The title might suggest the classic ménage a trois scenario, but is in fact a description of a simple model for how we fall in to and out of love. It is a simple model that bundles all the complexities of relationships in a macroscopic approach that relates to the fundamental emotional reactions typically experienced in relationships. It is too simple to solve every relationship crisis, but it can let us start to understanding what is wrong and take the first step to recovery.
The simplest model of the dyadic relationship has both parties make a decision that a threshold of intimacy has been passed based on a complex set of personal rules that starts the journey on the road to love. That rule set can involve looks, pheromones, shared experiences and a multitude of other factors that may or may not be explicit. However, the details of these factors are beyond our interest at present and what we need to examine is a slightly more sophisticated model that captures these rules in some simple fashion.
The next potential level of distinction is between the sexes; men and women. It is important to note that this is as much about brain structure as phenotype and it is critical to recognise it as a generalisation with fuzzy edges than a hard and fast rule. Think along the lines that it is dry in the desert, but that doesn’t mean it never rains.
Why draw the line by gender? This is based on the typical (anecdotal) response when relationships hit a rocky patch. Women complain that the romance has gone out of the relationship and men complain that the couple no longer have sex. Although these might not be what you hear at first it is the two areas most couple say they want to improve to revive their relationship.
Although reference is usually made to sex, and we will continue to use it here as a summary word, although most people mean that the physical intimacy has gone from the relationship; including hugging, kissing and even holding hands. Sex becomes the cutting edge of that physical intimacy, as normally it is unique and exclusive to a couple.
If we think of romance and sex as two forms of intimacy we can see how the triangle develops (see figure below). When given the intimacy we crave then we feel secure, the crux of being loved, then we typically offer the other form of intimacy to our partner. The potential problem this introduces is that there are two directions to pass around the triangle.
As we mentioned before women tend to look for romance as the primary form of intimacy and men tend to look for physical intimacy; especially sex, as the primary form intimacy. Thus, we see that women would receive romance and thus feel secure thus offering physical intimacy to their partner, following the path of the pink arrows around the figure. For men the start point is the physical and they follow the path of the blue arrows.
Early in a relationship this flow of emotional energy is easy to maintain during the “honeymoon period”. When the mundane aspects of every day life creep; from children to jobs to mortgages; the energy is externalised and the intimacy pumps of the love triangle are not kept moving. Here one, or both, partners have become net consumers of the energy. Looking at the figure we see that we want to draw energy in from our own intimacy entry point but lack the energy to transfer intimacy and energy to our partner. One net consumer energy is the norm for any relationship, but both partners need to give and receive positive energy from the their partner.
Looking at the model it provides an insight in to recent controversial research that romantic novels and rom-com movies can impact women’s ability to form stable relationships as much as pornography can for men. In both cases it may be that it creates an unrealistic expectation of what level of input is expected for the reciprocal energy transfer to their partner.
Although this does not give us a detailed explanation of how to fix relationships it provides a simple first step to help people understand what is wrong. And understanding a problem is half the journey to fixing it.