Relationship Triangles

Healthy, long-lasting relationships have many things in common. One of the most crucial is the couple’s ability to be authentic and open with each other both in thought and deed. Committed couples base their trust on these agreements and are rarely willing to risk damaging the relationship by violating them.

An intimate partner will threaten that sacred agreement if he or she chooses to create an important but separate relationship with another person without the other partner’s knowledge.  

Some intimate partners would argue that these undisclosed relationships can actually be good for the primary relationship. Unfortunately, the decision to create these hidden triangles, whether conveniently rationalized or unconsciously chosen, most often backfires.

Secret liaisons, more often than not, offer the conspiratorial partner the comfort and support that he or she may not be currently receiving from the primary partner. The excluded partner is at the disadvantage of not being able to influence the outcome. 

The word, “conspire,” literally is a Latin word that simply means breathing together. Though often used to describe a nefarious tryst, conspiracies are not automatically harmful to an intimate relationship. It is only when they are covertly formed outside of the committed partnership and unknown to the excluded partner that they are highly likely to end up sabotaging that union.  

A good way to define these potentially harmful situations is to image them as an actual triangle. One leg of the triangle connects the outwardly-seeking partner to a complicit confidante external to the committed relationship. The second leg emanating from that same partner connects him or her with the primary partner. Because of the lack of a connected base between the outside confidante and the primary partner, the triangle is inherently unstable and likely to eventually disintegrate.   

Some Common Examples of Conspiratorial Triangles

Sexual Infidelities

Most people automatically think of all secret liaisons as sexual infidelities. Because those kinds of betrayals are the reason why many couples come into counseling, I have become intimately familiar with them in my forty-plus years of therapeutic work. Because of that significant exposure, I believe I can offer a more expanded prospective than has been traditionally offered.  

To begin with, it is important to note that there is a clear difference between committed partners who regularly indulge in serial infidelity and those who enter into a covert sexual relationship that they would not have considered in the past.

People who have participated regularly in sexual relationships outside of their primary relationships are typically well-practiced in the art of deception. They routinely pick partners with whom they can easily manage simultaneous dual relationships. They want the benefits of a primary relationship but believe that they cannot be sexually satisfied with only one person. Their typical reasoning is that, as long as their partners never become aware of the situation, that it “can’t hurt them.” They are generally very careful to keep their dual lives separate and have ready excuses if caught.

The second type of person who enters a covert sexual relationship outside of his or her primary relationships most often does so in a previously unexpected and atypical situation. These situational infidelities span a very complex and multivariate continuum and are often harder to evaluate.

For example, one end of that continuum might include a committed partner in a relationship with someone who is no longer able to, or willing to, wholly participate in the partnership. Perhaps that person is suffering from a mental illness or more devoted to a career than the relationship. In these types of situations, the primary relationship connection may have already significantly diminished and the partners have not chosen or been able to intervene.  

On the opposite end of the same continuum, it is not unusual to find someone who is still totally committed to his or her monogamous relationship, and then unexpectedly falls in love with someone else. He or she may still feel wholly connected to his or her primary partner and deeply morally conflicted, yet unable to end the relationship.

Situational betrayers often do not want their primary partners to feel hurt or betrayed, and rarely want to end that partnership. The secret liaison either eventually dies out on its own without the other partner’s ever discovering that it has happened, or is brought to light with expected upheaval and distress.   


Most people have developed connections with a number of people with whom they have created trusted and emotionally intimate relationships. Some of those confidante liaisons have spanned many years and have a history of the sharing of vulnerable situations, but new confidante relationships can also be compelling and seductive.

When people are having difficulty with their primary relationships, they are most likely to turn to those they have learned to trust from the past. In these outside interactions, they trust the understanding, support, advice, and caring in a different way than they do with their primary partners. Sometimes, they do not want to burden the committed partner during a personal crisis or don’t feel they can get what they need there.   

If that confidante is a champion and supporter of the primary relationship, he or she will not say or do anything that might encourage that person to keep the other partner excluded, even if the relationship is conspiratorial.

Unfortunately, that is not always the case. If that external person supports the partner’s reasons to no longer trust the primary partner or is perhaps personally interested in maintaining the exclusivity, he or she will influence the committed partner to pull further away from the established relationship.

Prior or Potential Lovers

Whether innocent flirtation, unconscious planning, or the intent to keep other options open, those potentially inflammatory relationships are more likely to flare if they have the cloak of secrecy as their protector. Some people are enticed by mischief and the concept of naughtiness, and may not be able to recognize when they are going over the line.

When those third parties have embraced the primary relationship, and are committed to knowing and valuing the new partner, they can possibly stabilize the triangle by their contributions.

