What is Triangulation Psychology?

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Triangulation is a tactic used to manipulate an interaction between two people who are not communicating directly with each other.  It is problematic because a third person becomes involved in a situation that should be between the two individuals involved in the conflict.  Triangulation is a strategy that emotionally unstable people can use to manipulate a situation. It is an unhealthy tactic and can generate toxicity and additional negativity in relationships.  It can become a chronic process for individuals who are inclined to be manipulative in order to get their way or pit people against one another.  It can be an attempt for people to try and control a situation and seek benefit from it. Triangulation brings complications and confusion because too many people get involved, increasing the risks for additionally hurtful behaviors. 

As the name suggests, there are three points to the triangle. It is useful to understand the roles played in the process of triangulation. 

  • The Victim – A individual who demonstrates a “poor me” attitude.  The victim creates the triangle in which they are the person suffering. They generate and send a woe is me message. They make it clear to the others that they are the victim in the scenario.
  • The Persecutor:  An individual who is the attacker toward the others in the triangle.
  • The Rescuer:  A person either within the created triangle or brought in from outside of the triangle serving as a rescuer.  This is someone who is considered to save the day.  

Triangulation can occur in varying relationships. 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. The process of triangulation can lead to challenges and dysfunctional exchanges in relationships.  It can create stress, confusion, and anxiety for those involved.

Here is what can be problematic in triangulation:

The 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 manipulate a situation in the 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 in an effort to avoid confrontation or difficult circumstances.  They may be uncomfortable speaking up or addressing an issue directly with the person.  They go around the other, bringing a third party involved, yet potentially fueling 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 stress with 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 would people engage in triangulation?

People are often seeking an alliance with someone to support their position. Individuals are drawn to connection and tribes, especially when they are faced with a challenge.  They want to be understood and validated, so they may seek out this affirmation through manipulating people in order 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 in 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.

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 sharing your feelings with people can be impactful and lead to healthy conflict resolution.

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How to address triangulation?

If you are others 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 help 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.