We all know the classic Love Triangle and all its many configurations. It can be a major source of drama in any situation, but there are times when the love triangle only appears to be there. Maybe one of the corners misinterprets something one of the others said, or someone outside the triangle gets the wrong impression.
A number of situations could lead to this.
Bob and Alice are dating and are good friends with Claire. Bob makes some offhand comment to David about Claire. David repeats it to Emily and through Gossip Evolution Claire hears it and thinks Bob wants to break up with Alice and date her. She, however, has no feelings for Bob and tries to get Bob and Alice to reconcile their non-existent problems.
Or, Bob and Alice are very close friends, Like Brother and Sister. Or even actual brother and sister. Charlie has a crush on Alice, but sees the pair's affection for each other and thinks they are in love. Since Charlie wants Alice to be happy, he does not pursue her.
Or, Diana sees Bob being openly affectionate to Claire when he's dating Alice. She thinks he's cheating on Alice and tells Elaine who tells Frank who tells Georgia who tells Harriet. Claire may end up being Bob's cousin or just a good friend.
Or, Bob and Alice and Claire/Charlie are all dating each other but everyone thinks the one guy/girl is cheating.
One defining quality of this trope is that Bob and/or Alice are usually completely oblivious to what everyone else thinks is happening.
Imaginary love triangles that come to be seen as real by one or more of the corners blur the line between imagined and real. They can then be represented in diagrams, either alongside the real triangle or as the real triangle. The second example above, for instance, is the "forbidden love triangle" a → b ↔ c when "a" fails to act. The All Love Is Unrequited triangles a → b → c and a → b → c → a are also useful both as imaginary triangles and as real triangles to superimpose imaginary triangles on.
May overlap with Mistaken for Cheating or Relative Error. Practically the opposite of Hopeless Suitor. Subtrope to Mistaken for Romance. Frequently involves an Insecure Love Interest.
- In a classic issue, a guy named Jeff who previously hit on Linda -aka, the titular heroine-, thought she was cheating on him with a professor. However, Linda is not interested in either of them.
- In Krypton Returns, H'el sees Supergirl hugging Superboy and gets jealous thinking she's falling for Superboy. However, Kara loved neither of them.
- Wonder Woman once laughed when a fellow Justice Leaguer mentioned the idea of Diana being romantically involved with Superman. Her heart, at the time, lay elsewhere.
- How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World: Snotlout feels he needs to compete with Eret over his infatuation with Valka because Valka respects him more. This is especially perplexing for Eret, who has no idea what Snotlout is talking about. Since it is made clear that Valka is aware of Snotlout's infatuation and is disturbed by itnote , it is equally likely that she listens to Eret more as a deterrent.
- Megamind's title character is rather surprised to learn that Roxanne never had a relationship with Metro Man, the hero who always rescues her.
- Downplayed in Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow, but Francisnote apparently thought that Jamesnote also had a thing for Torunnnote ; the pair were actually raised together.
Francis: Besides, anything to impress a girl, right?
James: Girl? ...Wait, you mean Torrun? Dude, she's like my sister!
Francis: So...she's available then?
- In The Kissing Booth 2 it's revealed that Elle was in one of these with Chloe and Noah for the whole film; she had mistakenly thought they were attracted to each other, but they both confirm they're just friends and Noah only has eyes for Elle.
- The trope is a Batman Gambit by Frank Castle in the 2004 adaptation of The Punisher, where he makes a mob boss think his wife is having an affair with his (secretly gay) Number Two.
- Star Wars:
- The Luke/Leia/Han Love Triangle is probably the Trope Codifier, at least by the time Return of the Jedi rolls around. Once we find out Luke and Leia are siblings, their branch disappears, though Han doesn't know that until the end of the movie.
- Played for drama in the Matt Stover novelization of Revenge of the Sith (and to a lesser extent in the movie as well). Anakin thinks that Obi-Wan is his competition for Padme after Obi-Wan visits Padme's residence once early in the morning without his knowledge. This eventually culminates in Anakin Force Choking Padme out of crazed jealousy... although by this time he's already committed wholesale child murder, so this is almost a step down for him.
- In Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey, the protagonist's love interest has a romantically-inclined kid sister who tells him that she's going to marry somebody else — who turns out to be just an old friend and already married.
