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What Is Triangulation in Psychology?

Learn about this harmful form of psychological manipulation

By Mia Belle Frothingham, published June 08, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Most of us like to believe that almost everyone strives to treat others as they themselves would like to be treated.

Nevertheless, many people are out there who are actively manipulating others for personal gain. Of many of the known toxic behaviors, triangulation is probably the most well-known of all of them.

Triangulation is a form of manipulation and is used to exploit an interaction between two people who are not communicating directly.

It is problematic due to a third person becoming intertwined in a situation that should be between the two individuals participating in the conflict. It is a strategy that emotionally unstable people can use to influence a situation.

It is an unhealthy mechanism that can generate toxicity and additional unnecessary negativity in relationships. It can become a regular process for individuals inclined to be manipulative to get what they want or turn people against each other.

Triangulation is often an attempt for individuals to try and possess control of a situation and seek advantage from it in the form of loyalty or attention from the other parties.

It brings difficulties and confusion because too many people can get involved, raising the risks for the occurrence of harmful behaviors.

The Signs of Triangulation

Triangulation can be used in an array of relationship types. It can happen in families, such as between siblings or one parent, and a child can form what one might call an alliance against the other parent.

It also can occur in friendships, when one person gets their feelings hurt, and a third party is brought in for supposed support or sympathy.

Furthermore, triangulation can also happen within romantic relationships, often when one partner involves an external person to create feelings of lust or jealousy.

Example 1

Let's say John wants to communicate with Marissa. However, instead of directly talking to her, John will rather speak to Marissa's brother, George, as a messenger or relay. This then allows John to manipulate the communication they have.

In this way, triangulation is a tactic that people can use for many reasons, from creating a rivalry or making people turn against each other.

The immediate outcome of triangulation is that the attention is steered away from the actual issue at hand, and the focus becomes the conflict between two people in a relationship.

The third member brought into the triangulation can feel pressured or manipulated as they are brought into the dilemma. One party in the triangle feels rejected or excluded from the alliance formed.

Additionally, the third person may be inappropriate to be invited into the situation. For example, a parent becomes a mediator between the other parent and their child. In some cases, triangulation is an intentional attempt to make the situation in favor of the manipulator.

It could involve turning people against each other, making someone else look like the so-called "bad guy," and creating intense emotional confusion in the communication between everyone.

Example 2

However, triangulation can be unintentional, or the individual may not realize the true impact of their behaviors.

People could employ specific triangulation strategies to avoid confrontation or perhaps tricky circumstances. Maybe they are shy, or they could be uncomfortable speaking up or resolving an issue directly with the person involved.

Then they get a third party involved, yet to potentially fuel the fire even more. This type of person who chooses to engage in triangulation often usually demonstrates passive-aggressive tendencies and lacks assertiveness.

Some of these individuals also lack psychological awareness to understand their harmful behaviors. It may be common to go to a friend for moral support when there is a problem or need help. In these situations, though, they are continually looking for someone to just agree with them and verify the supposed injustice they think they have experienced.

Creating this partnership can briefly alleviate the stress of the situation. Although, it can get risky as this leads to dysfunctional patterns in the relationships, especially if reinforced over multiple happenings. It produces a messy situation that will often lead to more hurt feelings or confused misunderstandings.

Let's say that a parent refuses to acknowledge their children's personality and uniqueness. Simultaneously, each sibling is treated very differently and is discouraged from communicating with one another except via the parent; this is a clear case of triangulation.

Similarly, if a friend or partner uses another individual to create a hostile environment in order to create drama or pressure one into doing things one would not do otherwise, this is also triangulation.

Example 3

People also use triangulation to bring another individual into a relationship without directly confronting the person they have an issue with.

Some people with personality disorders, like narcissistic personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and borderline personality disorder, usually see or judge themselves concerning their level of competition with others.

