This is one of the most common dilemmas my patients have brought to me over the past four decades. Though there are multiple variations on the theme, there is one way in which they all are similar: two women are in a competitive triangle with the same man.
Triangles are stable when all three legs are connected. What that means in a three-way relationship is that each day is securely connected. A floppy relationship triangle exists when the man in question is at the apex of that triangle and the two women are represented by the other two points. Each woman is connected to the man but they are not usually connected to each other.
There are many ways that can happen. The gamut can run from two women who have known one another in the past, even possibly friends, to total strangers who are now connected to each other only by being attached in some way to the same man. Floppy relationship triangles are essentially unstable and the outcomes are not only unpredictable, but often dire.
There are many factors that can affect these triangulated relationships, and how they are combined can affect the outcome in different ways.
A new separation is clearly more undefined. Committed couples often hit major snags in a relationship and lose each other for a period of time. A man in grief, angry, unhinged, or feeling newly free of cumulative stress can be a vulnerable target for an outside person, or even an unthinking seeker of temporary escape. People in unstable situations often make in-the-moment decisions that have nothing to do with what they may need or want as time elapses. A newly separated partner is often searching for validation and support and cannot see beyond those needs.
If, on the other hand, a couple has been separated for quite a while, have made multiple attempts to reconnect and failed, the partners may have come to the conclusion that divorce is inevitable. When that happens, they may not be as susceptible to any new relationship.
If the separated man is concerned that a new relationship might inflame the other partner’s decision, he may choose to keep that new relationship quiet. Many people considering divorce are in the throes of conflict and don’t want another source of trouble adding to what is already a difficult situation. That is especially true if the new relationship can threaten the other partner’s potential access to resources or loss of what they have. If the separated man isn’t sure about reconnecting with his partner and a new relationship would make that option far less likely, he may not want to lose those choices so chooses to keep his options open by separating those two worlds.
The heartache that arises if and when those clandestine relationships are discovered never harbors a good outcome. A partner who may have understood a one-night stand that is immediately confessed is less likely to feel as humiliated as one who finds out much later or when a relationship is more established. She will likely assume that person was there from the beginning and the reason for the break-up if her partner asked for the separation.
Here are some of the cues you need to be aware of:
Volatile, unstable relationships that have had a history of break-ups and re-connections are often laden with unresolved issues. Intimate partners, who can’t live with each other and can’t live without each other, often take agreed-upon breaks from the relationship from time to time, either with or without other partners while they are separated.
When they are initially back together, they often feel a renewed attachment and often don’t want to deal with the reasons they so often split up. As those problem must eventually re-emerge, the subsequent breakups are likely to happen more quickly. Over time, and especially if they’ve been in disappointing other relationships, they miss each other again and valiantly try to “make it work.” If they don’t see those patterns and correct them, that process will occur until they either wear each other out or find someone they’d rather invest in.
Committed partners who still care deeply for one another, on the other hand, often separate because of external stress, worn-out interactions, infidelities, or a slow drift-apart that neither realized could have ended up in a separation. They are at a loss when it happens, but still feel attached to their history, friends, children, financial situation, mutual families, and a deeper caring. After a time apart, they realize that they want to make the relationship work and are highly motivated to make that happen.
The man in those unfinished relationships may be temporarily available to a new partner, but is highly likely to go back to his other relationship.
Time the Prior Relationship Has Existed
All committed relationships go through stages where the partners feel connected and that they wouldn’t want to be with anyone else, and other times where one or both starts to feel that the partnership is on a collision course. Those drifts can come from so many causes: illness, financial strain, too many obligations without reward, personal insecurities, stages in life that produce self-doubt, boredom, neglect, too much hostility without reparation, or just plain growing apart.
Relationships that are new have not had the time for enough negatives to accrue that can outweigh the reasons to stay together. Long-term commitments are filled with attachments to meaningful experiences, people, material goods, and history that may go beyond the loss of personal intimacy. These attachments can bring people back together after a separation in ways that new relationships are less likely to do.
It can also have the opposite effect. If one or both partners in a relationship have drifted too far apart to repair the loss, that separated man may be soured against getting involved long-term again or authentically seeking a new long-term relationship. In the midst of a separation, especially if many other people want that relationship to keep going, he may be overwhelmed with indecision and unable to see clearly what is best.
Men who have had relationships with other women throughout their committed relationship have either had partners who have regularly left and returned, or have been successful in keeping them clandestine. In either case, a relationship they begin while being separated is just another kind of infidelity.
Men who do not find themselves ever satisfied with only one woman are clearly not likely candidates to change that behavior in the future. Women who feel they can corral that man when he is separated from his partner often find themselves broken and disillusioned when that man continues his prior behavior.
There is one exception. Some men have had dual relationships for a long time. They are in committed relationships with two women at the same time, most often without their primary partner knowing of the other woman. If their clandestine relationship ends, they find themselves unsatisfied with only that remaining partner, and want out of the relationship. They are earnestly looking for someone new to commit to, but triangles are highly likely to eventually happen again.
Quality Men Who Are Truly Torn
Lest it appears that all separated men are untrustworthy and unstable, I must mention a sub-group of men who come to me torn apart by their loyalty to the person they have truly loved and the need to move on. They have deep and current needs to be soothed in their conflict but do not want to hurt the person they’ve left or are not over the loss of a woman who has left them. They are the most vulnerable to any predatory woman who, knowingly or unwittingly, seeks the opportunity to be that man’s solace. He may prematurely commit to that relationship, without resolving his internal conflict first. Once he does that, he may find himself feeling trapped by the woman who moved in the situation too quickly.
Here Is What to Watch Out For
1. Whether or not that separated man talks well of his established partner. No blame, no attacks on character, and no created rationale for why he had to leave or how bad she was for leaving him.
2. His indecisive state of whether or not he’s doing the right thing.
3. Any promises that do not materialize in the time committed.
4. Hostility, judgment, or invalidation of “women.” You will be next.
5. How, and in what way, he has tried to make that prior relationship work. Did they go to couple’s therapy?
6. How clear he is on why the prior relationship didn’t work, his part in it, and how much he wants to, or feels obligated to, stay connected to her.
The Last, and Perhaps Most Important, Caveat
Women who are trusted by, and trust, other women, do not create triangles where they are in competition, clandestine or out, with other women for the same man. Remember the demise of floppy triangles. If you are going to create a relationship with a separated man, insist that his separated spouse know about it, that she is emotionally done with the relationship, and that she would want to know you were the relationship with her ex to actually end. That is especially true if children are involved and you may one day become a “co-madre.” If you have children of your own, that man must know you are a package, not just an available woman. If he is a father, pay attention to how he feels about his children, especially if you have your own.
Only enter these triangles if you are fine whether or not this relationship works out or doesn’t. Be a friend to both he and his ex in terms of your support for what is right, over what you may legitimately want and need. If you can remain that neutral supportive person, despite your love for him, you will have the best chance of a successful outcome.
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. www.heroiclove.com