Triangulation is one of the favorite manipulation tools used by narcissists and sociopaths. It can also be a learned behavior that many people engage in who have grown up with a narcissistic parent or dysfunctional family dynamic. However, I think it’s important in any kind of relationship, that we learn to identify the early warning signs and red flags when interacting with people who display narcissistic and toxic behaviors. This way we can better protect ourselves from being exploited, and abused, and make good decisions about who we allow into our lives.
I am going to describe the 4 most common methods of triangulation used by narcissists and toxic people, and the motives behind them.
Narcissists are keen observers. They can identify a kind and generous individual the same way a Great White shark can smell one drop of blood in the ocean, from up to one mile away. Narcissists are also skilled observers. Their main goal is to control and dominate their partners and, well, just about everyone they come into contact with. This is why the love-bombing phase is so key to the narcissist’s success. No matter how confident and self-assured you are at the beginning of the relationship, the constant attention, flattery and fraudulent declarations of love that sweeps you off your feet, both literally and figuratively, leaves you off-balance and vulnerable by default.
Triangulation can be defined as an indirect form of communication where one person (usually the narcissist) acts as a messenger between two other people. Or it can be a direct form of communication where one person attempts to draw in an accomplice, to gang up against a third party, to further their agenda. In both cases, the messenger will fabricate or alter a message, often incorporating a sliver of the truth, to advance his/her objective. There are as many different reasons why a narcissist might use triangulation as there are narcissists, but here are the 4 most common methods and motives.
1. Killing two birds with one stone
To obtain control, attention or adulation, narcissists will often inform their partner about how a third-party, such as a mutual friend or co-worker, has been flirtatious with them. This third-party person is brought into the relationship to kill two birds with one stone! First, it stirs up feelings of jealousy and insecurity in their partner, and subtlety warns the partner that they are potentially replaceable. Instinctively, the partner tries harder to please the narcissist, as to not be replaced. Second, it creates an illusion of desirability and encourages rivalry, both of which, fill the narcissist with narcissistic supply, consisting of adulation and control. So, not only does the narcissist get his/her dose of supply, he/she also increases the amount of power he/she wields over their partner.
Emotionally healthy people do not invoke feelings of jealousy and insecurity in their partners, or into their relationships, as they know these are big relationship no-nos.
2. Recruiting reinforcements
One of the ways narcissists use triangulation to manipulate their partners into siding with their point of view or acquiesce to their wants and needs is by using third-party reinforcements to substantiate their opinions. This is a form of recruiting allies, or when taken to the extreme, it is flat out bullying. The narcissist tries to manipulate anyone who may hold a different opinion or belief by using the help of an unwitting third party, which of course, has only heard the narcissist’s rendition of the truth.
The third-party is usually oblivious to the narcissist’s ploy and believes they’re only trying to help the narcissist. Usually, the third party is a relative or a member of the narcissist’s fan club. The narcissist uses these innocent people as tools to help settle differences and coerce their partner or anyone else into accepting their viewpoint through the use of persuasion, embarrassment, majority rules or guilt.
In emotionally healthy relationships, couples do not recruit third parties or use messengers to settle their differences. They have face-to-face discussions. They don’t strong arm the other by using a third person to help influence their partner and do their bidding for them. They respect each other and their relationship, and if they cannot come to an agreement, they will seek a qualified, unbiased third-party, such as a therapist, minister or counselor.
This method of triangulation involves pitting two people against each other. The narcissist does this by smearing the character of one or both of the people behind their backs. This enables the narcissist to preserve their false image and ensures they’re viewed positively among the triangle. In many instances, the narcissist will portray themselves as the victim, especially if they feel their partner is growing tired or aware of their manipulation, hypocrisy, and abuse. The narcissist will react by planning their partner’s discard, by starting a full-fledged smear campaign behind their back. So by the time they dump their partner, the narcissist already has a circle of blind supporters.
The narcissist will usually seek supporters that he/she knows will always agree with them, no matter what. This is how they set up their partner, to look like the abuser in the relationship, long before the relationship is over. For this to work, the narcissist must keep the supporter(s) and partner from sharing information, so the narcissist will usually share mean comments each has said about the other to fuel a rift.
The narcissist uses this triangulation tactic to control the information shared between the parties. It also serves to provide the narcissist with the power of being the primary contact person and transferer of information. Since everyone is communicating through the narcissist and not with each other, the narcissist can further his/her agenda by relaying their twisted spin on the information between the parties.
Emotionally healthy people tend to shy away from the drama that splitting creates. Most people hate to be put in the middle of other people’s arguments. The narcissist thrives on it. Also, emotionally healthy individuals don’t enjoy hurting others by sharing mean-spirited comments that others have said about them. Again, the narcissist takes much pleasure in it. For example, the narcissist will mention to his/her partner that a family member made a very cruel comment about them, and then pretend to be supportive of their partner’s anger and appear to defend them. Not only does the narcissist get to delight in the hurt expression on their partner’s face, but they get to swoop in like the hero, and pretend to defend their partner. This creates a lot of drama and chaos and is a potent fix of supply for the eternally bored, drama-driven narcissist.
4. The pre-discard and dump
This is the final triangulation tactic used by the narcissist when he/she has decided to end the relationship and discard you. Instead of talking to their partner about this, they will confide in people who they know will agree with them, and believe their rendition of the truth. Sometimes they will confide in people, who hardly even know their partner, if at all. The narcissist will make sure to let their partner know that they have been confiding in other people, and every single one of them agrees with the narcissist. Most likely, one of the narcissist’s confidants will assume the role of the replacement partner.
After the breakup, the narcissist will openly brag about how happy they are with their new partner. And if their ex-partner acts jealous, or tries to beg them back, the narcissist will enjoy the new bonus love-triangle of their own creation.
It goes without saying, that emotionally healthy people don’t talk about something as important as ending a relationship with others without discussing it with their partner’s first. It also goes without saying, that emotionally healthy people don’t shamelessly flaunt their new partners right away since it would cause them to feel embarrassed about entering a new relationship so quickly.
Ironically, in Judo, a triangle choke, is a four-figure chokehold, which strangles the opponent by encircling the opponent’s neck and one arm with the legs in a configuration, similar to the shape of a triangle. The technique constricts the blood flow from the carotid artery to the brain and can cause the fighter to pass out, or even die if left in the hold long enough. For the opponent to release himself from the triangle choke, he needs to tap out, or the referee will jump in to stop the fight. If you see any of the warning signs or behaviors I’ve listed in your relationship, strongly consider tapping out. You may lose the match, but miraculously, when toxic people leave your life, so does anxiety, depression, and hopelessness.
Bree Bonchay, LCSW, is a psychotherapist with over 18 years of experience working in the field of mental health and trauma recovery. She specializes in helping people recover from toxic relationships and shares her insights about Narcissistic Personality Disorder and psychopathy in her blog FreeFromToxic. Her articles have been featured in major online magazines and she has appeared on radio as a guest expert. She is also a dedicated advocate, educator, and facilitates survivor support groups and workshops.
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