Triangulation Psychology

Updated on April 4th, 2022

What is Triangulation?

Triangulation psychology is a manipulation tactic used to avoid a direct conversation. As the name suggests, it involves three parties. This manipulation tactic is most closely associated with the work of Murray Bowen called Family Theory. Bowen theorized that a two-person emotional system is unstable, in that under stress it forms itself into a three-person system or triangle. Triangulation can happen in nearly any type of relationship. The following situations are examples of triangulation in relationships; a relationship between two siblings can be triangulated by a parent when the siblings disagree, and a relationship between a couple can be triangulated when one partner relies on a child or parent for support communication with the other partner.

Triangulation Psychology

Triangulation in romantic relationships can lead to problems in relationships, and the individual members of the triangulated relationship may experience stress, anxiety, or other mental health concerns as a result of the triangulation. When a person feels like he or she has been pushed out of an important relationship by a third party, for example, he or she may often feel angry, confused, or rejected and may experience depression or resentment. Furthermore, when tension and focus are shifted to a third person, that person may feel burdened and frustrated and may attempt to withdraw from the relationship altogether.

Triangulation occurs between three entities:

1. The victim: This is the person who has a victim complex and will try to give a subdued vibe. The person may be a victim or they may not, but either way, they are the person who makes the triangle. They tell others they are a victim, generate a sense of empathy from others, and thus generate the triangle.

2. The manipulator: This is the second member of this relationship, their actions cause the victim to feel subdued.

3. The third participant:  This is someone who is either in or out of the triangle. They are the ones who are the savior of the victim.

Causes of Triangulation in a Relationship

1. Insecurity: 

When someone feels insecure, they may resort to manipulating others to achieve their desires. One sure sign of triangulation is the frequent use of manipulative tendencies. Whenever someone begins to control another person to achieve something within a dyadic relationship (a committed two-person relationship), triangulation takes place.

2. Narcissism:

A narcissist, especially a covert kind, will use triangulation often during abusive actions. It’s a way to cover who they are. This happens when the victim starts to figure out the true identity of the narcissist. It’s almost a retaliation from being noticed.

3. Poor Mental Health:

People with borderline personality disorder focus on receiving reassurance that they are loved to avoid feelings of abandonment. They may use triangulation to manipulate someone to feel jealous to prove their love and commitment to them.

Is Triangulation a Good or a Bad Thing? 

Triangulation can be a constructive and stabilizing factor. Triangulation in relationships can also be a destructive and destabilizing factor. Destabilizing or “bad triangulation” can polarize communications and escalate conflict but understanding the difference between stabilizing triangulation and destabilizing triangulation helps avoid destabilizing situations.

Triangulation can be a natural part of therapy. You talk to your therapist about people who have wronged you. When conflict occurs in a relationship, a third party can be a helpful source of new ideas and advice, as a dyad can often become unstable when faced with stress. Bringing a third person into a two-person relationship can sometimes prove beneficial for the couple, who may need help mediating disagreements, gaining a fresh perspective, or finding support in times of frustration.

However, triangulation relationships can be taxing to individuals who are thrust into the middle of a conflict, and this stress can lead a third party to play an inappropriate or harmful role, whether knowingly or unknowingly, in a relationship. Triangulation can also be an intentional means of entrapping one’s partner in a relationship.

How to Stop Triangulation

Recognizing and stopping triangulation are two different things, but you will need to be able to do both to completely remove it from your life. Here are a few things you can do to stop triangulation:

1. Set Boundaries

You know what you are willing to accept into your life and what you do not want. A manipulator might be able to bypass some of the walls you’ve built, but once you are aware of their game, you can make sure to fortify those walls and redefine your concept of respect. When you set boundaries, it makes it a lot harder for others to manipulate you.

2. Say No and Stay Safe

A manipulator is rarely going to change their ways immediately, even if they reach out for help. Because of this, you must give yourself some distance and do your best to steer clear of the person to protect yourself. If it is someone you must engage with daily, make sure to set and keep your boundaries firm with yourself and with that person. They can only manipulate you if you let them in.

3. Seek Help

If you’re having a hard time dealing with people and need to learn how to better stand up for yourself, there is zero shame in speaking to a counselor about any problems you have. A licensed counselor can help you with your problems and teach you how to confront others in healthy ways. By speaking to a therapist, you can get the strength to be a more communicative person who doesn’t have to resort to triangles to solve problems.

How to Deal with Triangulation

While trying to stop triangulation in relationships, the following are ways to control the situation and prevent things from escalating:

  • Don’t respond quickly to surprising news.
  • Take a step back and consider the facts.
  • Try your best not to lose your temper or lose control of your feelings. While you can’t control other people, you always have control over your own words and responses, and that is where you’ll always have power.
  • Don’t make promises, commitments, or contracts that’ll only hurt your relationship with people whom you trust and love. No one who truly loves you will want to take healthy, supportive, positive relationships away from you.
  • If you feel that you or a loved one could benefit from additional support, please reach out to an online qualified mental health professional. They can help you navigate your relationships involving triangulation.

Matthew is an experienced and passionate BIPOC and inclusivity mental health expert. They are also a blogger, speaker, and relationship coach. Matthew helps people practice self-love and find mental and emotional peace through simple, practical tips and resources.

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