Triangulation refers to a specific behavior that can come up within a two-person conflict. This tactic can show up in nearly any type of relationship — between friends, family members, romantic partners, or even coworkers.
Triangulation happens when one or both of the people involved in the conflict try to pull a third person into the dynamic, often with the goal of:
- deflecting some of the tension
- creating another conflict to take the spotlight off the original issue
- reinforcing their sense of rightness or superiority
A couple having an argument, for example, might turn to a roommate, encouraging them to take a side or help work things out.
People with narcissistic personality disorder or narcissistic tendencies might also use triangulation, usually to maintain control over situations by manipulating others.
With narcissistic triangulation, one-on-one conversations or disagreements might quickly become two-against-one situations. You might suddenly find yourself left out, your protests ignored and overruled.
Wondering what prompts this behavior? Looking for useful coping strategies? We talked to an expert to get some answers.
Before getting into the motives behind this behavior, it’s important to understand the different ways narcissistic triangulation can show up in various scenarios.
Here are a few examples to consider.
Triangulation is one way a partner with narcissism might work to maintain control in the relationship.
People with narcissism don’t always use blatant abuse tactics, like name-calling or aggression and violence. Instead, they often use manipulative tactics, like gaslighting, silent treatment, or triangulation, in order to maintain the upper hand.
If you offer the praise and admiration they’re looking for, they might find the relationship with you perfectly fulfilling. But they want to make sure you continue to supply the attention they need, so they subtly unbalance you to keep you from attempting to leave the relationship.
“Look,” they might say, holding out their phone to show you a picture of their last partner, completely nude. “They keep sending me photos, saying that they want me back.”
They take a long look at the photo, then at you, then back at the photo.
“Honestly, I’m not sure why we broke up anymore,” they might add. “We had the wildest sex. And what a hottie.”
Maybe they continue to drop mentions of their ex from time to time, reminding you of the hot, sexy person who wants to get back together with them. They don’t outright compare the two of you, but they certainly imply they had a better time together.
As a result, you might feel insecure and begin to worry they’ll leave you for their ex. You might also work harder to accommodate their needs and desires in order to earn similar praise.
Both outcomes can make it easier for them to manipulate you in order to get what they want.
Between parents and children
Parents with narcissism generally use triangulation in one of two main ways.
Elinor Greenberg, PhD, Gestalt therapist and author of Borderline, Narcissistic, and Schizoid Adaptations: The Pursuit of Love, Admiration, and Safety, explains that a parent with narcissism may pull a child into a triangle when the other parent loses patience and leaves the relationship.
This narcissistic parent might work to buy the child’s love by:
- offering treats the other parent doesn’t normally allow
- lying or manipulating older children into believing the fault lies with the parent who left
- ignoring reasonable rules and limits set by the other parent
The child might then respond by supplying the parent with the admiration and love they need and no longer receive from the other parent.
If the other parent chooses to return to the relationship in order to better protect their child, they may find the child takes the side of the parent with narcissism.
In short, the narcissistic parent divides the child from the other parent.
Favored child vs. the scapegoat
A parent with narcissism might also triangulate by playing children off each other. They might designate one child as the good child, or the favorite, while the other serves as a scapegoat for wrongdoing and blame, explains Greenberg.
The parent might alternate their attentions, occasionally elevating the scapegoat child and devaluing the favorite, or they might simply imply that the scapegoat child should try harder to earn their love and affection.
In either scenario, they typically give only one child positive attention at a time.
They never know when they might earn the love and validation they crave, so they keep working for it. An occasional kind word or other positive reinforcement from their parent will generally only keep them trying harder to earn similar rewards.
Between friends and co-workers
Triangulation often shows up in workplace interactions or friend group dynamics, since it offers a passive-aggressive way for someone to undermine a potential rival and regain control over social situations.
Ever had a friend who said “You’re my best friend” one day and whispered behind your back the next?
People with narcissistic traits might use this tactic regularly to keep people competing for favorable attention.
They might also temporarily elevate someone who seems better placed to help them get something they want, whether that’s a job recommendation, an introduction to an important person, or something more tangible.
Your boss just asked you to take the lead role on a new project. It’s a lot of responsibility, but you’re excited: You know you can handle the project and do a great job.
One of the co-workers assigned to work with you on the project feels pretty resentful of your role. They just know they’re better than you and could’ve done a far superior job.
