Understanding personality disorders: Triangulation

Triangulating others is used to gain an advantage over a perceived rival by manipulating the rival into conflict with another.


Family systems theorist, Dr Murray Bowen, states:

"A triangle is a three-person relationship system. It is considered the building block or 'molecule' of larger emotional systems because a triangle is the smallest stable relationship system."

Bowen indicates that the tension created for the odd person out created by a triangle is too difficult for an individual to tolerate. The outsider is always working to become closer to the two inside who have deliberately excluded the outsider by actively demonstrating their preference for each other.

An individual or group will believe they have been overlooked (the 'out-group'), as others have been chosen above them (the 'in-group'). Successful membership clubs triangulate, whether in politics, at the golf club or simply at the lock-in held at the local pub. On a macro scale, feelings of loss and rejection will manifest in those excluded by gender or race. On a micro-scale, triangles can consist of two parents pulling a child into their polluted pool of dispute or, overcome with jealousy, they push the child out.

What are 'triangulators'?

Triangulators fall into categories labelled under the personality disorder umbrella. These individuals often do not think in terms of equality, locating an external view of the self, and possessing no real authentic core. Ranking themselves according to how they think others see them, they occupy a world where constant comparisons with others are the entry card for competition where there is none, yet they always seem to be pushing in.

Only interested in 'judging their performance', yet often complaining of feeling judged, they have little understanding of personal power, equality or compromise surviving from a notion of 'power by position'. A position for which they will fight to the death.

In emotionally abusive relationships, the feeling of subjugating to triangulation causes the recipient's self-esteem to atrophy. In such a manner, in all the confusion, the abuser is free to tighten their grip and gain even more control. 

Triangulators experience gratification and elation, feelings of superiority and victory if they manage to draw a third party into the conflict, damaging the perceived status of you and ruining your reputation. Triangulators avoid responsibility for their mistakes, as they always have you ready to pin the blame and feel the shame.

Recognising triangulation

Finding yourself subject to the toxic control of how others see you is debilitating. Believing that a loved one or group of loved ones or those who have control over decisions regarding your income, status as a professional or your ability to parent view you through a lens screened with negativity creates anxiety coupled with feelings of hopelessness and despair.

Feeling humiliated, ashamed and cornered will leave you desperately wanting to clear any defamation of character by setting the record straight. Do not be tempted to act on any provocation.

Do not be drawn into confronting or retaliating against your triangulator. Fear and anger will allow you to become baited and hooked, betraying your own moral code and dragging you into their game of "down and dirty". These are the mechanisms by which a triangulator can set fathers or mothers against daughters or sons, lifelong friends fall out, colleagues are divided, sexually-coerced students can turn on each other, sibling rivalry turns toxic, and the reason why none of these relationships may ever be resolved.

If called to advocate on behalf of another individual or group, before you do so, ask yourself why you, as is often expressed 'feel the need' to do so. As need is not a feeling, what is it that you are really feeling? Find the transference by reflecting on your own feelings. What happens inside your body and your mind when a triangulator is complaining of feeling disrespected, misrepresented, victimised and bullied?

  • What feelings of injustice does this invoke?
  • Why is your moral compass being called to action?
  • What gratification do you receive from the belief that you are the only one who can provide relief?
  • Why do you feel compelled to look at the narrow view your selective attention has been angled?
  • What are you not seeing?
  • Why take action based on a partial truth?

Self-reflect further: "Why am I prepared to take the risk of falling into conflict with another? As human beings, aren't we supposed to work together, not against each other? Is fighting the way I want to seek a peaceful resolution? That's not my usual behaviour, so why am I entering into combat?

"Why am I not promoting assertiveness, installing the courage in my triangulator so that they may deal with the situation? Don't they need independence to move away from stuck patterns? What boundaries am I breaking in order to rescue, and in the process, deny their learning, their growth and development?" Ultimately, the question to ask is: "When the triangulator turns on me, how will I feel?"

In the therapy room, feelings of inferiority can be projected onto patients or clients as a result of the power imbalance in the helper-helpee relationship. If not far enough along their own journey, lacking in self-awareness and not yet spiritually mature enough to do the often painful introspection required to self-reflect, the therapist will feel powerful due to imposter syndrome kicking into life.

In Jungian terms, this means the archetype becomes so split that the therapist's sense of humility and ultimately humanity is lost. A belief that they are 'special', a saviour and a guru, disempowers the client or patient leading to chaos and destruction. At its extreme, this zone of abuse is where the helping professional rationalises and justifies the coercion of the most vulnerable amongst us into submission for their own gratification.

Managing triangulation

For managers of triangulators at work

Instigate a meeting with the individual concerned to discuss their grievance(s) and build trust. Taking such action will help avoid personality conflicts, backbiting and malicious gossip in your team. Take everything said at face value until it can be verified, stay in control of your own emotions and refuse to allow third-party stories into the room.

For those subject to triangulation

Do not believe anything you are told by a triangulator. Don't allow yourself to become provoked by or engaged in trashy talking. Keep your life well-balanced and empowered through the love of friends, hobbies, family, work and spirituality. Volunteer to help others.

Remember, you can't stop a triangulator from manipulating others, you can't control how much damage and destruction they will do to themselves and anyone else. You simply cannot help those who want to hurt you. Once you know exactly with whom you're dealing, you will realise the only thing you can control is the dignity by which you conduct yourself.

For triangulators

Find your authentic self by working on your 'shadow' side. This will stop you from acting destructively. Once you cease fearing natural forces that are part of human nature, your major driving force will lean towards growth. Learn to take responsibility by becoming assertive. Communicating clearly and directly will give you the confidence to start your journey out of the shadows. Choosing new pathways at the crossroads of life away from painful destructive patterns towards freedom and light is the aim of therapy.

If you are in active addiction, in addition to therapy, enrolling on a 12-step recovery programme will fill the empty hole you feel in your soul. There is no greater reward than the feeling of well-being that arises from emotional maturity.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Leigh-on-Sea SS9 & Basildon SS13
Written by Amanda Perl, Psychotherapist Counsellor MSC BACP Accred CBT Practitioner
Leigh-on-Sea SS9 & Basildon SS13

I am a BACP accredited counsellor and psychotherapist, a CBT Practitioner and Member of the British Psychological Society. I am the Course lead for a Stage 4 BACP Accredited Counselling Diploma. My private practice reflects my belief that each of us is unique with the potential for growth and development and can move forward in our own way.

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