Within the vast catalogue of toxic behavior, triangulation is amongst the most well-known. It is very common, especially among narcissistically inclined individuals, and can be overt, or insidious, and many people don’t even realize they have been triangulated until it is too late. Indeed, those who regularly manipulate others will resort to triangulation because it is an easy, low cost but high yield behavior.
Although well known in unhealthy and toxic family dynamics, it’s not just limited to families. Triangulation can occur in any relationship including friendships, romantic relationships, and in the work place. But what is triangulation, exactly? Why it is it such a common manipulation tactic? And how can you recognize it?
What Is Triangulation?
Triangulation is when a toxic or manipulative person, often a person with strong narcissistic traits, brings a third person into their relationship in order to remain in control. There will be limited or no communication between the two triangulated individuals except through the manipulator. It may appear in different forms, but all are about divide and conquer, or playing people against each other.
It is a highly effective strategy to gain an advantage over perceived rivals by manipulating them into conflicts with one another. Triangulation is the method used by narcissistically inclined individuals to soothe and protect their ego, in part because they lack “whole object relations.” This is the inability to see that most people have a mix of good and bad qualities and seeing things as black or white only.
Triangulation and the Golden Child-Scapegoat Family Dynamic
Within the dysfunctional family unit, this is the classic golden child-scapegoat dynamic. The unhealthy, toxic, and often narcissistic caregiver splits their own good self-image and bad self-image into two distinct parts and then projects them onto their children. Consequently, one child becomes the all-good, or “golden” child, and the other becomes the all-bad, or “scapegoat.”
The golden child is idealized, and can seemingly do no wrong. The scapegoat, however, is devalued, and only does wrong. The children themselves are of no consequence, and their preferences, personalities, feelings, and indeed their humanity are ignored, especially if they are in disagreement with the parent’s projection.
If there is only one child, then both bad and good may be projected onto the child, but not at the same time; if there are more than two children, then other children may be incorporated into the dynamic to different degrees. These projections may be stable over time, or unstable and change depending on how the caregiver currently feels about the child.
Triangulation in Romantic Relationships
Similarly, in a romantic relationship, the manipulator will bring another person, more often than not a new romantic interest but perhaps a platonic friend, into their primary intimate relationship in order to create discord, confusion, and jealousy. The disordered individual will enjoy the attention, whether negative or positive, and may even let the triangulated individuals know about each other so they fight for their attention.
Sometimes, the triangulated individuals may not even know that they are being used to manipulate others, or only one of them may be aware. Worse still, a narcissistically inclined person may triangulate someone that they are no longer in contact with in order to control those they are in contact with.
Here, as in the family version of triangulation, splitting and projection also occurs. The new, shiny partner or friend is idealized as perfect, whereas the previous holder of this position is devalued as completely flawed. Who is idealized and who is devalued is completely arbitrary and dependent on the manipulator, and it may switch back and forth. Moreover, it is not based on reality.
Examples of Triangulation
Joe and Sarah are two siblings. In their mother’s eyes, Joe can do no wrong, especially since he is her darling boy. Joe has often gotten into trouble over the years, getting kicked out of school, doing drugs, and even stealing from his parents. Yet, he is given anything he could ever want… and more. New electronics, all of his secondary education is paid for, and he’s allowed to live at home with no expenses.
Sarah, however, was forced to get a job as soon as she was old enough to work. Her mother blamed her for Joe’s theft, even when it was obvious that it wasn’t her fault. As soon as Sarah turned 18, her mother kicked her out and told her she was on her own. Sarah accomplished a lot since then, including receiving an excellent education that she paid for, and a successful career as a businesswoman. But her mother ignores this. In fact, nothing she has accomplished has ever been acknowledged. Joe, on the other hand, has accomplished nothing and is praised endlessly.
Will and Anna have been together for a few months. During this time, Will showered Anna with affection, attention, and plenty of gifts. Anna had fallen madly in love with Will, and there was talk of marriage and babies and an amazing future. He told her he loved her, that she was perfect, and that they were meant for each other. For the last month, however, Anna has noticed Will is texting less than he used to, barely answering her questions, and is otherwise being extremely vague. Sometimes his stories change, especially regarding where he has been and who he was with. He even started blaming her for things that are not her fault.
She is aware that Will has a new friend, Lindsay, that he knows through work. Sometimes, Will compares her to Lindsay, and she tells Will it hurts her feelings, but he responds by telling her that she’s jealous and there’s nothing to worry about. Unbeknownst to Anna, Lindsay believes she is in a new relationship with Will. Sometimes he texts Anna in front of Lindsay, but tells Lindsay not to worry about it. In the end, both women are jealous of each other and vie for Will’s attention. Meanwhile, Will gets plenty of attention and drama to fuel his need to control the situation.
Triangulation: Summary and Final Words
People who triangulate see people as objects that are only meant to be reflections or extensions of themselves, to serve them when they need to protect their ego. Triangulation is a common tactic used by people with strong narcissistic tendencies and other dark personality traits. It is easy to pull off, it costs little, and it gets the job done.
You can recognize triangulation by recognizing its forms. If a parent refuses to acknowledge their children’s real personality and individualism, and their siblings are treated vastly different and are discouraged from communicating with one another except through the parent, then this is triangulation. If your current or former romantic partner or friend uses another to create hostility, drama, or to coerce you into things and feelings you wouldn’t otherwise do or feel, then this is triangulation. If someone brings you into their romantic relationship or friendship, but refuses to directly confront the person that they have an issue with, then this is triangulation.
Healthy communication is about openness and authenticity, and resolving conflicts rather than creating them. And the most effective way of dealing with these situations is to take a step back and objectively evaluate what is really happening, and then acting accordingly.
Photo credit: freepik