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with Tarra Bates-Duford, Ph.D., MFT

Relationship Triangles: 7 Drawbacks

love triangle

Relationships can be both joyous and challenging, most with exciting highs and frustrating lows. During a disagreement or conflict, some couples will emotionally retreat from his/her partner or become locked in an unhealthy exchange of “who is right”, “who is wrong”, “who should apologize”, “who needs to change”, etc. Couples that are unable to resolve relationship conflict in a healthy manner often resort to bringing in a third person. Bringing a third person into a romantic relationship creates a “new” shape to the relationship. Instead of a two-point line depicting a romantic relationship, the lines extend from both partners creating a triangle. A love triangle is characterized as a complicated dating scenario that includes two people in a romantic relationship, however, a third person is brought in to offset some of the tension that has built in the relationship.

A third person can be brought into a romantic relationship consciously or unconsciously. An outsider and or third person can be brought into a relationship when one partner or both seek help with mediating a conflict within the romantic relationship, seek a “spokesperson” to convey their concerns to their partner, or reduce the degree of stress placed on both romantic partners and the relationship. Once a third person is brought into a romantic relationship, the quality, communication style, and partner coping strategies incur significant changes. The changes in a romantic relationship can create additional stressors on the relationship leading to increased frustration, anger, sadness, and resentment.

Relationship Triangle Types Include:

·         One or both Partners try to win the affection of another person, an outside person

·         One partner is in a committed relationship with one person but may be in love with another person, or loves both his/her partner and another person

·         Family member/friend brought in at the request of one of the partners to help mediate romantic relationship concerns

Just like a romantic relationship, a love triangle can only start or maintain itself unless there is reciprocation between the romantic partners. Unfortunately, once one partner or both begins to feel a reciprocating connection with someone outside of the relationship (family member or friend), or develop romantic feelings for someone other than their partner (has an attraction to or has developed romantic feelings for) the perfect recipe for a love triangle is created. When anxiety increases, it becomes difficult to manage within the dyad so a triad develops. The anxiety in the dyad decreases because it gets spread among all parties involved, including the third person that has been brought in.

However, like any relationship, partners must be reciprocal to what is going on in the relationship, any prospective changes, intervention by a third person, etc. Only with reciprocation does a motive to pursue an outside relationship or engage in dual relationships arise. It is important to note, relationship triangles do not start as a result of “weakness” or the conflict in a relationship, rather they are started as a result of reciprocation between one partner or both towards an outside person that is viewed as or can be used as a mediator.

Many romantic partners may bring in an outside person hoping the addition to the relationship will offset partner as well as relationship stress. However, it rarely creates a reprieve from stressors, but creates additional as well as unique stressors. Unique stressors can apply additional weight to an already fragile relationship system making is difficult for partners to move beyond the conflict, improve communication, and develop effective coping strategies to manage future relationship issues.

Benefits of Relationship Triangles Include:

·         Creating a temporary distraction from relationship conflict or issues

·         Reducing the degree of stress on romantic partners and the relationship

·         Partners have less responsibility and work to do if another person is involved, i.e., finding ways to address the current conflict, actively working on the relationship, acknowledging personal role in the conflict, etc.

·         Some interactions and activities may be more fun when a third person is involved

·         You can have more “three-way” conversations rather than direct conversations with a partner, which can reduce or possibly eliminate stress with the help of a third person, “buffer”

·         A friendship or confidant relationship can be created with the third person

Drawback of Relationship Triangles Include:

·         Partners failing to address underlying issues that has created or is maintaining relationship conflict

·         Partners are unable to improve communication or develop healthier coping strategies if a third person is involved

·         Whatever is said to the third person cannot be unsaid, i.e., if a partner tells a third person his/her partner has cheated and the partners decided to remain in the relationship the third party may intervene to discourage partner reconciliation

·         One partner may develop an attraction or romantic interest in the third party

·         The third party may develop a romantic interest in one of the partners, attempting to sabotage the relationship

·         Intimacy rate and quality usually declines when a third partner is involved in the romantic relationship

·         Emotions can become overwhelming as the third person begins to play a larger role in your romantic relationship

A love triangle may start off as a welcoming distraction from the conflict within a romantic relationship, then unexpectedly turns into love. Unfortunately, if one partner develops romantic feelings for someone other than their partner a sticky love triangle develops. Pain, sadness, grief, and resentment can intensify if one partner develops romantic feelings for the individual brought in to help mediate some of the partners’ relationship issues.    

Relationship triangles can often lead to a mixture of anxiety, sadness, anger, hurt, resentment, distrust, disrespect, competition, frustration, guilt, shame, blame, avoidances, and arguing among the three role-takers. Regular and consistent “triangling” leads to ineffective communication in a romantic relationship, unresolved issues, poor coping skills, failure to thrive, and difficulty developing the skills needed to manage future relationship

issues or conflict.

Relationship Triangles: 7 Drawbacks

Tarra Bates-Duford, Ph.D., MFT

My name is Dr. Tarra Bates-Duford PhD, MFT, CRS, CMFSW, BCPC I have a PhD in forensic Psychology specializing in familial dysfunctions and traumatic experience. I work with individuals and families struggling with familial dysfunctions, trauma, rape, and incest. I also have a masters in Marriage, Couples, & Family therapy. I am a certified relationship specialist with American Psychotherapy Association (#15221). I have more than 15 years in the field of mental health, relationships, and behavioral sciences.

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APA Reference
Bates-Duford, T. (2016). Relationship Triangles: 7 Drawbacks. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 11, 2020, from


Last updated: 19 Dec 2016
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