Triangulation in psychology: How does it affect our relationships?

A common manipulation tactic, triangulation (in psychology terms) refers to using threats of exclusion or manipulation, often behind someone’s back or through indirect communication. But what are the signs of triangulation, how does it impact our relationships, and how do we cope if someone we love is using it?

What is triangulation?

One of the better-known types of toxic behaviour, triangulation is a form of manipulation where one person uses threats of exclusion or manipulation to get what they want or to feel more secure in a relationship. Often used behind someone’s back, there is usually no communication between the two triangulated people themselves. Instead, the communication goes through a third person – the one doing the manipulating. In essence, the person is trying to pit people against each other, in order to better cement their own position or relationships. 

Triangulation can happen in any type of relationship: between family members, friends, romantic partners, or colleagues. Typically happening during a conflict between two people, one or both of those involved may try to pull another person into their dynamic in order to deflect tension, reinforce their sense of superiority or ‘being right’, or to create additional conflict to deflect from the original issue. 

Signs and examples of triangulation

Triangulation is used by a wide variety of different people who have one thing in common: insecurity. This can lead to them feeling willing to manipulate others in ways that may be harmful, in order to get what they want or to feel a greater sense of security in a relationship. 

With little or no communication between the two people who are being triangulated except through the person who is manipulating them, this can lead to misunderstandings or false narratives being spread. Ultimately, this may result in putting those two people against each other, or in essence, dividing and conquering for the benefit of the person enacting the triangulation. 

For example, if a friend or loved one used another person to create drama, foster a hostile environment at home or work, or to pressure you into doing things you wouldn’t otherwise do, this is triangulation.

Another example may be bringing in a friend or outside party into your relationship or friendship and using that person to bring up an issue, rather than directly confronting the person they have an issue with themselves. This could mean a couple who are arguing may encourage a friend to take sides or become involved in helping them work things out.

Amongst families, this could mean one parent lying or manipulating the truth so their child believes a lie about the other parent or family member, or even one parent refusing to follow rules set down by the other parent then framing it like the child themselves chose not to follow the rules.

For those being manipulated, this can leave them feeling deeply distressed or off-balance. Over time, it may lead to a growing sense of insecurity, self-doubt, or even second-guessing yourself. 

Who commonly uses triangulation?

People with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) or borderline personality disorder (BPD) are thought to commonly use triangulation. Somebody with NPD may use triangulation to boost their self-esteem, throw competitors off-balance, or increase feelings of supremacy. Someone with BPD may use triangulation to receive reassurance and avoid feelings of abandonment. They may do this by manipulating someone else to feel jealous, thereby proving their love and commitment to them.

In romantic relationships, the person who is manipulating may bring an outside person into their existing relationship to create a sense of jealousy and confusion. Those being triangulated may not be aware that they are being used to manipulate others, or only one person may know while the other does not. 

In families, a parent may project onto their children, resulting in treating one child as though they can do no wrong (thereby becoming the ‘golden child’), while the other is often or always blamed for things (becoming the ‘scapegoat’). 

But how can these different forms of triangulation impact those who are being manipulated?

What impact does triangulation have?

For those who experience triangulation first-hand, they may be left feeling humiliated, defensive, or worried about what others think of them. They may feel the need to try and correct what others think about them (to ‘set the record straight’), or may have the urge to confront those who were involved. 

Unfortunately, this can sometimes be the goal of the person enacting the triangulation, as they may be hoping that you act on impulse, fear, or lose control. While trying to set things straight or confronting others may initially feel good, if the dysfunctional relationship continues on without changing, over time this can lead to further misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and relationship issues. 

Why do people do it?

Not everyone who uses triangulation does so on purpose. Some people may accidentally use triangulation if they have trouble dealing with conflict and reach out to friends or loved ones for support. 

Others (such as those who use narcissistic triangulation) may intentionally triangulate people to receive attention, praise, or to reinforce a feeling of specialness or superiority. Through devaluing one person while raising and drawing another closer, this can also help them to manipulate them further in the future. Through devaluing another person, the triangulator can more easily achieve their goals whilst looking better in the eyes of those around them.

Coping with triangulation: How to respond

It’s important to remember that you can only control your own actions. It can be frustrating and upsetting, but you cannot necessarily change the actions of those who are trying to manipulate you. 

If you are worried you may be being manipulated or triangulated, do your best to take a step back and look at the situation. Consider the facts, and avoid responding quickly to unexpected news. Do your best to avoid knee-jerk reactions; while you cannot control other’s reactions, you do have power over your own words and responses. Avoid making promises or commitments that could negatively impact your relationship with those you trust. Anyone who truly cares for you will not want to take away healthy, supportive relationships from you.

If you are unsure of what to do, you can try and:

  • Clarify the situation before acting. It’s ok to speak with other people to verify the information and to learn more about what you are being told.
  • Ensure you are staying in touch with people you love and trust. Speak with them about any issues, worries, or problems you may be experiencing. Having an outside perspective can help to make things clearer, and to approach them from a different angle you may be unable to see.
  • Try to maintain a healthy balance. Just like your work-life balance is important, so too is your balance between friends, family, and leisure time. Neglecting any one of these can negatively impact how you are feeling.
  • Do your best to remove yourself from conversations you feel may be turning unhealthy. You can always return to a topic at a later date, when you feel more prepared or tensions aren’t running so high. 
  • Maintain your self-control. Ensuring you keep a tight reign on your self-control help you to stay in control, and shows that you are not as easily manipulated as others may have hoped.

Healthy communication is key in any relationship. This means having open, authentic paths of communication that aim to resolve, rather than create, conflict. Having a direct conversation in private can help you to address the issue, let them know you are aware of their behaviour, and make it clear that you aren’t willing to take part in these games. This may help discourage them from trying to repeat such behaviour with you in the future. 

Taking a step back can often be the best first step to help you get a clearer picture of the situation, and to figure out the best way to approach things moving forward. 

If you are worried you might be experiencing triangulation through a relationship that is hard to distance yourself from, such as with a colleague or family member, ensuring you set clear boundaries may be of help. This can also include establishing boundaries you yourself can follow, such as:

  • Endeavouring to ignore attempts to bait or manipulate you.
  • Building up your network of loved ones to help support you and protect your emotional well-being.
  • Refusing to be drawn into competitions – including attempts to praise you, or start private confidences. 
  • Avoid sharing personal details or information.
  • Leaving situations where you find yourself alone with them. 

If you’re worried you may be experiencing triangulation or may be triangulating others, it’s important to know that help is available. Speaking with a therapist can help you to find healthier, more productive ways of communicating and coping.

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Written by Bonnie Evie Gifford
Bonnie Evie Gifford is a Senior Writer at Happiful.
Written by Bonnie Evie Gifford
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