- In Harry Potter, people keep assuming that Harry and his platonic friend Hermione are dating. First, Rita Skeeter's tabloids invent their relationship, leading to issues with her current boyfriend, Krum; Harry finds it rather surreal that a professional Quidditch player four years older than him considers him to be an actual "threat". In the next book, Harry mentions Hermione on his date with Cho; she gets the wrong idea and storms off. Finally, in the last book, his other best friend Ron, who's clearly in love with Hermione, is manipulated by Slytherin's locket, part of which involves trying to convince him that Hermione (and his family) loves Harry more than him.
- In the Arrows trilogy of the Heralds of Valdemar series, Herald Talia falls in Love at First Sight with homely Herald Dirk before spending a long internship in a comfortable friends-with-benefits situation with his handsome best friend Herald Kris. When they return, Kris doesn't do a good job telling Dirk that the way is clear to Talia, so Dirk spends most of a book languishing in despair and alcohol, pining for the girl he thinks he can't have.
- Zig-zagged in "The Lady, or the Tiger?". The princess believes that another woman is after her lover and that he might return the woman's interest. This sets up her Sadistic Choice when the man is put on trial for courting the king's daughter — she must decide whether he marries the other woman or gets Eaten Alive by the tiger.
- Invoked and yet averted in Northanger Abbey. When Catherine sees her new acquaintance Henry out and about with a young woman, the narrative notes that if this were a different sort of story, she would immediately assume that's his sweetheart and be completely devastated. But because Catherine is smarter than that, she's able to correctly deduce that the young woman is Eleanor, Henry's sister, whom he'd mentioned to her previously.
- In The Song of Hiawatha by Henry Longfellow, Shawondasee, the Anthropomorphic Personification of the South Wind, falls for a yellow-haired girl but is so lazy that he doesn’t try to approach her and gazes at her from afar instead until he sees her hair has turned white and sadly thinks she has been seduced by his Old North Wind brother Kabibonokka. In fact, nothing of the sort has happened, because Shawondasee has mistaken a yellow dandelion for a girl.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
- In the episode "Triangle", Anya becomes convinced Willow will try to steal Xander away from her. Despite Willow being in a lesbian relationship with Tara by this time, she isn't entirely unjustified in her concerns; Willow had already broken up Xander's previous relationship with Cordelia (which is what brought Anya to Sunnydale as a vengeance demon on Cordelia's behalf in the first place), and Willow doesn't want Anya around.
- In Season 2, Angel worries that Xander is a rival because he can spend his days as well as nights with Buffy. However, while Xander is definitely interested in Buffy, the reverse is not true.
- Deadly Women explores this in many episodes, where the killer will often kill the person she believes to be in love with her boyfriend/husband/stalker victim to Murder the Hypotenuse.
- On Dharma & Greg, Dharma's old friend visits and begins spending a lot of time with her father, Larry. Dharma begins to think she's trying to steal him away from Abbie; in actuality, the friend wanted to spend time with Larry because there was a chance he was her biological father.
- The Frasier episode "The Rivals" has two imaginary triangles: the usual miscommunication between Frasier and Niles leads to them both believing they're in competition for the same woman when they're actually seeing two different women. In the end, they freak both women out and end up alone, and they still only figure it out after Frasier proposes a toast to "one pretty remarkable woman" and they say different names.
- Chandler, in both the season 5 and 6 finales, thinks Monica is going to leave him for her ex-boyfriend Richard. Both times Monica has no intention of doing anything of the sort; the first time, she feels nothing for Richard. The second time, she's faced with two proposals, and she not only accepts Chandler's instead of Richard's, but she even proposes to Chandler herself.
- Chandler falls for this again with her so-called soulmate Don and 'the funniest guy she's ever met' Jeffrey. Monica is completely oblivious, as it's based on throwaway comments she can't remember making.
- In Gossip Girl, Chuck assumes from spying on Blair that she and Dan have something going on, and so sets them up so that Blair can see Dan doesn't belong in their world. However, Blair is in love with Chuck, and this childishness only leads to her becoming so disgusted with him she actually does go out and find another love interest.
- Love and Redemption: Ling Long and Si Feng both assume Min Yan and Xuan Ji are in love with each other. When Min Yan tries to confess his love for Ling Long, she rejects him and Si Feng warns him not to hurt Xuan Ji.
- On The Musketeers, Rochefort is obsessed with Anne and is convinced that she loves him back. Thus, he believes that he is in a love triangle with both her husband (the king) and the Musketeer Aramis (with whom she had an affair).
