What Is Triangulation Psychology?

By: Dylan Buckley

Updated January 27, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Tanya Harell

While we'd like to believe that most everyone strives to treat others as they themselves would like to be treated, there are many people out there who seek to manipulate others for their personal gain. One such manipulation tactic is called triangulation. Fortunately, there are ways to spot the signs of triangulation so that you can avoid it. In this article, we'll explain triangulation, offer some situational examples, and show how you can get past it.

Triangulation In Psychology Refers To A Manipulation Tactic
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What Is Triangulation?

Triangulation is a manipulation tactic used to avoid a direct conversation. As the name suggests, it involves three parties.

Let's say Jake wants to communicate with Mary. Instead of directly talking to her, Jake will instead use Mary's brother, Jeff, as a relay. This allows Jake to control the communication they have. Triangulation is a tactic people use for many reasons. It can be used to create a rivalry or to make people turn against each other.

Odds are, you have probably experienced triangulation before. If you have had a problem with a friend or family member, direct communication may not have been used, but instead the friend or family member may have chosen to use a third party to say everything they needed. This way, they can separate the two of you and only involve you in the conversation as they see fit.

Triangulation As A Manipulation Tactic

Someone who is narcissistic or manipulative may use triangulation to control the narrative. For example, let's say you know someone who always lies. How can someone who is consistently dishonest gain some credibility? What they may do is tell different friends or family members the same lie they told you. Say those friends believe the lies. You ask these friends about it and they get defensive.

This can create hostility or a general sense of unrest. No one likes to be questioned and no one wants to be involved in the squabble between you and another person. This has created a triangle that is difficult to break. Now your friends go back to the dishonest individual and start telling them you’re asking questions and don’t trust that person. Suddenly, you're the villain.

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That's how triangulation works. If you have a grievance against someone, they will use other people to discourage opposition. If you try to, you're the bad guy. You may even start to believe they're telling the truth due to peer pressure and no one else seeing or realizing the issue. You may wonder, “Am I the only one seeing this? Is it real or just in my head, then?”

How To Avoid A Situation Like This

It can be difficult to avoid triangulation, but try to involve as few people as possible. When you confront someone, make sure no people are around or between you and the other person. If the individual tells you that other people believe them, don't try to talk to those people.

Sometimes, it's just not worth it to expose a toxic person. If they are a chronic liar, they will eventually lose in the end. It also depends on your standing. In a friend's circle or the family circle, if you are the black sheep of the group, trying to point out the lies of another person may make you feel more alienated.

As for the toxic individual in question, take a look at them. Do they have mental health issues, or are they victims of themselves or a past trauma? If so, it may not be worth confronting them. Instead, they should get the help they need.

In cases like these, triangulation is an intentional act. Someone knows how to play people and pit them against each other. They realize that if it's one versus one, they may lose. However, if they can recruit others to dogpile you, then you may feel like there's no way you can win. That's the entire point of triangulation. With that said, triangulation can be an unintentional act as well. Let's look at a few examples of that.

An Unintentional Tactic?

The problem with manipulation tactics is that sometimes they are completely intentional and other times they are not. People may do it without realizing it. This makes it hard for them to understand their actions and their negative effects on others.

People who do this tend to be awkward, shy, and afraid of confrontation. They may have no insight as to what they are doing. You probably know someone like this, or maybe you've done it yourself. As a child, you may have been wronged. Instead of talking to the person who wronged you, you may have told your parents, a teacher, or someone else. They may have talked to that person as a result and thus, the triangulation has begun.

It's an unconscious action and the reason we do it is that we like to be in tribes. We want to ally with someone else who agrees someone wronged you because you will then have more people on your side who can support you. It feels safe. Sometimes, in arguments, numbers beat an actual argument.

Manipulating someone via this method may feel satisfying in the moment but once the issue is resolved, it can be difficult to break the triangle. Say you and the other person resolve the issue, forgive each other, and move on. How about the other person you told? Will they do the same? If not, there is still fallout from the grudge being held by the third party. If the two of you had settled it one on one, it would be much less messy.

