7 Iconic Love Triangles to Get You Tangled Up in the Trope

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Photo Source: “Past Lives” Courtesy A24

Who doesn’t love a love triangle? They’re sexy, funny, painfully human, and filled with tension-laden drama—and when onscreen chemistry shines, you can’t look away. The storytelling trope has shown up over and over again in TV, films, and books; but when it works, boy golly, does it ever! Just look at the recent success of Luca Guadagnino’s “Challengers,” which centers around injured tennis star–turned–coach Tashi (Zendaya) and two tennis players and friends—Patrick (Josh O’Connor) and Art (Mike Faist)—as they cross paths (and much more) over a 13-year period.

But what makes a good love triangle? And which modern takes on the trope are worth investigating further? Read on and find out.

What is a love triangle?

A love triangle is when sexual, emotional, and/or romantic tension occurs between a protagonist and two potential matches. Traditionally, it’s a rivalrous scenario in which two people are pursuing the love of (or sex from) the same person. Generally, these are not situations in which one person loves a second person, who loves a third person, and so on. And, occasionally, our protagonist is already in a relationship with one of the would-be endgames—leading to the temptation of infidelity, if it’s not outright engaged in—but not always.

Iconic love triangles in TV and film

“Bridget Jones’s Diary”: Bridget Jones, Mark Darcy, and Daniel Cleaver

Who among us wouldn’t have a hard time choosing between Hugh Grant and Colin Firth? They are two of the most charismatic British actors of their generation. And no matter how Mr. Wickhamy (read: horrible) Grant’s character, Daniel, is, it’s not hard to see why Renée Zellweger’s Bridget was so absolutely in the bag for him. But the push-pull between Bridget and the aptly named Mark Darcy—Firth played Mr. Darcy in Simon Langton’s much-acclaimed adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”—is what wins out in the end. Regardless, the chemistry between all three actors in Sharon Maguire’s 2001 rom-com keeps this will they/won’t they love triangle sustained for several sequels, making it the perfect watch for anyone in the mood. 

“Dawson’s Creek”: Dawson Leery, Joey Potter, and Pacey Witter

If you’re a millennial of a certain age, there’s no way you weren’t obsessed with “Dawson’s Creek.” Kevin Williamson’s now-iconic teen series (which premiered in 1998 on the WB) featured an incredibly delicious love triangle between Dawson (James Van Der Beek) and his best pals, Joey (Katie Holmes) and Pacey (Joshua Jackson). Though it seemed the show was setting us up to root for Joey and Dawson to live happily ever after, that’s not the way it went. Much to our surprise and delight, it was Pacey who ended up being the best option for Joey: He really saw her, rather than an idea of her—which is exactly what Dawson couldn’t do in all of his movie-obsessed romanticism.

Still, the constant question of who Joey would end up with was the stuff of teenage, early aughts legend. Friendships were solidified or ended based on whether you were Team Pacey or Team Dawson. But in the end, what we really should have been was Team Joey; she was not a prize to be won, but a fully realized human being who deserved a true love that complemented her own heart.  

“Y Tu Mamá También”: Luisa Cortés, Julio Zapata, and Tenoch Iturbide

There may not be a sexier pick on this list than Alfonso Cuarón’s 2001 film about two 17-year-old best friends, Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael García Bernal), road-tripping with a hot, mysterious woman in her late 20s, Luisa (Maribel Verdú). “Y Tu Mamá También” is a racy, controversial drama filled with carefree attitudes about sex and drugs and feeling alive. And much like “Challengers,” the sexual tension is not just between Luisa and her two admirers—the boys have a lot of chemistry, too. It all explodes in a beautifully real (and really messy) final act that accentuates the fluidity of sexuality and the shame that so many people carry with them for acts of love that are deemed transgressive.

“Felicity”:  Felicity Porter, Ben Covington, and Noel Crane 

Before J.J. Abrams became the king of genre films, he and Matt Reeves created the exquisitely of-its-time teen drama “Felicity” (which also aired on the WB), about a sheltered girl who impulsively follows a boy she’s infatuated with—but doesn’t really know that well—to college in scary (according to her parents) New York City. What results is a delightfully engaging love triangle between Felicity (Keri Russell), Ben (Scott Speedman), and Noel (Scott Foley) as the title character comes of age in a city she never intended to visit, at a school she hadn’t planned to attend. Making terrible mistake after terrible mistake, Felicity finds herself ping-ponging between these two men before ending up with the one who was truly right for her (though those of us who’ve had a long crush on Foley might disagree).   

“The Favourite”: Queen Anne, Abigail Hill, and Lady Sarah Churchill 

One of the most deliriously absurd and deliciously deceitful love triangles is the one between the women of “The Favourite.” This idiosyncratic 2018 comedy from director Yorgos Lanthimos (with a screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara) follows two cousins, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (Emma Stone), as they use sex and Machiavellian moves to influence England’s Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) during a time of political strife. When Abigail arrives and becomes a servant, seeing how much power Lady Sarah has accumulated for herself, she strives to get a piece of that pie for herself; audacious, sexy chaos ensues. Though not a traditional will they/won’t they situation by any means, the trio delivers on the promise of the premise and makes for a rollicking take on a usually stuffy genre, the period piece.

“My Best Friend’s Wedding”: Jules Potter, Michael O’Neal, and Kimberly Wallace

Julia Roberts makes most movies better. This is not an opinion so much as it is a fact (OK, fine, it’s an opinion). Who else could make a character as ultimately sort of despicable as Jules so relatable and understandable? Who else could play a woman so hell-bent on ruining the wedding of her supposed best friend, Michael (Dermot Mulroney), because she never had the courage to admit the feelings she had for him? It probably doesn’t hurt that the object of her ire—Michael’s young, perky fiancé Kimberly (Cameron Diaz)—is so winning and innocent in all of this. But still: It’s the sort of perfectly prickly antidote to the traditional romantic comedy, complete with an unorthodox ending that stands the test of time. 

Add Rupert Everett’s supportive George Downes and an iconic “I’ll Say a Little Prayer for You” sing-along to the mix, and you’ve got a recipe for exciting chemistry and a thrilling will they/won’t they story—all wrapped up in an unexpectedly complicated perspective. If you’ve never been a rom-com fan, this may be the one to get you to understand the genre’s appeal, even if it isn’t exactly a traditional happily ever after. 

“Past Lives”: Nora, Hae Sung, and Arthur 

One of the most gut-wrenchingly beautiful love triangles in recent memory can be seen in Celine Song’s 2023 Oscar-nominated film “Past Lives.” The semi-autobiographical film follows Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), childhood friends who are separated after Nora’s family emigrates from South Korea. Decades later, the two reconnect when Hae Sung visits New York City and grapple with ideas of love, destiny, and life—despite (or maybe because of) Nora’s relationship with her husband, Arthur (John Magaro). What makes this film all the more delectable is the fact that Song is actually married to the screenwriter of another love triangle we’ve discussed—“Challengers” scribe Justin Kuritzkes.