Right off I confronted John about his ambivalence. “I don’t want to get caught up in this triangle,” I declared. “You have to choose one woman here.” “There is no doubt about it,” he declared. “Andrea is my choice.” “OK,” I finally said. Then I repeated the same advice I had given him and Sandra. “Get into couples therapy and go to some workshops.” For good measure I added, “Get into individual therapy too, and read some books.”
A week later Andrea called. “John is cheating on me,” she said. "I caught him with Sandra. I am following them now. They are just leaving the hotel. What shall I do?” “Go home,” I suggested. "Call me tomorrow. I need some time to think about this.”
I wish I could say I threw in the towel at this point, but I am a bit of drama queen myself and I really thought I might be able to help. Talk about denial. So for a couple of weeks I continued to see Andrea, Sandra and John. I continued to declare that John had to choose. Finally, I did an intervention. I told John that the sessions were going nowhere and that he needed to choose between Sandra and Andrea once and for all. Then, in separate sessions, I suggested to Andrea and Sandra that they both leave John if he did not make a choice and stick to it. Of course, all three members of the triangle were seriously addicted by this time and so the women continued to enable John and he continued to be ambivalent. I refused to see them anymore and I thought that was the end of it.
A few months later Andrea called to say that John had chosen her the night before but that now he was in the bathroom crying. She felt he was having a nervous breakdown because he was giving up the other woman. My take on this was that John really was trying here to choose and was now in full blown withdrawal because the other relationship was over. I knew, by this time, I was in over my head so I suggested that Andrea find a clinic where she could take John. Andrea quickly made arrangements to take John to a rehab center in the mid west that specialized in treating love addicts. For a moment I thought we were actually making progress here.
As it turned out the professional therapists at the clinic did no better than I. After three weeks at the center John was supposed to bring Andrea to family week (because she was, supposedly the one he had chosen and, by the way, was paying the bill). Well he did bring Andrea, but a week later he talked his primary therapist at the center into letting him bring Sandra for another family week because, after all, he was still was not sure who he wanted to settle down with. So John turned the clinic upside down by having both women come visit him. As Andrea was leaving she almost ran into Sandra in the parking lot. Then, to make things worse, John took off for the weekend with Sandra and when he returned on Monday he was asked to leave the center. Everybody admitted defeat and sent John packing. I for one decided to pray for them all.
For awhile I received some emails from the three of them. John decided to marry Andrea and Sandra started stalking the two of them. She sent threatening emails and then called John’s boss and told him what was going on. John was fired from his job. Then John decided to go back with Sandra and Andrea kicked him out of the house. I, who lived to tell the story, eventually lost track of my three clients and for all I know the triangle could still be going on.
Which brings me to the point of this article. Triangles between three dysfunctional people can be really addictive and problematic. From time to time you will see stories in the newspaper about one person shooting one of the others in the triangle. It happens more than you would imagine. The Jean Harris story comes to mind. She killed both her husband and his mistresss and went to prison. If you are in a triangle I suggest you get out.