- The Nanny: C.C. is convinced she's in one with Fran for Mr. Sheffield, but the truth is he's completely oblivious to her feelings. C.C. at one point implies that she also had this going with Maxwell's late first wife.
C.C.: I didn't let his wife stand in my way. You think I'm pathetic now, you should have seen me as her maid of honor.
- Noah's Arc: Interesting subversion between Alex, Trey and Guy. Alex suspects Trey may be cheating on him with Guy. It turns out Trey is completely innocent, though we learn later that Guy has been secretly pursuing Trey (with Trey being oblivious to this).
- In Iolanthe, the main conflict arises because Phyllis sees her beloved fiancé Strephon kissing a young woman who looks seventeen on account of being a fairy, but is Really 700 Years Old - and his mother.
- In Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Dual Destinies there is a rumor in Themis Legal Academy that Juniper Woods is object of affection of her two best friends, Robin Newman and Hugh O'Conner. Their rivalry in a mock trial is presented as battle over her heart, and rumor claims that Hugh is going to confess his love for her. In reality, neither has any romantic feelings for her; what Hugh really wanted to confess is that he's actually much older, and failed his class 7 times in a row, while Robin is actually a girl.
- In Dear Children, Cailie regarding herself, Gabe, and Sabrina. Gabe probably doesn't like Cail that way and Sabrina barely knows Gabe exists.
- Disney High School:
- El Goonish Shive: Despite the protests of all involved, a good chunk of the peripheral cast believe in a Susan/Elliot/Sarah triangle. Elliot and Sarah are dating, Susan and Sarah are close friends, and Elliot and Susan get along well with each other (they have good on-screen chemistry on their web-video series where they review movies). However, Susan has issues with physical intimacy and Elliot knows this, so even after he and Sarah break up amicably, neither Elliot nor Susan try to become more than friends.
- Briefly in Sandra and Woo. Woo thinks his rival, Tibor, is interested in Lily. Turns out she's his daughter.
- Robin of Shortpacked! has a thing for love triangles, and an even bigger thing for Ethan. When she sees Ethan comforting Amber, she immediately thinks she's involved in a love triangle — even though Ethan is gay and not attracted to either of the girls.
- On Adventure Time, one episode has Finn and Jake both believe that Finn's former Precocious Crush, Princess Bubblegum, has suddenly started to like Finn right when he's become interested in Flame Princess. In reality, she was objecting to their relationship for another reason.
- An episode of Alvin and the Chipmunks had one involving a Girl of the Week, Simon, and a biker boy. Alvin convinced Simon to try out for a bike competition to impress the girl, only to find out that the biker was her cousin.
- The Hollow: Kai thinks that there's something going on between Mira and Adam, which he fears since he's developing a crush on Mira, but it's shown that nothing will come out of Mira and Adam's relationship when she kisses him and he reacts by awkwardly saying he isn't interested. Season 2 goes further with this, revealing that the reason the two had instantly good rapport is that they're childhood friends. Also Adam rejected her because he's gay. Mira is distraught when she finally remembers this and profusely apologizes for the kiss. As for Kai, he moves on to another girl anyway, making this a moot point.
- On Rugrats, Grandpa gets a New Old Flame named Morgana in one episode. It turns out their relationship had ended when she saw him "kissing" another girl; in reality, he had been performing CPR on her as she suffered an asthma attack. Ironically, his eventual wife had the same name as the girl he'd performed CPR on, implying they did later get together.
- An episode of The Simpsons had the family visiting a dude ranch and Lisa falling for a cute boy. When she runs into a girl who is looking for the boy, Lisa tries to get rid of her. It turns out that the girl was the boy's sister, and Lisa's actions make him hate her.
- Total Drama, with its numerous Ship Tease moments, provides examples:
- For example, both Trent and Courtney saw themselves in a love triangle when their respective Love Interests, Gwen and Duncan, became friendly during Action, though Gwen and Duncan were nothing more than friends. Later subverted in the following season, World Tour, where it's revealed that Gwen actually did have a crush on Duncan.
- The inversion may be even more common, when a character is in a love triangle but doesn't notice; Cody's obliviousness to Trent/Gwen in season one would probably be the clearest example, later to be replicated with Cody/Gwen/Duncan in season three.
- On Young Justice (2010) M'gann wants to reconcile with Superboy, but when she asks Nightwing where he is he tells her that he's on a date with their old friend Wendy. Later M'gann finds out that he was basically Playing Cyrano for Wendy's actual new boyfriend, Marvin.