Demystifying Triangulation Psychology

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated September 19, 2023by 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). Free 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. 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?

What Is It?

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.” 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 person who ends up bearing the emotional weight of the conflict and may also be forced to act as a messenger between the two. 

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. One or both may then 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. 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.

Destabilizing Or Destructive Variations

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 information 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. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse in any form, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for immediate support, advice, and assistance.

Common Causes

Triangulation can happen when communication between two people has broken down.

It could also 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.

Destabilizing triangulation specifically 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 (BPD). Individuals with BPD 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 some families, a parent with BPD may identify one child as a “golden child” and another child as the “scapegoat”. In this relationship, 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.

Potential Effects On Interpersonal Conflict

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 it comes to destabilizing triangulation, the effects can be even more sinister. Over time, it 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?

How To Avoid Triangulation

One of the most effective and straightforward ways to avoid engaging in triangulation is to cultivate a pattern of open and honest communication with others. Confiding in friends can be helpful, but ensuring that you don’t rely on this outlet as a primary way to handle conflict with others can help you avoid engaging in triangulation. 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. 

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. Again, if you find yourself in an abusive situation, resources and support are available. You can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for immediate advice and assistance.

How Therapy Can Help

In most cases, triangulation is all about flawed communication. To avoid engaging in it, strengthening your communication skills may be beneficial. A therapist can help you learn to do this, and can also assist in addressing any mental health issues—such as low self-esteem or anxiety—that may be contributing to communication difficulties. 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 describes when 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. Watching for red flags and working on communication skills in therapy may help. To gain clarity on the health of your current relationships and work on improving your communication skills, reach out to an online therapist at BetterHelp

Explore mental health options online

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet Started