This co-worker has narcissistic defenses, but they don’t exhibit these traits outright. Instead, they tend to use more subtle tactics to get the approval and attention they need.
So, they head to your boss and, with a show of reluctance, express a few concerns about your ability to handle the project.
They might say: “I really didn’t want to bring this up, but I feel so worried. They’re having a lot of relationship problems, and a few times last month they were too stressed to keep up with their tasks. I ended up doing most of the work, but I didn’t say anything since I didn’t want anyone to know they couldn’t handle it.”
You’re bewildered when your boss reassigns you to a supportive role, giving your co-worker the lead. You feel even more confused when they pull you aside, saying, “We’re all concerned about you. Just let me know if you have more work than you can handle, and we’ll find a solution.”
People can triangulate without meaning to, often when they find it difficult to address conflict directly and want support from friends and loved ones.
Narcissistic triangulation, on the other hand, happens intentionally.
It uniquely serves the needs of someone with narcissism because it lets them utilize both parties as a source of narcissistic supply, Greenberg explains.
Narcissistic supply refers to the attention, praise, admiration, power, or sense of specialness that people with narcissism need. Triangulation helps reinforce their sense of superiority and specialness while leaving others confused and unbalanced.
It also offers an opportunity to devalue one person while raising another and drawing them closer. They can later use them as a consistent source of praise and admiration or further manipulate them in pursuit of their own goals.
This tactic can also drive wedges into relationship dynamics, allowing the person with narcissistic tendencies to turn two people against each other and remain dominant.
By devaluing one person, they can make themselves look better and achieve their goals more easily. Triangulation also prevents others from aligning against them. If you’re competing for the favorite role, you’re not working together to stand up to them.
Once you recognize the signs of narcissistic triangulation — constant comparisons, for example, or the classic, “I really shouldn’t tell you this, but I think you should know what so-and-so said about you” — you might wonder how to respond most effectively.
Standing your ground in the face of these divide-and-conquer tactics is often easier said than done, but these strategies can help.
Have a direct conversation
Pulling triangulation out into the light can be tough, particularly when you dislike any type of conflict and the other person seems to want to purposefully undermine you or treat you poorly.
It may help to remember that people with narcissism often try to manipulate and maintain control in order to protect a fragile self-concept and their own vulnerability to criticism.
This doesn’t excuse their behavior, certainly, but recognizing this can give you some helpful tools for handling the situation.
Try speaking to them privately to explain you’re aware of their behavior. Once they know you understand their game and won’t participate, they may pause before turning the same methods on you again.
Establish your own support
If a manipulative person spreads lies or gossip to devalue you to others, it’s worth making the effort to clear the air.
You don’t even have to mention their name. You might start by saying, “I’ve heard a few rumors about me have been going around. I’m not sure where they started, but…” Then explain why those things aren’t true and offer your side of the story.
Stay calm, and avoid the temptation to spread gossip yourself. Maintaining a sense of integrity will only help reinforce your position as the person wronged.
This may not always work, since some people may still believe the gossip. Still, you’ll probably find plenty of support, especially from others who’ve experienced something similar. Forming new friendships can make it easier to weather gossip and stand up to future manipulation.
You can also try this tactic with your supervisor, if triangulation tactics call your work into question.
You might, for example, explain that you’ve heard some false rumors and gossip going around, then offer a few examples of your hard work.
You may not always find it possible to prevent narcissistic triangulation. Even if you cut all ties with someone, nothing stops them from talking about you to others who are still in your life.
You may have to accept and ignore what they’ve already said or implied about you, but you don’t need to offer them an opportunity to manipulate you further.
This might prove difficult when you work with the triangulator or see them at family gatherings.
If you end up having to spend some time with them and they fail to respect boundaries you’ve set, try establishing some for yourself instead:
- Ignore attempts to bait or manipulate you.
- Refuse to let yourself be drawn in to competitions, attempts to praise or elevate you, or private confidences.
- Protect your emotional well-being by building a network of supportive friends and loved ones.
- Walk away from situations where you find yourself alone with them.
- Avoid sharing any personal details with them.
When you’re struggling to find productive responses and safeguard your own well-being when involved with someone who uses these tactics, a therapist can offer guidance and help you put together a toolbox of helpful coping skills.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.