Triangulation is a psychological manipulation tactic used when one member of a two-person conflict pulls in a third person to better control the situation. It’s problematic because the third person is being exploited in an attempt to manipulate, and sometimes emotionally abuse, the other person within the conflict. It is an unhealthy strategy that can generate toxicity and additional, unnecessary negativity in relationships of all kinds.
It can become a chronic process for individuals that are inclined to be manipulative to get their way or pin people against one another. Triangulation is often an attempt for people to try and control a situation and seek benefit from it in form of loyalty or attention from the other parties. It brings complications and confusion because too many people get involved, increasing the risks for the occurrence of harmful behaviors.
Triangulation in Relationships
Triangulation can be used in a variety of relationship types. It can occur in families, between siblings, or one parent and a child can form an alliance against the other parent. It also can happen in friendships, when one person’s feelings are hurt and a third party is brought in for perceived support or understanding. Additionally, triangulation can also take place within romantic relationships, often when one partner involves a person from the outside in order to create feelings of jealousy.
The process of triangulation can lead to challenges and dysfunctional exchanges in relationships. It can create stress, confusion, and anxiety for those involved.
The Problem with Triangulation
The immediate outcome of triangulation is that attention is drawn away from the issue at hand, the conflict between two people in a relationship. The extra member brought into the triangulation can feel pressured or manipulated as they are brought into the conflict. One party in the triangle winds up feeling rejected or excluded from the alliance formed.
Additionally, the third person may be an inappropriate person to be invited into the situation. For example, a parent becoming a mediator between the other parent and a child.
In some cases, triangulation is an intentional effort to turn a situation in favor of the manipulator. It may involve turning people against each other, making someone else look like the bad guy, and creating emotional confusion in the communication.
Sometimes triangulation is unintentional, or people may not realize the impact of their behaviors. Individuals may employ triangulation strategies to avoid confrontation or difficult circumstances. They may be uncomfortable speaking up or addressing an issue directly with the person. They get a third party involved, yet potentially fuel the fire even more. The type of person who engages in triangulation often demonstrates passive-aggressive tendencies and lacks assertiveness.
Some also lack psychological insight or awareness into understanding their behaviors. It may be common to go to a friend for support when there is a problem or a need for support. In these situations, however, they are often looking for someone to agree with them and verify the perceived injustice they think they have experienced.
Creating this partnership can momentarily alleviate the stress of the situation. However, it can get risky as it leads to dysfunctional patterns and cycles in the relationship, especially if reinforced over multiple occasions. It creates a messy situation that will often lead to even more hurt feelings or misunderstandings.
Why Do People Engage in Triangulation?
People are often seeking an alliance with someone to support their position. Individuals are drawn to connections and tribes, especially when they are faced with a challenge. They want to be understood and validated, so they may seek out this affirmation by manipulating people to get them on their “side.”
Such tactics are utilized more by people who are insecure, emotionally immature, or easily intimidated. Triangulating may feel good at the moment, yet it can be difficult to break the triangulation cycle. Once it is in place, it can get reinforced in an unhealthy way, creating more complicating and polarizing behaviors in the relationships.
Triangulation and Personality Disorders
Triangulation is often commonly associated with being a tactic used by people with personality disorders, most notably narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). In these types of cases, the person with NPD is trying to draw attention to themselves or establish their superiority over the other person in the conflict. While the use of triangulation is a textbook example of narcissistic behavior, it’s worth noting that it is not exclusive to them.
How to Avoid Triangulation
Gaining awareness of these potential dynamics is critical. If you feel the need to reach out and call someone when you are in a contentious situation, pause first. Try not to bring in additional parties when you feel you have been wronged. Watch for a tendency to replay victim-like thoughts. If you catch yourself feeling like the victim, take inventory and try to re-direct. Keep as few people as possible in the conversation. Try not to have side conversations, yet communicate directly with the person.
Learning assertive communication skills can help reduce the risk of triangulation. Consider practicing techniques to tactfully say what you mean and mean what you say, even if you have feelings of discomfort while doing so. Gaining confidence in sharing your feelings with people can be helpful and lead to healthy conflict resolution.
How to Address Triangulation
If you or others you care about are experiencing triangulation in your relationships, consider taking a step back. It can be helpful to learn how to identify when this is occurring and how to separate from the triangle. Creating a healthy detachment from emotion and the situation can foster objectivity.
Encourage the two people involved in the exchange to communicate directly about their challenges. Maintaining objectivity and neutrality is essential in working through emotionally charged or conflict-ridden situations. Qualified mental health professionals and counselors can also help navigate through relationships involving chronic triangulation.
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- Vanwoerden, S., Kalpakci, A., & Sharp, C. (2017). The relations between inadequate parent-child boundaries and borderline personality disorder in adolescence. Psychiatry Research, 257, 462–471. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2017.08.015
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