Hence, this competitive or "win or lose" attitude can sometimes turn malicious. Eventually, it can lead someone with a personality disorder to pursue ways to sabotage or manipulate someone they consider a potential threat.

Chances are, you have probably experienced triangulation and this sort of manipulation before. Suppose a person had an issue with a friend or family member.

In that case, direct communication may not have been used. Instead, the friend or family may have chosen to manipulate a third party or another person to say everything they needed.

This separates the two people and only involves another person in the conversation as they see fit.

Three Points of Triangulation

Triangulation is separated into three distinctive parts or roles.
The Victims

This person has a prey complex, and their stance is essentially "poor me!"

Regardless of whether they actually are the victim or not, victims view themselves as oppressed, helpless, sad, and ashamed and come across as a sensitive person.

Either way, they are the person who creates the triangle. They bring others in, telling them that they are victims, generate a sense of empathy from others, and thus make the triangle.

They always tend to deny any responsibility for their harmful actions and deny control of the power to change the circumstances they have created.

A person in the victim role will seek for a rescuer to "save" them. In terms of derailing strength, victims have difficulties making decisions, solving problems, finding pleasure in life, or understanding their self-destroying behaviors.

This person will often reenact the triangle whenever they can to build as many "support" networks for themselves.

They will produce triangles at work, in school, in their family, and in any other relationships they have. They may do this for a diverse set of reasons.

Whether it be that they love chaos, enjoy being the victim, or genuinely feel that triangulation is a positive communication strategy.

The Rescuers

The belief of the rescuer is, "Let me help you!" They work hard to help and take care of other people. They frequently need to help other people to feel satisfied with themselves while dropping their own needs and not taking responsibility for themselves.

Rescuers are enablers and classically co-dependent. They need victims to provide support to and often cannot allow the victim to get better.

They use manipulation tactics like guilt to keep their victims dependent on them because rescuers feel guilty if they are not helping somebody.

In terms of derailing strength, rescuers are frequently overworked, tired, and caught in a saintly way while bitterness rots underneath.

When you’re not telling the truth, you instinctively want to cover up the source of the lie — your mouth — so no one can see you’re fibbing.

But that’s too obvious, so people disguise it by scratching their nose as it does the same job, but gives your hand an alibi for being over your mouth.

The Persecutors

The persecutor often says, "It is all your fault!" Persecutors tend to criticize and blame the victim and can set strict limits.

Therefore, they are controlling, authoritative, angry, and unpleasant. They keep the victim feeling dejected through constant bullying.

In terms of resilience, persecutors cannot be flexible, cannot be vulnerable, and simply cannot be human.

They also are afraid of risking being a victim themselves, so persecutors will yell and criticize without actually solving any problems or aiding anyone else in solving the problem.

These are the most extreme versions of these three roles, but we can encounter people playing milder versions of these roles on a regular basis.

Triangulation in Relationships

Triangulation can come in various dynamics. Let's look at how triangulation shows up in family dynamics and romantic relationships.

Golden Child – Scapegoat Family Dynamic

Within a dysfunctional family unit, there is an unhealthy, toxic, and often selfish caregiver who splits their god-like self-image and subordinate self-image into two different parts projected onto their children.

As a result, one kid becomes the golden child - the perfect one who can do no wrong - while the other becomes the scapegoat - the one who is blamed for the mistakes or faults of others. 

Hence, the golden child is idealized. The scapegoat, however, is depreciated and can only do wrong.

These projections may vary over time and alter depending on how the caregiver feels about the child at the time.

Romantic Partnerships

In a romantic relationship, the manipulator will usually bring another person into their intimate connection, creating friction, confusion, and jealousy.

Nevertheless, the person typically enjoys the attention, whether positive or negative, and may even let the triangulated individuals know about each other so that they can squabble for attention.

Sometimes, the triangulated individuals do not even know that they are being used to manipulate others, or just one of them may be conscious.

On top of this, a narcissistically inclined person may triangulate someone they are no longer in touch with to control those they are in contact with. In the familial version of triangulation, this same splitting and projection occur.

