Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated May 17, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

In psychology, triangulation refers to a dynamic that can arise from a conflict between two people. It involves them communicating primarily through a neutral party or otherwise drawing a third person into their own issues, creating a "triangle". The concept is often associated with Murray Bowen, one of the early pioneers of family systems therapy, because it’s often seen in dysfunctional family units.

Experiencing communication problems?

Defining triangulation

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines triangulation as “a situation in which two constituents of a family in conflict each attempt to draw another person to their side.” (This is different from data triangulation, investigator triangulation, and methodological triangulation, which are often used in peer-reviewed research). Triangulation is a common manipulation tactic that may occur when there has been a breakdown in communication between two parties, leading them to vent to a third person who ends up bearing the emotional weight of the conflict and may also be forced to act as a messenger between the two. 

Family conflicts

One of the most common examples of this is a family with two parents and a child, where there is a significant conflict between the parents. According to Family Systems Theory, triangulation often happens when one or both parents turn to the child as an outlet for venting, often making them feel as if they are responsible for the situation and burdening them emotionally. In these scenarios, the family process can be severely disrupted by triangulation, especially when family members are not allowed to express themselves in their own words without involving the third person. 

Romantic relationships

Another example of triangulation in romantic relationships could be a person calling their friend to vent about their partner every time they have a fight. When this happens frequently over time, the person’s venting to the friend can become a more comfortable outlet than ever addressing the cause of the fights directly with their partner. Additional problems in the romantic relationship can result, and the friend could feel overburdened or even used due to this triangulation tactic.

Getty/Luis Alvarez

Variations of triangulation

Destabilizing or destructive triangulation is another form of this tactic that is typically more intentional in terms of causing harm. This type of triangulation usually takes the form of outright manipulation in which one person tries to control the flow of information and communication for another. For example, imagine an individual who is trying to isolate their target—a common strategy in abusive relationships. They might tell the person that a close friend confessed to finding the target annoying, unlikeable, and unpleasant. This example of triangulation uses information that is untrue and designed to weaken the target’s self-confidence and connections with others in order to boost the confidence and safety of the individual. 

Causes of triangulation

Triangulation can happen when healthy communication between two people has broken down. It can often lead to a dysfunctional family unit in which a third member of the family gets involved in a situation with two other family members. However, relationships involving triangulation don’t always involve families; Often, triangulation involves workplace settings or romantic relationships. 

There are various causes of triangulation. For example, triangulation might arise out of shyness, a lack of assertiveness, or passive-aggressiveness on the part of one or both parties that prevents open, direct communication from taking place between them. It may even occur when one person continually confides in or vents to another about a mediator, seeking only blind agreement. Over time, the dynamic becomes a substitute for the confiding individual working out their issues with the mediator.

Triangulation is often associated with individuals who have personality disorders—particularly narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). While this condition is usually characterized by symptoms like an obsession with status, an inflated sense of superiority and entitlement, and attention- and admiration-seeking behaviors, it’s not uncommon for a narcissistically inclined person to feel a deep sense of uncertainty and low self-worth to exist behind it all. That’s why some people with disorders like NPD might engage in triangulation so that they can make their target dependent on them by making it seem like they’re the only one who cares about them. 

In addition to NPD, there is also an association between triangulation and borderline personality disorder. Individuals with borderline personality disorder may use this tactic to create animosity between two individuals with the hope that their target will rely on them for support and love. For example, in a romantic relationship, one partner might use manipulation tactics to create drama and control the other person. 

In some families, a parent with this disorder may identify one child as a “golden child” and another child as the “scapegoat.” With these family dynamics, the golden child can do no wrong while the parent refuses to accept the scapegoat. Often, this leads to the golden child also rejecting the scapegoat and falling in line with the parent. Over the long term, it can also affect the children’s personality and their adolescent development. 

Effects of triangulation

First, continual reliance on triangulation as a way to handle interpersonal conflicts will generally not be helpful in the long run. The only way to resolve them is usually to speak with the other person directly, so bringing someone else in every time will only distract from that purpose. It can also put the confidante in an uncomfortable position, perhaps being asked to choose sides, deliver messages to the other party, or simply carry the weight of all the emotions that are continually put on them. 

When children are triangulated into their parents’ conflicts, one study reports that they feel “caught in the middle” and “torn between divided loyalties,” often resulting in a higher likelihood of them internalizing problems and experiencing emotional dysregulation. When one parent uses the child as a confidant for issues with the other parent, it may be harder to maintain positive relationships within the unit as a whole. As a result, relationship triangulation not only strains the bond with both parents but can also affect the child's social development and interactions outside the family.

Over time, triangulation can negatively impact the target’s self-esteem, potentially leading to diagnosable mental health issues. It may also make them doubt their relationships with friends and family, potentially causing them to withdraw and self-isolate. Both of these effects can then make them more vulnerable to abuse. 

Experiencing communication problems?

Avoiding triangulation

One of the most effective and straightforward ways to avoid engaging in triangulation is to cultivate a healthy balance of open and honest communication with others. Although confiding in friends can be helpful, you may want to avoid this outlet as a primary way to resolve conflicts with others. Instead of using triangulation, being direct with someone you have an issue with and calmly working together to resolve it is usually the best course of action. If you find yourself triangulated into a conflict with others, setting firm boundaries may help—such as not engaging with someone about certain topics or at certain times. Otherwise, it’s possible for some people to lose control when interacting with a provoking or baiting person, especially in a hostile environment.

When it comes to destabilizing or destructive triangulation, watching for it and other red flags—such as controlling behavior, extreme jealousy, attempts to isolate you from others, threats or intimidation, and insults or demeaning behavior—can be key.

How therapy can help triangulation

In most cases, triangulation is all about flawed communication. A therapist can help you strengthen communication skills and develop self-control while managing any underlying mental health problems—such as low self-esteem or anxiety. Family therapy may be a helpful way to resolve problems with indirect communication that has led to hurt feelings within the family unit. In addition, couples therapy may be useful for romantic partnerships with triangulated individuals. 

If you don’t feel comfortable meeting with a therapist in person, you might consider online therapy. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can connect with via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging to address the challenges you may be facing. Research suggests that there’s “no difference in effectiveness” between the two formats, so you can generally pick the one that’s best for you. 


Triangulation typically describes how a person gets drawn into a conflict between two people. It can happen inadvertently over time or intentionally for the purposes of manipulation and/or abuse. To learn more about triangulation and how it can affect the people involved, it may help to speak with a licensed therapist. A therapist may be able to help you focus on more effective types of communication, which may improve not only your relationships but also your mental health. Take the first step toward learning to communicate more effectively and reach out to an online therapist at BetterHelp.
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