The Unlovable Triangle

Last week’s discussion of triangles put me in mind of another concept, one I came across in mediation training. The topic is usually referred to as Ahab, Brutus, and Charlie, or The Three Smugglers, and it goes like this:

desert islandIn the middle of a terrible storm, three smugglers wash up on the shore of a desert island, the survivors of three different shipwrecks. Ahab and Brutus are big fish in the smuggling pond, with lots of influence and connections and considerable brawn. Charlie is small fry. He doesn’t run a big smuggling operation, is fairly new to the game, and isn’t overly endowed with muscle.

custody battleThe island is a hostile environment, with wild animals lurking in the brush, and nobody sure where fresh water might be, or how much of it, much less how much food might be available. How does the balance of power shake out under these circumstances?

You might think Ahab and Brutus throw Charlie to the sharks, but in a lot of replicated, controlled studies, that’s not what happens. Instead of cooperating with each pampered catother, Ahab and Brutus direct their energy into making an ally of Charlie. If they can win Charlie’s cooperation, they’ll have an ally who gives them the strength to keep the other big smuggler in line, without taking on a partner who could turn into a threat.

As a family law attorney, this is frequently the dynamic behind a custody battle. Mom and Dad fight endlessly to win Junior’s vote, leaving the outcome of a serious and complicated legal issue in the hands of a child. Mediators use this concept to direct the process whereby embattled parties can resolve their differences.

love triangleElders have been known to manipulate or exploit their children using a Three Smugglers approach–dear granny keeps a family riot in progress from her room at the assisted living facility by doling out approval, inheritances, family history, or some other precious commodity in a manner guaranteed to divide the younger generations.

captive_295w-274x450Romance authors put Ahab, Brutus, and Charlie to use in love triangles, with the heroine pursued by two fellows (or the hero by two ladies), and result is virtually NEVER that the two pursuers join forces or ride off into the sunset. The trick is to put all three characters on some sort of desert island, where emotional, financial, or logistical resources are scare enough that even a relatively weak character can tip the balance of power.

Have you seen this dynamic in action? Where a relatively “weak” individual can keep a circus going because his or her influence could tip a balance of power between others?

To one commenter, I’ll send an ARC of The Captive, my July release, and the first book in the Captive Hearts trilogy.



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58 comments on “The Unlovable Triangle

  1. For those wondering why I didn’t comment on last week’s blog, my excuse is 24 hours of flying time, four airports, two Atlantic crossings, ten hours on a train, and a family situation that resulted in heading for home pretty much within a day of arriving in Sicily. Someday, I’ll go back–they make really good marzipan there, and I love the language…. This week, I’ll try to do better at minding my blog!

  2. I haven’t seen this exact scenario play out, but I have often found myself caught in the middle between two people who don’t want to confront each other. I seem to be the kind of person who is easy to confide in, but I hate being put in the middle!

    • Gretchen, I think we’ve all seen it play out, in our two party political system if nowhere else. Ross Perot used this exact dynamic, and Independent voters catch a whiff of it every four years.

      In Europe, two party political systems aren’t the norm. Most governments are composed of coalitions that shift and rebalance, and it seems to create less polarizing in their political environment. Suppose every system has its advantages and weaknesses.

  3. Happy Mother’s Day to you, and in regard to your comment, I really would like to call and talk to my mom. She has been gone for 5 years this month. I do talk to her just about every day though. I really love your books, I carry a list with me everywhere I go so I can check to see if any store I am in happens to have one I have not gotten yet. I really look forward to the Captive Hearts, I love your trilogies. Thank you for sharing your talents…

  4. Happy Mother’s Day, I have not seen this dynamic in action. But I can’t wait to read The Captive. And after 7 years praying and going to I am mother of a 8 years boy and a 6 years girl that I adore.Thank you Grace for writing so many fantastic books.

    • Kimia, one of my brothers was told to stop hoping, and then his first son showed up. Much rejoicing! Ten years later, son number two came along. Much rejoicing–and a little consternation!

