How to deal with triangulation in a relationship

TOArguments happen in any relationship; in fact, some arguments are a good thing. As long as you fight fairly, having a discussion allows you and your partner to express inevitable disagreements when they arise and move toward greater mutual understanding. In other cases, however, an argument may have the opposite effect; your partner might say or do something that leaves you upset, hurt, maybe even enraged. Case in point: They drag another person, such as a family member or friend, into their relationship problems, perhaps to gain sympathy or make them look bad, in a manipulative move called triangulation.

Triangulation within a romantic relationship involves one partner sharing details about the partnership with a third party (hence the triangle) to gain an advantage over the other, while refusing to communicate directly with their partner. It’s a common tactic used by narcissists and those with narcissistic tendencies to gain power and validation, isolate their partner, and control the dynamic, says psychotherapist and relationship trauma expert Janie Lacy, LMHC, NCC.

She offers a common example of how relationship triangulation might play out: “Imagine a couple, John and Lisa. If John is upset with Lisa, instead of directly addressing her concerns with her, he tells her friend Mark about her problems and asks him to speak to Lisa on her behalf. While it may appear at first glance that John is just avoiding confrontation, he is actually manipulating the dynamic in his favor by siding with Mark and using him to attack Lisa. In other scenarios, a narcissistic person might threaten to bring an ex onto the scene in order to get their current partner to agree to their terms.

“Triangulation often leads to an imbalance of power and control within the relationship, causing feelings of exclusion or alliance.” —Janie Lacy, LMHC, NCC, psychotherapist

Triangulation creates confusion, misunderstanding, and emotional distress, says Dr. Lacy. “It often leads to an imbalance of power and control within the relationship, causing feelings of exclusion or alliance, which can result in trauma for the people involved.”

What is triangulation like in a romantic relationship?

Triangulation is a form of manipulation through indirect communication with a third party, be it between friends, family or associates. In the case of triangulation in a romantic relationship, one partner will go behind the other’s back to discuss their relationship issues with a third party, “forming a point-to-point connection that outlines a triangle,” says Dr. Lacy.

In this way, the manipulative partner uses another person to “do what they’re told,” says psychotherapist and narcissistic abuse expert Alena Scigliano, LPC. “I see this happen a lot when people are breaking up,” she says. “The narcissistic partner will reach out to their partner’s parents and outright lie about what is going on or exaggerate to try to get their in-laws to side with them instead of their partner’s side.” Naturally, this can put the triangulating partner in the difficult position of having to defend themselves not only from their narcissistic partner but also from their parents.

To be sure, not all scenarios in which someone consults a third party about relationship conflict is narcissistic triangulation; it is not the same as venting about a couple with a friend. A person engaging in triangulation strives to gain power and control in the situation, regardless of anyone involved, besides themselves, of course, says therapist Katherine Glaser, LCSW. “It brings manipulation and toxicity to the relationship, so they can get what they want from the other two parties,” she adds, who usually play each other off for the triangulator’s benefit.

Why is triangulation common among narcissists?

Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental health condition in which people have a high sense of self, a high need for admiration, and little empathy for others. But, Scigliano says, people can display narcissistic traits without actually having the personality disorder. Those with narcissistic tendencies often use various tactics to manipulate the people around them, sometimes without even realizing it, Scigliano adds, with one of the most common being triangulation.

Narcissists see triangulation as a strategy to make things work out: the third person they involve is someone they can convince to side with them, which heightens their sense of rightness and makes the person they initially disagreed with seem like the wrong person.

“It’s partly human nature: we don’t want to feel like we’re the ones in the wrong,” says Scigliano. “But with narcissists (and those with narcissistic tendencies), they’re also not thinking about how their actions impact others.” Someone who is not a narcissist, on the contrary, probably is not. wearing the third person as much as trying to feel validated, she says.

Narcissists, however, use triangulation to exert power and control in their relationships, distract from their behaviors and flaws, isolate others, and boost their egos, says Dr. Lacy.

Is your partner using triangulation?

Triangulation is a type of narcissistic abuse, or ongoing psychological abuse, Scigliano says. “It’s pretty covert and hard to pin down until it happens enough times and over a long enough period.” Below are four signs that your partner may be engaging in triangulation.

1. Always involve others in your problems.

Including a friend, family member, or someone else in your conflicts (rather than trying to resolve them with you) is the hallmark of triangulation, says Glaser.

2. They ask other people to talk to you about the relationship.

When triangulating, your partner may avoid talking to you and instead use the third person as an intermediary. “Your partner communicates their feelings or concerns about your relationship to you through another person rather than directly discussing it with you,” says Dr. Lacy.

3. They try to isolate you

When your partner has private conversations about you with other people, you may feel left out or isolated, says Dr. Lacy. They can also turn people against you by presenting themselves as victims in your relationship.

4. They gaslight you

Triangulation and gaslighting go hand in hand, says Dr. Lacy. By using the opinions of others to invalidate your feelings and perceptions and pretending to be “correct” in conflict, your actions may cause you to doubt yourself or how you view reality.

How to deal with triangulation in a relationship

don’t lose your temper

It’s easy to get upset when you find out your partner is telling someone else about your business and potentially exaggerating the situation to make it sound like he’s absolutely right and you’re absolutely wrong. But he tries not to lose his temper, Glaser says. “Although it seems like you don’t have much control in this situation, you do have control over your own words and actions.”

Set limits

Boundaries are your best tool in dealing with narcissists and those who display narcissistic traits, says Scigliano. “When it comes to triangulation, you might be saying, ‘You know what, this is between you and me. My mom doesn’t need to be a part of this, or so-and-so doesn’t need to be a part of this. You have to leave them out.’”

You may need to set boundaries between you and your partner. and you and whoever you involved, says Scigliano.

Do not participate in triangulation.

Do not argue with the third party, try to explain the situation or mention what your partner has done wrong with him. Even if your partner tries to involve someone else in your problems, that doesn’t mean you should too, says Dr. Lacy. “Always strive to communicate directly with your partner about issues affecting your relationship, and encourage them to do the same.”

Seek professional help

When triangulation occurs repeatedly and causes emotional distress, it is advisable to speak with a mental health professional. Dr. Lacy says that therapy can help you develop strategies to deal with miscommunication and the strain that triangulation puts on a relationship. Just make sure the therapist has experience working with narcissistic behavior, Scigliano says.

Take care of yourself

Dealing with triangulation can be emotionally draining, says Dr. Lacy. It can also cause distress, anxiety, and isolation, and affect your general well-being. Don’t neglect your own mental health, she says. “Participate in activities you enjoy, practice stress management techniques, and maintain a strong support network of friends and family.”

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