A married woman or man who takes a lover may only be indulging in a dalliance, in which case he or she may view it as irrelevant to the marriage. But when an adulterous affair becomes a passion rather than a diversion, a split-object triangle develops with a split in valuation between the spouse and the lover, the marriage and the affair. The spouse, if not actually loathed, comes to be seen as (at the very least) limited. The marriage, if not bad, is experienced as stultifying. The lover comes to equate the unsatisfactory spouse with an impoverished marriage, and the new beloved with a rich affair. This split in the lover's evaluation is commonly simplified to a "good" situation, on the one hand, and a "bad" one, on the other. Even so, the lover is often consumed by guilt for what he experiences as a betrayal of his obligations.
One should not, however, be too quick to assume one has understood the underlying motivation in any given split-object triangle. The impulse for a spouse to fall in love with someone other than the marriage partner may be eminently sensible. Some marriages are dead and others are dreadful. But sometimes the impulse to run away from home, so to speak, reflects an inability on the part of the spouse to stay in love or to sustain ambivalence within the context of a loving relationship (in psychoanalytic parlance to coalesce good and bad object representations). Some lovers are simply incapable of risking a one-on-one commitment. In formally committed relationships such as marriage, they experience a threat to their autonomy, or they feel consumed with anger.
When love flowers in the adulterous situation, there are typically exaggerations of what normally occurs in falling in love. The lover's obsession with the beloved must now extend also to an obsession with the logistics of the affair. The lover is simultaneously rearranging time and concocting new explanations of his absence from his spouse— delays, longer working hours, unavailability. The attempt to conceal an affair from one's spouse takes on gargantuan—and sometimes ludicrous—proportions. The wife worries lest her husband notice her diaphragm is not in its usual place; the husband takes so many showers in order to obliterate any telltale odors that he appears overfastidous; the wife wonders if her husband notices that she wears her best lingerie on Wednesdays. But the lover must also plot to stay in touch with the beloved. Secret telephone calls must be carefully planned. Can the lover allow the beloved to call at home, when, and with what pretext?
To some extent, the lover's obsession with arrangements becomes the substitutive expression of his love; it serves as a release from the monotony of life away from the beloved because it appears to serve the purpose of love, the realization of being together. (To some extent, it may also become the source of discontent. So much arranging, when not sufficiently appreciated by the beloved, can itself become just another duty or obligation.) Vacations spent apart from the beloved are perhaps the most trying time. Not only are they not relaxing, they are anguished. The separation is hard to bear, and communication may be almost impossible to maintain. Whatever the difficulties, however, many lovers will spend a considerable amount of the vacation time trying to place a furtive call to the beloved. The lover broods about the repercussions of leaving the beloved alone and fears he will lose her.
The lover often feels the anguish of needing to make a choice. He may be torn between the guilt he feels toward his wife and children, and the guilt he feels for failing to cement his tie to his beloved. He is consumed with longing for her. Fluctuations in feeling (the uncertainty of whether he is really in love) and doubts about whether the beloved really loves him are intense, especially when they are separated. The lover reproaches himself, worrying for his children and his wife. Sometimes he will still desire his wife, and sometimes he will resent his children. They stand between him and his new love. Perhaps, if he is introspective, he may also intuit that earlier they might have come between him and their mother, causing the first breach in his marriage. He wants to spare the children and yet he wishes them out of the way. He also worries about the beloved, fearing that he may be harming her by using up her best years.
Thus far, the lover appears to be in a triangle where the problematic dynamic is a split love-object. However, his concerns can shift abruptly, and he can find himself obsessing about whether or not his beloved is abandoning hope and considering an affair with someone else. The guilty, despairing lover may now be transformed into the jealous lover, the triangle converted into a rivalrous one.
Just as the protagonist in a rivalrous triangle may invoke anger to counteract unbearable jealousy and anxiety, so too, in a split-object triangle he or she may try to evoke anger from the betrayed spouse in order to feel legitimately angry in return, and thereby surmount his sometimes overwhelming sense of guilt. One betrayed husband declared that had he, rather than his wife, been having an affair, he would have been unusually nice to her, contrary to the mean way in which she was treating him. But he failed to understand the dynamics of guilt. (His wife always held that it was his psychological naivete that was at the heart of their marital failure.)