  5. I must say that I see this scenario at work every day! I love the cover of The Captive by the way. My mom is in Heaven and I miss her every day but especially thinking of her today. Happy Mother’s Day to all!

    • And EVERYBODY probably tries to pull you to their side of each petty squabble. Makes you wonder how the work ever gets done.
      My mom and my daughter are still with me, for which I give thanks every day.

  6. Last Fall, I took a class at work entitled Peer Power and this dynamic was part of it. I see this happen at work. I call it pot stirring. My solution is not to engage with the person. I listen and assist them with work related issues. I don’t get into the gossip.
    Enjoy your Mother’s Day Grace!

    • Susan, the odd thing about Pot Stirring, is often the person seeking to pull you into the gossip is honestly trying to form a connection with you–why don’t they suggest a pot luck lunch and start talking about a good book?!

      • Grace– this is so surprising! We have a book group at work where we exchange books and let each other know of kindle sales. A good friend introduced me to Julia Quinn and I never looked back……
        The Pot Stirrer and I chatted about….dogs…surprised???? πŸ™‚

  7. I have to join in with those who say they haven’t experienced that dynamic. Hope I don’t encounter it myself. I am several chapters in Worth and enjoying it immensely. “Jack” you say. Would a regency lady have a nickname like that?

    • I think a lady with seven brothers would be subject to all manner of tribulations. Sally Jersey’s nickname was Silence, for example, because she never hushed up. Caroline Lamb, was Caro, and I could go on… I was more concerned that the Jacaranda tree would have been known to her papa, the botanist.

  8. Yes, I have, in an elder situation. I really refused to enter that race and I did what I was supposed to do as a caring family member. The person that did enter the race followed exactly the same procedure with their own children..Last I heard, that wasn’t successful. Their own children learned way too well from their parents. Okay I’m monetarily poorer, but I (most of the time LOL) am glad I stuck to the higher ground. I know you see it all Grace, that is very hard, and maybe why mediation training is so necessary.

    • Mediation training was good stuff, Pj. In fact, I think a few lessons on collaborative problem solving ought to be stashed somewhere in the life skills curriculum for adolescents–it would save a lot of wear and tear on their parents.

  9. Whoa, Sorry, you had to come home, but it was the right thing to do and the most important. LOL. I never change on that note, but I did want to acknowledge my mother has been gone 50 years. 50 years. It never gets any easier. No one really understands that. Now my sister has lost one of her sweet sons 9 years now Danny is gone. Sorrow comes with the loving memories. Reading has given me peace when I need it most.

    • My aunt lost both her husband and one of her adult sons, and she said being a widow is hard, but being a mom who’s lost a child nearly killed her–and she’s a strong lady.
      Every year, I call my mom on her mother’s birthday, because you’re right: the grief echoes.

  10. First, as for the home front, just keep reminding yourself that this too shall pass. It may not be an ending that leaves you feeling uplifted but it is the ending that needs to happen.

    Second, hope you got your Happy Mother’s Day call. My mother got a text because I have no idea if she’s home or still driving home.

    Third, as for triangles, I’m going to throw my hands up and say: High school girls. What else is there to say on that subject. However, high school girls can be some mean, mean sonsabitches. πŸ™‚

    • For me the mean showed up in my Catholic school fifth grade class, which was quite small, and absolutely cruel. In fairness to the other girls, when the nuns threw their power around arbitrarily, it encouraged nasty behavior among the children.

      And some kids are just rotten. I changed schools after that, and fared much better among the infidels.

    • Watch for it in politics, a place where the third party candidates can be “spoilers” for the major candidates unless they throw their support to major party candidate.

  11. Mmm… Marzipan.
    I’m fortunate that I have not been in a triangle situation like that. That would stress me out!

  12. Oh, so sorry for the bad timing. I too would love to see Sicily some day since that’s where all my ancestors came from. There are so many combinations of family dynamics and with friends. Three is not a good number. I use to hear from both sides with my two friends but I always kept my mouth shut. Alas, I found out that they, of course, were doing the same thing because they couldn’t keep their mouths shut! So many people want to control others and everything around them – it never ends good. I use to get so upset over injustices but in my old age I am learning to let things go.