Three Points Of Triangulation

Triangulation can be separated into three parts. Those parts are:

  • The victim. This is the person who has a victim complex and will try to give the "woe is me" 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.
  • The manipulator. This is the person who goes after those in the triangle.
  • The third participant. This is someone who is either in or out the triangle. They are the ones who are the savior of the victim, if you will.

A person who intentionally uses triangulation will often reenact the triangle whenever they can so as to build as many “support” networks for themselves as they can. They will create triangles at work, in school, within their family, and any other circle they have. They may do this for a variety of reasons—perhaps they love the chaos, or they enjoy being the victim and have a complex based around that, or they genuinely feel that using triangulation is a positive communication strategy.

Triangulation And Therapy

Triangulation is a natural part of therapy. You talk to your therapist about people who have wronged you. When it comes to couples therapy, triangulation is really the only way to go about things. The therapist is the one who has to intervene between two people who are arguing, not connecting, miscommunicating, etc. Often, the therapist can become the victim of the redirected anger between the two. In truth, the therapist does not take a side, and is instead supposed to be the mediator. However, they can find it hard to be in the middle of two people who each have their own side of the story. They should, nonetheless, strive to remain objective.

Triangulation In Psychology Refers To A Manipulation Tactic
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The goal is to be objective. Someone should not believe someone else just because they favor one person or the other; instead they need to learn how to be objective, take a step back, and look at the facts. For therapists, or even people who are involved in the triangle, they need to learn how to be factual, or just not be involved at all. Remaining neutral to a situation can sometimes be a good thing. Don't feel obligated to get involved or take someone’s side just because you're friends with them. Sometimes, they can use that friendship to pull you into a triangle that can be hard to leave.

How To Stop Manipulation

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

  • 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.
  • Say No And Stay Safe. It's rare that a manipulator is going to change their ways immediately, even if they reach out for help. Because of this, it is important that you give yourself some distance and do your best to steer clear of the person in order to protect yourself. If it is someone you must engage with daily, make sure to clearly set and keep your boundaries firm with yourself and with that person. They can only manipulate you if you let them in.
  • 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.

Dealing With Conflict Through BetterHelp

Studies have shown that online therapy can be a useful component of a treatment plant for those experiencing emotional turmoil arising out of their social circle. In a study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, the effects of online cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) on symptoms of social anxiety disorder were evaluated. The results of the report—a five-year follow-up on an earlier study—showed that online CBT created sustained and long-lasting results, with participants experiencing decreased social phobia even five years after treatment. Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps individuals cope with anxiety by increasing their understanding of potential triggering thoughts and behaviors, so that certain interactions, such as a painful confrontation, can be more manageable. 

As discussed above, if you’re being manipulated in a relationship, online therapy can help you. Using BetterHelp, you can connect with a certified therapist at home, whenever it works best for you. You can easily create or modify appointments, online or through the app, so that you’re creating a schedule that fits your needs. There are also myriad ways to hold sessions—video chatting, live voice recording, phone calls, in-app messaging, and texting are all offered. Consider the following reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people seeking help with communication and conflict resolution.

Counselor Reviews

"Pat has been an incredible advocate for me! She checks in and cheers me on and has given me advice and tools to deal with professional and personal/familial conflicts that left me doubting myself. She's been instrumental in helping me discover and unpack learned behavior I wasn't even aware of and helping me understand and establish healthy boundaries with people in my life. I can undoubtedly say that I've been feeling better about myself and more comfortable with the way I walk through the world in large part thanks to her."

"Blaire has been amazing. She's super supportive, empathetic, and kind. She has helped me gain confidence in myself and learn that it is okay to enforce healthy boundaries in my relationships."

Conclusion

Triangulation is, at its core, a manipulation tactic, even if the instigator doesn't realize they're doing it. Trying to involve multiple people in a two-person conflict can end up with everyone losing. If you're having problems with someone, don't try to get others involved. Be someone who can confront the person and have a levelheaded conversation about things.

If you've realized that you're triangulating unintentionally, it's never too late to stop. Be self-aware and mindful about it. As soon as you realize you're having a problem, stop and make sure you're not doing it again. Don't call a friend or family member to talk about it. Instead, make sure you're only speaking to the person involved.

It can be difficult, especially if you have a hard time with confrontation. However, direct, honest communication is possible—all you need are the right tools. Take the first step today.


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