One man, embarked on a passionate affair, stopped sleeping with his wife. Curiously enough, she never suspected any infidelity but thought he was depressed. He began to find fault with her and she retaliated in kind. Their marriage deteriorated into little more than a continual barrage of bickering. Feeling misused, she demanded more and more material things. By this time, the husband felt quite justified in his affair—he was, after all, married to a shrew. He divorced his wife, married his mistress, and sincerely blamed his wife for the demise of the marriage. According to his interpretation of past events, had she been goodhearted and patient, he feels quite certain that he would never have made a final break. As is often said, short memories preserve good consciences.
In general it is hard to predict what any particular adulterous lover will do, stay in his marriage or leave. Even if he loves his mistress, the strength of his attachment to his wife may preclude his leaving her. Then, too, in some triangles the real love affair exists between the married couple. Their love may be submerged in routine, disguised for the time being as mere attachment, but when threatened it can be reawakened. In the movie The Women, based on the play by Clare Boothe Luce, the mother of the betrayed wife, Mary (Norma Shearer), explains to her daughter that her husband still loves her and is not in fact tired of her, but tired of himself and therefore in need of seeing himself reflected in another woman's eyes. Women, as she explains, when they feel tired of themselves, buy new clothes or change their hair and thus renew themselves, but men don't have enough imagination to do that, so they look for another mirror in which to view themselves, rather than changing the image in the mirror.
Frequently enough, the mistress hopes against hope that her lover will eventually free himself, while the wife consoles herself with the belief that her husband will eventually tire of his mistress. It would appear that one or the other must ultimately be proved correct. But the split-object triangle may not come to any resolution whatsoever, lasting a very long time, sometimes even until the death of one of the participants (as was the case, for example, with Victor Hugo, Adèle Hugo, and Juliette Drouet). In such long-term situations, it is likely that the split triangle is important to the lover in and of itself, and in fact, serves the psychological function of a reverse triangle and protects him against the vulnerability of any potential abandonment or humiliation.
And sometimes, to the absolute horror of mistress and wife, the lover breaks with both only to take up with still another woman, whom he eventually marries. One man, apparently exasperated by his wife's utter lack of interest in his work, began a long romantic liaison with his assistant. He experienced the resulting split in his life as increasingly debilitating and managed to bring it to resolution by arranging (unconsciously) for his wife to come upon an incontrovertible piece of evidence pointing to his long-standing infidelity. Unable to deny the situation any longer, she asked him to leave and he did. But strangely enough, he did not move in with his assistant perhaps, he now thinks looking back, because he did not want to merge his personal and professional life with one person. Or perhaps he was already too angry at his lover-assistant for the relentless pressure she had brought to bear on him to leave his wife, or perhaps her increasing eminence posed a competitive threat. Perhaps, in part, he felt used by her to further her own career. Whatever the fundamental reason, within the year he was utterly enraptured with still another woman whom he met on a business trip and whom he subsequently married.
It is not only men who engage in split-object triangles. Asked, prior to its publication, to read a paper on the subject of "The Professional Woman" by a colleague, I noted her comment that all her professional women patients had had at least one significant extramarital affair. I advised her against publishing the paper, because it could cause considerable trouble in her patients' lives should they or their husbands ever read it (not to mention the legal ramifications that might ensue). And so it happened that a very interesting paper was never published. Nonetheless, despite her figures and my own clinical experience, I believe there is more propensity to form reverse triangles among men, not because women are either more timid or moral, but for developmental reasons that I will discuss in Chapter 11.
Some people engage in what I would consider to be imaginative split-triangles. They lead conventional monogamous lives, but hold to the belief (sometimes articulated, sometimes not) that they are still deeply in love with someone with whom they once shared a great love. One elderly gentleman, in a marriage most of his friends regard as exemplary, will occasionally confide that he loved someone else early in his marriage, but that, because he was an honorable man, he stayed the course and gave up his one true love. Of course, he regards his wife as a most remarkable woman, but as for his true feelings—those, he assures his listener, are on a different plane. One sometimes senses a twofold purpose in such confidences. Often, the feelings articulated are deeply authentic ones and serve the same goals (at a safer level) as enacted split-triangles. But sometimes they are the most tentative feelers to explore new imaginative possibilities depending, of course, on the response of the confidante.