    • It’s even true of horses–three is the worst number of horses to put in one pasture. Somebody invariably ends up getting kicked.
      I wonder what sibling studies would tell us about families with three children?

  13. The most obvious example I can think of is junior high school (you would think high school but junior high girls are the worst!). Anyway, the balance of power among girl cliques in junior high school is ever changing and something to behold. One day the hanger-on is a social unknown and the next day the “Queen Bee” has been relegated to social Siberia and the less popular girl is now moving up the food chain. It boggles the mind really.

    • Agree. This dynamic is a large part of why I spent most of my adolescence on a piano bench. Beethoven and Brahms don’t play these silly games with Bach–or anybody else.

  14. Oh, Grace so, so sorry your trip was cut short and you had to travel that much in such a short time. I hope everything works out for the best with the family situation.

    I used to work as a technical writer for a big company. Believe it or not, we had a lot of that scenario going on with office politics. I tried my very best not to get pulled in — I don’t do political stuff well (ok at all).

    • I started out as a tech writer for a Beltway Bandit, and my goodness–you’re right! The document production department was a hotbed of gossip and intrigue. I was triply glad to get the heck out of there, but I felt for the women stuck there year after year. The manager didn’t model professionalism, and anybody who did was labeled uppity.

      • Sounds like a truly awful work environment. I’m glad we had a few who at least mostly followed the professional behavior. There were also several wonderful people – some of whom only ‘played the game’ to keep their careers on track.

        Their game was bad enough that I chose a speciality retail job when I went back to work after being a stay at home mom and school volunteer. They pay is significantly lower, but so is the stress.

  15. In both my sister’s families there is always some sort of drama going on. There’s usually a power struggle between my older sister and her daughter and everyone else gets caught in the middle. I’m not sure if either of them is the weaker, I think that’s the problem, both strong personalities. So there’s a circus going on, but not necessarily by a weaker individual. My younger sister keeps things stirred up with her children and their stepfather, in that case I’d say she’s the “weak” individual who likes the attention. Luckily, there’s no drama in my small family – just my son and daughter-in-law, we manage to get along nicely.

    • My approach: If, with either a kid or a horse, you have a power struggle going on, you’ve already lost.

      Sounds like your sister feels a sense of connection when she stirs up ire with people, and that’s often true in a divorcing situation. People who used to bond romantically or as parents now bond by being “best enemies” in the courtroom. Mighty sad, if you ask me.

  16. I love the cover of your new book “The Captive” I can’t wait for it to come out, I am so excited. πŸ™‚

  17. My father had 7 sisters and three of them were masters at “stirring the pot” and then sitting back and watching the fallout. There were shifting alliances, sisters who didn’t speak to each other for years, mothers who alienated their children…My mother (a very smart lady) refused to be drawn into the fray and treated them all the same. I never realized all that was happening until I made out the seating plan for my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah reception and my mother said, “You can’t sit that one with this one,” etc. I handed her the seating plan and said, “You seat them.”

    • I’m soooooo lucky. I’m one of seven siblings, and we’ve all married and reproduced, and in my entire big, multi-generational family, there are no “cut offs.” We don’t do, “I’m not speaking to you.” Of course, we’re mostly hundreds if not thousands of miles apart from each other, but we’re tolerant of one another.

      A big blessing for a single mom with one kid.

    • And we ALL have one, at least in the biological sense. I was fortunate to have other adult female role models, and a mom smart enough not to be jealous of my attachments to them.

  18. I agree with Sabrina and the others – anyone with teenage girls has seen this dynamic! My daughter has been bounced back and forth so many times, and still hasn’t learned how to not get caught in the middle.

    • I’m not sure what makes female adolescence so prone to this jockeying, not sure how the guys resolve similar issues of self worth and belonging without this nonsense. My reaction was to withdraw socially and stay withdrawn, but many kids can’t seem to do that.