The new friend or partner is idealized as perfect, whereas the prior person in that position is seen as entirely flawed. The idealized or devalued person is wholly subjective and depends only on the manipulator.

The Impact of Triangulation

When someone experiences triangulation, they may worry about what other people think and hence feel humiliated, concerned, and self-protective.

One might feel the need to set the record straight or even want to confront the other people involved. However, by doing so, one would allow the perpetrator to win.

Sometimes, the perpetrator is hoping for this reaction, desiring you will lose control and act out in impulse and fear. This type of partnership can temporarily relieve the stress of the situation.

However, there are also risks because it results in dysfunctional habits within the relationship, especially if fortified over multiple events. Over time, it creates a chaotic situation that will often lead to more damaged feelings.

Coping with Triangulation

It is essential to recognize that only you have power over what you do, not the provoking or baiting person when facing triangulation.

Remember, nobody can make you feel guilty about yourself without your permission. 

Here are a few things one should not do when dealing with triangulation: 

  • Do not make promises, commitments, or agreements that will only hurt your relationship with people whom you trust and love. No one who really loves you will desire to harm the healthy, supportive, positive relationships you have. 
  • Try your hardest not to lose your temper and take control of your feelings. While you cannot control other people, you always have authority over your own words and responses, and this is where you will always have power.
  • Do not respond rapidly to surprising or shocking news.
  • Take a step back, evaluate, and assess all of the facts.

Here are a few things one should do: 

  • Have a healthy balance between family, friends, work, and leisure time.
  • Clarify anything you are told before impulsively acting on it.
  • Stay in touch with loved ones in your life, and trust them with any problems or issues.
  • Maintain self-control. This is how you retain your power and show that you will not be manipulated. 
  • Dissect yourself from a conversation if you sense it turning into an unhealthy one.

Healthy communication requires honesty and authenticity and working to resolve conflicts rather than producing them.

The most robust way of dealing with these situations is to take a step back, assess what is occurring, and act accordingly.

Contact a mental health professional if you sense that you or a loved one could benefit from additional support.

They can help you learn more about your relationships involving triangulation and how to navigate them safely.

If you need to talk to someone...

USA

If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

1-800-799-7233

or text “Start” to 88788.

UK

If you want to access support over the phone, you can call:

National Domestic Abuse Helpline – 0808 2000 247 – www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk/ (run by Refuge)

The Men’s Advice Line, for male domestic abuse survivors – 0808 801 0327 (run by Respect)

The Mix, free information and support for under 25s in the UK – 0808 808 4994

National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline – 0800 999 5428 (run by Galop)

Women’s Aid is the national charity working to end domestic abuse against women and children. We are a federation of over 180 organisations providing just under 300 lifesaving services to women and children across England - 1-800-799-7233

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

About the Author

Mia Belle Frothingham is a Harvard undergraduate in her senior year majoring in Biology & Psychology. She is a passionate author, science communicator, and aspiring astrobiologist and astronaut with a great interest in clinical, cognitive, and behavioral psychology.

How to reference this article:

Frothingham, M.B. (2022, June 08). What Is Triangulation in Psychology. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/what-is-triangulation-in-psychology.html

APA Style References

Bell, L. G., Bell, D. C., & Nakata, Y. (2001). Triangulation and adolescent development in the US and Japan. Family Process40(2), 173-186.

Dallos, R., & Vetere, A. (2012). Systems theory, family attachments and processes of triangulation: Does the concept of triangulation offer a useful bridge?. Journal of Family Therapy, 34(2), 117-137.

Haefner, J. (2014). An application of Bowen family systems theory. Issues in mental health nursing35(11), 835-841.

Wang, L., & Crane, D. R. (2001). The relationship between marital satisfaction, marital stability, nuclear family triangulation, and childhood depression. American Journal of Family Therapy29(4), 337-347.

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