Let’s Talk About Toxic Triads

Greyscale photo of wooden triangles in differing sizes, some with jagged edges, tessellating with one another

Content note: this post is going to refer in detail to emotional abuse, consent violations, threats of self-harm (and irresponsible wielding of a knife) and generally shitty behaviour by an intimate partner. Please feel free to give it a miss if you think that it would be harmful for you to read details on any of those topics, and be sure to join me next week for a post about pride month.

Both of the relationships I’m currently in started out as triads.

In the case of my relationship with my girlfriend, it was a case of our mutual friend overhearing my asking my girlfriend out, and asking if she could be a partner to both of us. Honestly, I was drunk and a bit high, so I don’t remember much of that evening. (That became something of a theme.) We operated as a triad for about five months, then dissolved; after about a month of space, my current girlfriend and I got back together, but decided not to let our mutual ex back into our lives.

In the case of my Daddy and I, we met through somebody (I’ll call her C.) who fancied us both, and was definitely hoping for a triad situation to emerge. She introduced us, there was sex (again, erm, I was wankered), and then added the two of us to a group chat which had a DD/lg-themed name. Y’know, because negotations aren’t a thing you have to do before introducing that kind of dynamic into a relationship (/sarcasm). We were a triad for a few months, then,

In both cases, the third person in each triad – the one I didn’t stay with – behaved abusively. I still have some mutual friends with them both, so I’m incredibly frightened about divulging all of this, but I also started this blog with the intention of speaking truthfully and making other people feel represented and less isolated. I’m sure that the toxic triad isn’t too uncommon, and I’m also sure that there’ll be at least one person out there who feels bolstered and validated by my account of the shit I went through. I’m mostly going to discuss C.’s bullshit behaviour, because it’s more “visibly” abusive, and because I’m slightly less scared of her than I am of the ex my girlfriend and I share.

C. would express intent to harm herself, and then explain that the only thing that could make her feel better was sex.

In writing, that strikes me as patently unacceptable behaviour. My self-esteem is boosted by people thinking I’m fuckable, but 1. I don’t place that responsibility onto their shoulders (or genitals) and 2. I’m aware that it’s a flawed coping mechanism that I shouldn’t indulge. I don’t believe that anybody (least of all an ostensibly consent-conscious member of the kink community) can have so little insight that they would fail to understand that they were manipulating my Daddy and I into doing sex things by holding the threat of self-harm over us.

At the time, though, I never really had room to think this through. My Daddy and I were both interested in keeping her safe in the present, and we could think about the far-reaching implications of this manipulative bullshit later.

She ignored requests to not spend money on me, buying gifts I didn’t really need and then lamenting about how little money she had. I didn’t want to be ungrateful, but I already have a tendency to feel indebted to people, and her highlighting how impoverished she was because she’d bought me expensive chocolates or a corset made me feel yet more guilty and inclined to “make it up to” her somehow. (I ended up lending her about £700, which she didn’t pay back until after the end of the relationship – all whilst making purchases like those listed here.)

She also ignored a non-monogamy-related boundary I set (which was along the lines of, “please stop trying to get it on with this partner of mine because I’m insecure about it at the moment and he and I are still trying to figure shit out,”), and then cried when I explained that her ignoring it had made me feel unsafe around her. A few weeks later, she proceeded to ignore a boundary again, this time telling a crush of mine that I liked him in spite of me explaining I wasn’t going to get involved with anyone new for a while (partly because I felt that all my needs were met, and partly because I was crushingly overwhelmed by her).

This escalated; the resulting fallout involved me engaging in a self-destructive eating disorder behaviour, our Daddy leaving (walking out of his own house, in fact), and, when I went to follow him and check he was safe, C. physically dragging me away from the door. This was followed by her telling him, in our triad group chat, that if he didn’t come back, she would cut herself “to pieces”. Meanwhile, in his kitchen, she was brandishing a steak knife and shouting at me about how it couldn’t be “an empty threat”. My mum, who was receiving updates from me whenever I took my eyes off C., wanted me to call the police. When I suggested to C. that I might need to ring the emergency services because she didn’t seem to be safe (what with the knife and all), she only got more aggressive, and she cut into her thigh once, then tossed the knife onto the counter in frustration. When our Daddy finally returned safely, she yelled at him until he shut down entirely.

I thought I was handling the situation badly and causing her distress, and I hated myself for it. I blamed myself. And I still thought this was a relationship I wanted to maintain.

A day or two later, with the intention of patching things up and helping our triad continue to function, my Daddy wrote a lengthy message in our group chat explaining the emotional abuse he’d faced in past relationships, the ways in which C. had frightened and hurt him, and the reasons he’d walked out when he did. She had responded to it with something along the lines of, “I don’t understand what this means. Are you breaking up with me?”

And that moment, dear readers, is when my patience ran out.

My theory as to the existence of toxic triads is this: abuse victims find each other. Naturally, without intention, we gravitate towards one another. My girlfriend and I were both abused in similar ways by similar people; the same is true of my Daddy and I. We didn’t start out our relationships talking about this, but it made perfect sense once we’d disclosed our troubled pasts.

Abusers like C. find abuse victims and single us out because we’re vulnerable. They smell blood in the water: they can’t not know that we’re likely to assume their abusive behaviour is normal, and submit to it. The allure of two victims is too much to resist. You can pit them against one another, play off their shared and their differing insecurities, and they’re both going to assume that this is what triads are usually like, because their previous abusers have trained them not to question things. Plus, they have the added insurance of both victims being too scared to leave and thus lose each other. I remember thinking more than once, This relationship started as a triad. If I leave C., can my Daddy and I make things work as a pair?

The fatal flaw in this logic, though, is the assumption that we think all abuse is normal. (If that were true, we’d probably behave abusively ourselves.) Abusers don’t realise that we think abuse perpetrated against ourselves is normal, but we recognise that abuse perpetrated against other people is unacceptable. After all, other people are actually people.

This was C.’s downfall, and it was the downfall of the first shitty girlfriend I mentioned, too. I could be yelled at and coerced and even dragged around and taken advantage of while intoxicated, and I would never spot a red flag. But watching a partner have those same things happen to them?

I lost every shred of fondness I had clung onto for C. when she ignored and diminished the heartbreak and trauma that our Daddy had disclosed to her. At that point, I saw red, and I saw all the red flags. She had no intention of changing her behaviour to help my Daddy, our partner, feel safer. She was concerned only with herself.

My breakup message to her was so curt that her fiancé contacted me to tell me it was a dick move. I felt physically sick with anxiety, but my mum (a life coach, an abuse survivor, and somebody who’s known me for twenty solid years) forbade me from explaining myself any further. She said I’d only get sucked back into the whirlpool of gaslighting and manipulation that I’d been battling through for days before deciding to call it off, and in retrospect, I think that she was right – and that C. didn’t need an explanation anyhow. My Daddy and I had tried to explain, and she’d masterfully ignored us both, because she didn’t want to understand (or acknowledge) the harm she was causing.

I pushed myself out of my comfort zone in writing this post. I hope that it helps other people in toxic triads, or people who have left them, feel less alone and more understood. I hope that I’ve made those readers feel that they deserve their safety, and that it’s possible to break up with one member of your toxic triad without losing the other.

I also hope that y’all in the comments will be kind.

To find out more about abusive relationships, visit the Women’s Aid website, contact the National Domestic Violence Helpline, or Google the phrase “abusive relationship” alongside the name of your city to find resources based in your area. Stay safe, and remember that you deserve to be treated well.