What Is Triangulation in Psychology?

Learn about this harmful form of psychological manipulation

Unhappy Teenage Girl Being Gossiped About By Peers


Daisy-Daisy / Getty Images

What Is Triangulation?

In psychology, triangulation is a term used to describe when a person uses threats of exclusion or manipulation. Its goal is to divide and conquer. A form of manipulation, triangulation involves the use of indirect communication, often behind someone's back. 

In the list of toxic behaviors, triangulation may be the most well-known. But what is triangulation exactly, why is it such a common manipulation tactic, and how can you recognize it? Keep reading to learn more.

Signs of Triangulation 

Triangulation is an approach used by many different people who share one thing in common: insecurity. As a result, they're willing to manipulate others in harmful ways to get what they want or feel a sense of security in a relationship

It's a highly effective strategy to earn an advantage over noted rivals by manipulating them into conflicts between one another. Triangulation is a method used by selfish individuals to comfort and protect their egos. 

Typically, there's limited to no communication between the two triangulated people except through the person doing the manipulating. It may appear in various ways, but all are about dividing and conquering or putting people against each other. 


If a parent refuses to acknowledge their children's personality and individualism, and at the same time, siblings are treated very differently and discouraged from communicating with one another except through the parent, it's triangulation. 

Similarly, if a partner or friend uses another person to create a hostile environment, create drama, or pressure you into doing things you wouldn't otherwise do, this is triangulation. Individuals also use triangulation to bring another person into a relationship or friendship without confronting the person they have an issue with directly. 

Some people with Cluster B personality disorders, such as narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, and borderline personality disorder, tend to view or judge themselves in relation to their level of competition with others.

This competitive or "win-lose" attitude can occasionally turn malicious. Ultimately, it can lead a person with a personality disorder to seek ways to undermine or manipulate someone they view as a potential threat. 

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and Bipolar Disorder (BPD)

Let’s examine how some people with NPD and BPD use triangulation since it’s commonly found in these two disorders. 

How Do People With NPD Use Triangulation?

Some people with narcissistic personality disorder may use triangulation to increase their feelings of supremacy, secure their self-esteem, and devalue other people while keeping potential competitors off-balance. They aren't that different from the kids who use it to help navigate middle and high school status wars. 

How Do People With BPD Use Triangulation?

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. 

Triangulation in Relationships

Triangulation can come in various dynamics. First, let's take a look at how triangulation shows up in family dynamics and romantic relationships.

The Golden Child-Scapegoat Family Dynamic

Within a dysfunctional family unit, the unhealthy, toxic, and often selfish caregiver splits their moral self-image and inferior self-image into two distinct parts projected onto their kids. As a result, one child becomes the golden child who can do no wrong, while the other becomes the scapegoat

The golden child is idealized and can do no wrong. The scapegoat, however, is devalued and can only do wrong. These projections may differ over time and change depending on how the caregiver feels about the child at the time. 

Triangulation in Romantic Partnerships

In a romantic relationship, the manipulator will often bring another person into their intimate relationship to create friction, confusion, and jealousy. However, the individual usually enjoys the attention, whether negative or positive, and may even let the triangulated individuals know about one another so that they can fight for attention. 

Sometimes, the triangulated individuals don't even know that they're being used to manipulate others, or only one of them may be aware. Worse still, a narcissistically inclined person may triangulate someone they are no longer in contact with to control those they are in touch with. 

In the family variant of triangulation, splitting and projection also occur. The new partner or friend is idealized as perfect, whereas the previous person in that position is seen as entirely flawed. The person who is idealized or devalued is entirely subjective and depends on the manipulator.

Impact of Triangulation 

When someone experiences triangulation, they may fear what other people think and feel humiliated, concerned, and self-protective. 

You might feel the need to set the record straight, or you may even want to confront the other people involved. However, by doing so, you allow the perpetrator to win. Sometimes, they're hoping for this kind of reaction, hoping that you'll lose control and act out in impulse and fear. 

This type of partnership can temporarily alleviate the stress of the situation. However, it can also be risky because it results in dysfunctional patterns and cycles within the relationship, especially if reinforced over multiple occasions. Over time, it creates a messy situation that will often lead to even more hurt feelings or misunderstandings. 

Coping With Triangulation 

When dealing with triangulation, it's essential to remember that only you have control over what you do, not the provoking or baiting person. Remember, nobody can make you feel bad about yourself without your permission. 

Here are a few things you shouldn’t do: 

  • 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. 

Here are a few things you should do: 

  • Clarify anything you are told before acting on it.
  • Stay in touch with loved and trusted ones In your life, and tell them about any problems or issues that arise.
  • Maintain a healthy balance between family, friends, work, and leisure time.
  • Remove yourself from a conversation if you sense it turning into an unhealthy or dysfunctional one.
  • Maintain your self-control. This is how you keep your power and demonstrate that you will not be manipulated like that. 

Healthy communication requires openness and authenticity and working to resolve conflicts rather than creating them. The most potent way of dealing with these situations is to take a step back, accurately evaluate what is happening, and act accordingly. 

If you feel that you or a loved one could benefit from additional support, reach out to a qualified mental health professional. They can help you navigate your relationships involving triangulation. 

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Noble H, Heale R. Triangulation in research, with examplesEvid Based Nurs. 2019;22(3):67-68. doi:10.1136/ebnurs-2019-103145

  2. Greenberg E. Have You Been the Victim of Narcissistic Triangulation?

By Arlin Cuncic, MA
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety." She has a Master's degree in psychology.