Unfortunately, the situation is suspiciously unstable if there are any left-over feelings for the past relationship, even if they are not acted upon. The willingness to accept past lovers as current friends should only occur if agreed upon by both partners.

Family Attachments

Established family members can exert significant influence over their members, even well after they have created new families of their own. In moments of conspiracy, they can sometimes make or break these newer relationships by consistent undermining of one or the other’s the other partner’s value, or even by intentional sabotage.

Sometimes these sabotaging family members do not even attempt to hide their dislike of the partner they would like to disappear. If the person in the middle is in a loyalty conflict between the two participants, he or she may either allow that family member to continue berating the other partner or risk deflating that person. Whichever the decision is, it will send a clear message of who has the most importance.  

A common example would be the competition between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, now legion in the literature. But there are other family members, perhaps competitive or concerned in other ways, who have the need to upend the partnership of their sibling, parent, or other relative.

There are literally thousands of obvious and non-obvious triggers that can influence that partner in every relationship outside of the family of origin. To be able to create a successful, separate relationship, people must be aware of these potentially sabotaging influences, and make intentional choices to not let them harm their primary adult relationship.

Unfortunately, some partners will intentionally or unwittingly use family members to justify their own feelings towards their partners. Those other partner may not even know that may be happening or that those covert relationships may be crucial factors in their partnerships. If they do not know they are influencing outcomes, they are unable to vote for any other.


When they are “using,” addicts most often choose short-term escapes over long-term consequences. Those compulsive choices may take the addict out of temporary distress but costs him or her in the long run. There are only so many resources available to any relationship, and addictive involvements redirect those resources away from the primary relationship

The relationships that addicts have with their fantasy seducers repeatedly keep that partner separated from the addict’s thoughts, feeling, and behaviors that need to be part of their personal intimacy if the relationship is going to thrive.

All addictions are inherently self-serving and ultimately will be destructive to the primary relationship, even when they are known. They are essentially relationships with intimate pseudo-lovers who promise immediate comfort. When they are hidden, another layer of potential destruction too often emerges.

Some addictive behaviors are in plain sight but still defy the other partner’s influence or control. Drugs and alcohol, over-work, need for constant social connection, excessive working out, or gambling are some common examples.

Most addicts, helplessly caught up in the need to maintain their escape rituals without losing their primary relationship attachments, live in two competing relationships, desperately trying to hold onto both. Those dual commitments vie for the same resources and goals, and are especially difficult to manage when they are unknown to the primary partner.

Withheld Thoughts and Feelings

This last example may be the hardest to describe but it is crucial that it be explored and understood.

Authenticity and courageous openness are core to successful communications. To be productive, both partners must maintain the willingness to listen to any expression without judgment. In quality, long-lasting relationships, both partners readily accept that they may not see things the same, or always want to be or support what the other wants. Those conflicts are part of every relationship, and loving partners do all they can to resolve them fairly.

When either partner cannot be open with their thoughts or feelings for fear of threatening the relationship, they are prone to withhold them and attempt to resolve them within their own minds and hearts. Now the partner who is withholding that internal world from his or her mate, is in danger of creating an unknown internal process that could turn those internal experiences into actual behaviors. The excluded partner is not able to weigh in early enough to influence the outcome.   

Secret thoughts and desires can run the gamut from believing in another religious, social, or political idealogy to lusting for another person or considering an alternative way of living. Whether they are temporary fantasies or building in intensity, they remain unknown to the other partner and may turn into decisions that can threaten the primary relationship.

                                                           * * * * *

Relationship triangles that are connected by all three legs are stable. They can often be helpful to the primary partnership when all parties are supportive of them. A partner who chooses to enter personal therapy, as an example, may ultimately be a better mate if the therapist supports the committed relationship.

Many people have trusted and helpful outside relationships with good friends or spiritual confidantes who can help both partners in times of crises. There are other opportunities for people to find solace or support outside the relationship that both partners agree are needed and helpful. Addicts, as an example, derive significant help from groups like AA and Alanon. Those liaisons are often significantly supportive to the committed relationship especially when both partners participate.  

Because the deceptions and betrayals required to maintain potentially threatening triangles will ultimately sabotage even the best of intimate relationships, successful intimate partners know they need to remain open about any outside relationships. When they share and face their issues together, their situations can be challenged and corrected before they gain the traction to irrevocably harm the partnership.

Dr. Randi’s free advice e-newsletter, Heroic Love, shows you how to avoid the common pitfalls that keep people from finding and keeping romantic love.  Based on over 100,000 face-to-face hours counseling singles and couples over her 40-year career, you’ll learn how to zero in on the right partner, avoid the dreaded “honeymoon is over” phenomenon, and make sure your relationship never gets boring.


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