Splitting and Triangulation in couples

“It has been very well researched that many gay male couples have open relationships. Discussing openly the guidelines and experiences adds to the trust they have in one another. However, open relationships sometimes lead one member to fall in love and think that he has found a better partner. Comparing a new and exciting partner to the old, reliable and established mate seems to be a form of splitting and triangulation. This often leaves one member devastated and the other guilty but moving on anyhow. How could ISTPD be used for both the couple and the individuals involved?” Good question!
The idealization in love is well known. We see what we love in our partner and have not yet met what we don’t like in our partner. And for a few days or weeks or months our partner “appears” to be the same as our fantasy. No wonder he or she is SO exciting. But then reality shows up eventually, and that ideal partner turns out to be real. Then we have the chance to divorce our fantasy and love our real partner, or divorce reality and keep looking for our fantasy. In this sense, the repeat “lover” is in love with a fantasy, unable to bear the mixed feelings that arise with a real partner and the inevitable disappointments that arise when we love the real and let go of the unreal.
When a couple is having conflict about this kind of arrangement, clearly we must examine what feelings are coming up that led them to split sex off from the relationship. What conflicts are they avoiding? Is the partner who is going out of the relationship feeling angry with his partner for withholding sex? Is the search for more “exciting” sex a sign of decreasing emotional closeness, an avoidance of conflict in the relationship? Is the search for sex outside the relationship a way to act out anger? Is the search for sex outside the relationship a desire for an ideal relationship? Is it a way to split apart love and sex? For the supposedly sexless partner, is agreeing to this arrangement a way to avoid the greater emotional intimacy that comes with sex? Is this detaching a way to avoid complex mixed feelings toward the partner? Is withholding sex a way he is expressing anger toward his partner? There are many possibilities here.
To find out where the conflicts are, the ISTDP therapist would look at areas of conflict for the patient or for the couple and then explore the feelings which they avoid. As the therapist explores those feelings, he will note what defenses the patient or the couple use to avoid feelings, bring those defenses to their attention, point out the cost to the relationship, and encourage them to face the avoided feelings as deeply as possible.
When the partner who leaves says he feels guilty, does he just have guilty thoughts, or does he really feel guilty and try to repair the damage he has done to the relationship. The idea of “moving on” can cover a multitude of reactions, most often denial, dismissal, and detachment. When the other person feels “devastated”, could that also be a way to avoid feeling rage toward the partner who left him? We can certainly understand “devastation” as one of his reactions. Don’t get me wrong. But if it’s not accompanied by anger at the lost partner, we would want to examine that absence. When the partner is merely “sexless”, is he also “emotionless”? Are there other ways he distances from his partner and from his own feelings? As we watch the responses to intervention, we will get a clearer idea of the conflicts in the patient and in the couple.
Rather than rely on our ideas about how relationships ought to be, we rely on the patients’ unconscious responses to our interventions. After all, every time we intervene, we invite an emotionally close relationship. The couple’s responses of feelings, anxiety, and defenses will let us know where their conflicts are, what their unconscious longings are, and who they really are underneath their professed theories.

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