There is one important variant of the split-object triangle that brings many individuals (more often men than women) into therapy. In these triangles, the spouse is gradually but invariably transformed from the beloved into an ogre. The wife is not manifestly regarded with guilt; she is hated and feared. She is viewed as hostile and potentially threatening, yet also as the embodiment of stability (ambivalently perceived as providing safety through constraints). She serves the role of the jailer, the woman assigned to protect the husband from himself. In contrast, the beloved is perceived as the paragon of freedom and spontaneity, though perhaps not sturdy or mature enough to be relied upon. Freud spoke of the "Madonna-whore" complex, in which a man might love his wife and yet, in order to spare her his sordid sexual urges, transfer his sexual longings to the "whore." The triangles I am describing here are quite different. The spouse is not metamorphosized into an asexual Madonna; on the contrary, she is viewed as an overcontrolling, intense, all-powerful mother figure. She comes to be experienced as menacing, and is resented because of her right to place demands and strictures on her husband. To the degree that he is dependent on her, he will resent her all the more.
However, the protagonist in these triangles may gradually become aware that history repeats itself and he will find this alarming. He discovers that as soon as he achieves freedom from his tyrannical wife and commits himself to his mistress, she too becomes transformed into a locus of duty and hostility, and he will have duplicated his marriage. Then he is once more drawn to another younger, simpler, and apparently less demanding woman. To his dismay—if he has any self-awareness—it may gradually dawn on him that the succession of women he has loved have not undergone malevolent transformation of their personalities as a consequence of marriage, but rather that they were transformed by his withdrawal and hostility or, even worse, that they were not transformed at all except in his imagination. (However, excessive self-awareness is seldom a problem that afflicts us.) Alternatively (on the theme of history repeating itself) the mistress may fear that her adulterous lover, having betrayed his wife, will betray her in turn. Françoise Gilot, contemplating two of her predecessors, observed that neither the demand-ingness of the one nor the compliance of the other spared them Picasso's disenchantment, and so she was more prepared for the inevitable transformation of his perception of her too.
Sometimes there appears to be an underlying psychological need for a lover to de-idealize and ultimately betray his beloved. But most of us are loath to come to such a conclusion. We prefer to rationalize the causes of those rejections we initiate as well as those we stand witness to and (in the role of newly beloved) benefit from, in superficial terms: "I had to leave him before his dullness destroyed me," or "He couldn't stand her because she had become a prattling bourgeois housewife," and so forth. Yet, whether we acknowledge it or not, some people are psychologically geared to betray those who love them. Usually, such a person has felt betrayed himself (whether actually or in mere fantasy, recently or early in life), identifies with the aggressor, and is prepared to disrupt the lives of successive lovers in order to seek reparation for past wrongs. (The original betrayal that later converts the person into a betrayer is most often a legacy of childhood.)
Such was the case with the young woman, previously alluded to, who took her distinguished older lover into her marriage. As a child, she had been morbidly ashamed of her ungainly mother and inordinately proud of her charming virtuoso father. But her relationship with him was marred by her perception that he preferred her older and less gifted sister. Nonetheless she looked for validation and for succor from a series of nurturant men. Her first serious love affair proved disappointing, and she sought something more intense in an affair with the married man for whom she worked. That adulterous affair awakened her to the profound joys of truly passionate love, though it failed to become a permanent relationship. Her latent anger against her father (he had dared prefer her sister!) now found expression in the disappointed and angry feelings aroused by her lover's failure to marry her and caused her to be on guard with all men. How she solved this problem— her need for male nurturance conflicting with her basic distrust of men—was to enter into a series of split-object (reverse) triangles. Consequently, it seemed natural to her to continue her affair with the older caretaking lover even after she married—and she did indeed seem to thrive on the emotional largesse of two devoted men. Though it might appear that she, as the dominant force in the split-object triangle, was in the power position, it is clear that she (like others in similar situations) suffered from a fundamental weakness, the inability to risk all and to love full out.
While the suffering lover in a rivalrous triangle may envy the apparent invulnerability of the lover in a split-object triangle, the latter has plenty of woes of his own, some of them profoundly debilitating. The guilt generated in the split-object triangle is itself corrosive and antagonistic to the goodness the lover feels (and aspires to) in happy love. Complications abound and the fragmented lover may come to feel depleted, no longer longing for love but for solitude—and at such a point the lover may abandon both relationships and enact one or another of the standard fantasies of escape to splendid isolation (retreat to a romantic cabin or some contemporary equivalent of the French Foreign Legion). Such was the fate of Isaac Bashevis Singer's protagonist in his novel Enemies, A Love Story. This man, a survivor of the holocaust, marries the Christian woman who at great risk to herself had saved him, then acquires a mistress, and is suddenly brought up short by the appearance of his first wife whom he had believed dead. His life, split up into too many pieces, left him little option but to disappear. For some of us, life is an endless journey as we shuttle back and forth between the solitary state and dyads, dyads and triangles, triangles and the solitary state, never finding our preferred place of rest.
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