11/08/2013 12:11 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Love Triangles

"Betrayal" is on the lips of Londoners and New Yorkers alike this fall. Across the pond the phone-hacking trial of Murdoch editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, has outed their six-year extramarital affair. On Broadway, the play "Betrayal" by Harold Pinter, a dramatization of his eight-year love affair --has been revived by director Mike Nichols to much acclaim.

Last Sunday, Maureen Dowd drew connections between these two spectacles--both of which involve love triangles--in a New York Times column, "From Love Nests to Desire Surveillance." As she parsed the notion of betrayal, Dowd quoted Nichols, who noted the "mythic" hold of the love triangle, which originates in life's earliest days with Baby, Mom and Dad. Ah, the Oedipus emerges.

"We're born in a triangle" that "determines who we are," the director said.

Freud must be smiling.

The handling of that primal triangle's vectors--as well as the acuity of its angles--sets the pattern for lifelong love relationships. (In fact, one of Nichols earliest films, "Carnal Knowledge," is a portrayal of a decades-long triangle.)

As a therapist I have witnessed the pain that love triangles inflict. Typically--as in the Nichols play--the triangle results from an extramarital affair. The psychic fallout is primordial: loyalty versus sexual desire; the thrill of possessing and being possessed versus the fear of abandonment; the need for dependence versus the thrill of breaking free from the bonds of love.
From birth, the love triangle is imprinted on every human brain. Even in single sex or single parent families, the dictate of nature is that an infant begins with mother/caregiver as primary love object, but soon must include father and others in his world, ultimately leaving both objects behind and finding substitutes in adult love.

In some families, navigating the triangle becomes a battlefield. Children learn that "love" is synonymous with betrayal, pain, and competition. It's a win-lose proposition. This is the psychic murk where some love triangles first take shape--where the story of Mommy, Daddy and Me becomes a maddening mythos--and an entrapment.

In loving families, the relationship between parents is a living organism that encourages and protects the children and encourages their independence. And provides a template for finding respect, support and passion in adult love.

Mature and loving couples gratify each other, so they don't rely on a child as a primary source of love and emotional security. They focus on the child jointly and not in opposition to one another. They embrace rather than seduce him or her with rivalrous attentions.

When parents love one another, the triangle morphs into another shape: a circle of two, the shape of enfolding arms--and this is what their children, both consciously and unconsciously will seek out in a mate.

But healthy relationships are not the stuff of headlines and drama. To paraphrase Tolstoy, it is the unhappy relationships, not the healthy ones that are of greatest interest--thus the fascination of the piercing angles of the triangle.