Do you know someone who takes pleasure in dragging any and everyone down with spreading rumors or lies, starting arguments and getting everyone involved, or keeping problems going by including people who should not be included?
If so, you are not alone. In fact, triangulation is something that emotionally unstable individuals use to either manipulate or confuse a situation. In some cases, the triangulation is unintentional but habitual. Either way, it’s problematic.
Have you ever heard of the term “triangulate” or “triangulation?” If not, that’s okay because it’s typically a concept used in trauma-informed therapy. The term is used to describe an individual who creates drama using 3 or more people in a situation.
This article will explain triangulation and help you explore the problems that result from someone who engages in this behavior.
I’m sure you have had experiences with many family members, friends, and possibly even your own children that might help you understand this concept better. You may be wondering why the term triangulation is mainly used in trauma-based therapy and why you don’t typically hear therapists, mental health professionals, or other people discuss this topic. The reason is because triangulation is a concept taught to therapists or other mental health professionals who are being trained specifically in trauma and who are trying to understand how traumatized individuals actually operate in interpersonal relationships. For many individuals who have experienced traumatic incidents (abuse, a car crash, a fire, a natural disaster, loss of a home, death of someone close, parental neglect, etc.) the way they perceive life and relationships can drastically be influenced by the traumatic experience. It has much to do with how the brain is wired (which occurs through social and emotional experience) and how social experiences (things in the environment, how others treat the person, etc.) have affected the individual. Many of my clients, who tend to be abused, neglected, and traumatized children and teens, often engage in triangulation intentionally and unintentionally. It’s a very complicated cycle that negatively impacts everyone involved. In fact, many clients with personality disorders (borderline personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder – sociopathy, narcissism, or avoidant attachment disorder), mood disorders (bipolar disorder, depression, etc.), anxiety, or attachment issues (reactive attachment disorder) can exhibit similar relational patterns.
Intentional use of triangulation
For many families or friends, triangulation becomes a continuing or chronic process in which the problematic individual engages to either achieve an ultimate goal (get their needs met, control others, gain attention, etc.) or to keep the truth of a situation hidden. For example, say that you know a person who is a pathological liar and despite everyone knowing what the truth is (or probably is) the person chronically tells lies. In order to gain some kind of credibility, the pathological liar might tell a family member the same story and then come back to you and say “well…aunt Kimberly and grandma Lele believes me.” Out of curiosity and to also warn them of the lie, you make a phone call to each one and tell them about the lie. They become curious about why you are so angry and concerned and begin to question you. While they question you, you become even more frustrated and ask them how they could even believe the lie. You are now shocked, or perhaps even hurt, that they have questioned your credibility that you hang up on them. Now you’ve got a triangle that is hard to detangle because the true troublemaker (the person who told the lie) has now gotten you involved and everyone is against each other. In some similar cases, grandma and aunt might even go back to the person who told the lie and make statements such as “can you believe she was trying to insinuate that you are a liar?! How dare she!” Sound familiar?
In cases such as this it is important to remain as separate as you can and to tread lightly as you intend to uncover the truth. Be careful how you approach such situations and consider the outcome. Is it worth you attempting to uncover the lie or will the person eventually destroy themselves? Another thing to consider is whether or not the other people will actually believe you. I’ve seen families in which there are “black-sheeps” who attempt to point out lies told in the family and end up getting their feelings hurt or being even more ousted by the family. The other thing to consider is how “stable” the pathological liar is in their mental health. Are they former victims of abuse, neglect, or attachment issues? Do they find it difficult to communicate appropriately with others? Do they struggle with needing a lot of attention or control? Considering these questions will help you determine how you can intervene and if you should.
In my practice with such clients, it can be very difficult for parents to sit back and watch their child repeatedly lie about something that they know isn’t true. In cases where there is so many landmines, anger, and resentment, the pathological liar may manipulate the situation in such a way that you come out looking like the “unstable” person. It happens in many, many cases of triangulation. You are most likely to see this pattern in ugly divorces, custody issues, and conflictual parent-child relationships. Despite the intentional acts of triangulation, did you know some people unintentionally triangulate you?
Unintentional use of triangulation
As hard as it is to believe, some people triangulate unintentionally and do not see exactly what they are doing to those around them. This kind of person is usually a passive-aggressive person, a shy person, someone who has never “found their own voice,” or someone who is afraid to (or doesn’t know how to be) assertive. Other individuals just simply lack insight into their behaviors. I’m sure many of us can think of people like this in our lives. As an example, consider the last time you felt wronged by someone. What did you do? Did you run to your mother, a friend, or a co-worker you trust? If so, what was the result of this conversation? Did they talk against the person who wronged you? Perhaps. Is this a form of triangulation? Perhaps. Here’s why. Because when you have a problem and run to someone else for support, you most likely are looking for the person to agree that you were wronged and in some way show you that what the other person did was wrong. In this way, you create an “alliance” (a partnership) with the person and this creates two people against one (the person who treated you badly). This is an unintentional triangle. You did not intend to create an alliance and you may not have wanted the person you went to for support to actually feel any negative feelings against the wrongdoer. In some cases, once the triangle is established, it can be difficult to undo it, especially if you end up forgiving the person who wronged you!
There are three components to triangulation:
- Victim: This label describes an individual who carries an attitude, in some situations (if not all), of “poor me.” While there are cases in which the person is the victim (due to how they are being treated by others), the triangle describes a person who creates a triangle in such a way that they become the “victim.”
- Persecutor: This label describes an individual who attacks the others who are participants in the triangle.
- Rescuer: This is a person either within the created triangle or outside of the triangle that acts as a rescuer or someone who is the “saving grace.”
Someone who engages in pathological lying and trouble-making often re-enacts the triangle in many areas of life including the workplace, school, neighborhood, and home environment. The triangle is sometimes intentionally created to create chaos and make the person creating the chaos appear as the victim.
Triangulation is a complicated phenomenon because so many people can be involved. In marital, couples, or family therapy, triangulation is a very real thing that creates trouble for everyone involved, including the therapist. For example, a husband and wife who are nearing a divorce may see the therapist as a rescuer in some cases and a persecutor in others. In fact, the therapist can actually become the victim in a situation where anger is misplaced. It can be very difficult for a therapist to stay separate from the triangle and to engage in the therapeutic relationship in a healthy fashion. I admit I have been here myself while trying to remain objective (looking at only the facts) despite so many emotions, experiences, and thoughts are being shared in therapy.
For those of you who experience this in your friendships, your families, or even neighborhoods, it is important to learn how to identify when a triangle is occurring, how to stay separate from the problematic triangle, and how to remain objective as much as possible. It is tough and you will probably need multiple tries before you actually get it right. As a therapist, I have failed so many times. But the goal is to learn when and how to identify when we are feeding the triangle or helping to unravel it.
Looking forward to discussing your experiences or questions. As always, post below!
I wish you well
This article was originally published 2/15/2015 but has been republished to reflect updated and accurate information.