      Will hope your daughter weathers this period of her life without getting too badly burned.

  19. I’ve always said our kids used the tactics of device and conquer. Luckily my husband and I (who both come from very disfunctional, divorced homes) never let them suceed. P.s.sadly both of my parents have passed some 20-30 years ago, so I called my stepmotherbefore posting:)

  20. Oh, how did I miss this blog?? So sorry about your trip to Italy. What a heart break that must have been. Its a gorgeous country.

    • We’ll go back someday soon. My sister speaks the language, the place is well organized for visitors, and there’s so very, very much to see that’s wonderfully different from what’s available elsewhere.

      And I did get to climb around on Mt. Aetna, too!

  21. “…and result is virtually NEVER that the two pursuers join forces or ride off into the sunset.”

    Now wouldn’t that make an interesting story?!? I don’t necessarily mean an M/M romance, but just teaching the h. a lesson.

    Here’s hoping a swift resolution to your family situation and a return to Italy. Also, a belated happy mother’s day to you along with my gratitude for hours of happy reading.

    • Donna, I don’t know how many times I’ve been interviewing a new client in the law office who’s facing a divorce, and I have to be the one to tell them, “If you’ll cheat on your spouse, you’ll cheat on your cheat.”

      A small portion of the people who leave their marriages through “exit affairs” or “transition affairs” end up with those partners long term, but not so very many. This is one triangle that’s not always stable.

  22. I have seen this many times and believe most girls/women of all ages have been trapped in one or all of the angles atleast once in their life. I think it occurs most often in elementary and junior high. It is an unfortunate life lesson then but when adults do it it is ridiculous.
    My husband has been battling the weak character role for the past 20+years of his 43years. His parents were unhappy together but chose to make each other miserable rather than divorce. He chose to ignore and distance himself rather than play the role but unfortunately that has not stopped them (mostly mom) from attempting to reel him in every so often. It is sad for all involved.
    I think most men/boys choose the “bowing out” option they just don’t understand or enjoy the game. Especially if it is emotionally related.

    I had a very memorable experience in high school with a teacher, it was awful. Abbreviated version teacher was very late to class so half of the students left class rather than wait. Teacher finally showed up and enlisted me to go find all of the missing students or else everyone would punished. What was a kid to do, if I found the lost students I was a narc if I didn’t find them they and everyone else would be punished. I became the narc and dreaded that class every day for the rest of the year.
    I love this blog! So sorry for the endless flights. I hope for a speedy recovery in the fam.


    • Good heavens! That high school teacher’s behavior put you in an impossible spot. Either you ticked off an authority figure who’d already shown signs of being poorly suited to the role, or you ticked off your peers. Either your grades or your safety were imperiled.

      If I wrote YA, I could start off a story with that single vignette, and probably have a terrific book. Don’t suppose you’re writing YA???

  23. I’d never heard of this before! What a fascinating concept – I plan to ponder this more in the days to come. I immediately thought of my dad and stepmother – they each ‘chose’ a child and focused on that one so as to avoid dealing with each other. The cool thing is, each of my sisters resent them both equally and are more bonded to each other as a result! If I’ve learned nothing else from family dynamics it’s this: we each do better when we’re all united.

    Wishing you a peaceful resolution to the family situation that pulled you home far too soon!

    • Catherine, the blended family issue is one of the primary reasons while second marriages implode MORE often than first or third marriages. Tricky business. We idealize the nuclear family. Tweak it even half a degree, and we don’t have many tools for adjusting.

      I put up my genogram for a graduate class on conflict one day. A guy sitting the back of the room put up his hand. “My father has four wives, as do my uncles. How do you draw that?” Everybody laughed, but his point was 100 percent valid:

      In some ways, our concept of family has a long way to go.

      • Great insight re: blended families! I’ve reached a place familiar to many with dysfunctional families of birth – I’ve made my own out of dear friends!