Have you ever felt like you’re on the outside of a relationship looking in? Maybe it was with a group of friends, within your family, or perhaps in your own marriage. No one likes feeling like the outsider, we naturally want to be a part of the ingroup. Unfortunately, narcissists can and will use it to their advantage.
For narcissists, relationships are first and foremost about control. Their ego is fragile, constantly vulnerable to attack from outside actors, and from within themselves.
One of the best ways for narcissists to maintain control is through triangulation. But what exactly is triangulation and how to react to the Narcissist triangulation?
What is Narcissist Triangulation?
Triangulation, in psychology, involves one person playing at least two other people off of each other, forcing their victims to speak only through them. It’s a divide and conquer strategy in which both of the manipulated parties spend their energies trying to curry favor with the narcissist and outdo the other victim.
The relationship between the narcissist and triangulation can manifest itself in a variety of ways. The narcissist can employ positive reinforcement, telling one of the manipulated parties how much better they are than some other person.
In a romantic relationship, this is used during the “love bombing phase”, at the beginning of the relationship. The narcissist might speak about how much better their new partner is when compared to their ex and detail everything that was wrong with the former partner.
This always progresses to a “devaluing phase”, where negative reinforcement and positive punishment is used. The narcissist reverses their behavior and criticizes, perhaps by speaking about how much better their ex was compared to the new partner.
They might withhold love or deploy the silent treatment (a common signal that discard is coming). They might also mention the possibility of a new romantic partner, someone who that narcissist could start a relationship with if the manipulated party doesn’t change their ways.
They might even place strangers in the triangle, perhaps by flirting with waitstaff at a restaurant or a cashier in a store, just to make their partner feel inadequate. What’s important is that the narcissist uses the third party to seed doubt and feelings of worthlessness in the manipulated party.
Why Does a Narcissist Triangulate?
Triangulation provides narcissists with an intoxicating mix of adoration and control over others – two of the things they crave most. At its heart, triangulation is about protecting the narcissist’s ego. As long as they’re in control of the manipulated parties, there’s nothing those people would do to hurt them.
Beyond ego protection, narcissists need a bevy of admirers close at hand to keep their feelings of self-worth high. The compliments, admiration, and interpersonal support is referred to as narcissistic supply and the narcissist is always needing more of it.
Triangulation keeps the supplier closeby and always feeling like they could be doing more to please the narcissist. By keeping two people in competition with each other for the narcissist’s favor, the manipulated parties provide more of that supply than they would in a bilateral relationship.
Remember though, the second manipulated party may not even know they’re part of a triangulation. A friendly coworker can be transformed into a serious romantic prospect in the mind and words of a narcissist.
As this whole scenario is about fostering jealousy, the narcissist may even exaggerate the qualities of this individual to enhance their partner’s feelings of inadequacy.
What is Triangulation in Relationships?
Triangulation is possible in many types of relationships and it doesn’t necessarily need to involve a person with a narcissistic personality disorder. It actually doesn’t even need to involve a third human.
Someone could shower their dog or their car with attention for the purpose of making their partner jealous. Narcissistic personality disorder simply makes this a calculated process where the narcissist is manipulating their victim’s emotions and mental state to their own benefit.
Narcissists often create a fantasy world, one where they are always right, good, or important. In that world, there are good people (those that boost the narcissist’s ego) and bad people (those that bring them down).
Whether someone is considered good or bad changes frequently, based entirely on the momentary feelings of the narcissist. Their relationships are incredibly fragile; those that are close to a narcissist often question their self-worth, wondering what could have changed the narcissist’s feelings for them.
To create a sense of continuity, the victim looks for outside sources that could be the source of the conflict. They end up buying into the world created by the narcissist where nothing could be the narcissist’s fault.
Some Examples of Narcissist Triangulation Tactics
In the abstract, triangulation isn’t always easy to understand, however it always involves one narcissistic personality and two people who are being manipulated. The relationship between the three parties can vary significantly though.
Triangulation usually occurs in relationships where parties feel particularly beholden to the narcissist – family ties, romantic connections, or even workplace squabbles.
Triangulation is much less likely with acquaintances or more casual friendships, as parties will be less tolerating of the narcissist’s behavior towards them. They can walk away easier, avoiding the devastating effects of triangulation.
Narcissistic Family Triangulation
A classic example of family triangulation involves a narcissistic parent with two children. As is common with narcissistic personalities, the parent labels the personalities as all-good and all-bad; one child can do no wrong and is the object of parental admiration while the other child’s accomplishments are ignored and their faults are punished harshly.
In actuality, both children have a range of personality traits and behaviors, but the narcissistic parent is only capable of seeing the ones that fit their predefined schema for the child. This is largely a projection based on the dualist thought process (splitting) that they have for classifying themself.
Family triangulation often takes the form of “why can’t you be more like your sibling”, but is much more insidious when combined with gaslighting and projection. Gaslighting involves reframing reality to fit the narcissist’s perception of it, with the two children being made to believe that events happened in a different way than they really did.
“why can’t you be more like your sibling”
Projection further confuses the targets by imparting the emotions and motivations of the narcissist onto the victims. If the narcissist is feeling jealous of the “good child’s” accomplishments, they might berate the “bad child” for being jealous of the “good child”.
Even if the parent doesn’t utilize this type of “all good/all bad child” thinking, triangulation within the family is still possible. The parent could gossip behind each child’s back, telling stories about the one not present to foment a feeling of secrecy and comradery.
The parent is actually doing this to better control both children. When the children aren’t speaking to each other and receive all their information about one another through the parent, then the parent has absolute control. Triangulation relies on the narcissists being the gatekeeper and filter for all information about the other two parties.
Narcissistic Romantic Relationship Triangulation
Since most romantic relationships are between two individuals, triangulation would appear impossible. However, the narcissist will often bring in a third party for the purpose of playing their victims off of each other.
For instance, a married narcissist might start spending more time with a coworker or friend, which their partner would not reasonably object to. The narcissist then casually mentions how the coworker or friend exhibits a quality or behavior that is superior to their partner’s.
These comments make their partner feel inadequate, leading them to try harder to please the narcissist. This enhanced control is what the narcissist was looking for; it provides them with the admiration they crave.
The coworker and friend will likely have no idea that they’re being used as a foil to the narcissist’s partner. They may not even express the qualities or behaviors that the narcissist is claiming. This idealized version of them is enough to torment and control the narcissist’s partner.
Triangulation is commonly used after a breakup or narcissistic discard and is a way for the abuser to wiggle their way back into the victim’s life. The narcissist might boast about their new relationship and how everything in it is better than with the victim.
They could also mention how their new love interest looks down on the victim, which directs anger away from the narcissist who may have fabricated everything about their new partner all along.
Narcissistic Friendship Triangulation
While triangulation usually has the narcissist at the center, controlling the flow of information, that’s not always the case. Take for example a friendship between three people, where the narcissist is angry at one of their friends for a perceived slight.
The narcissist might go to a mutual friend and relay how upset they are with the other friend. At this point, it’s just two friends talking and it’s not necessarily an unhealthy relationship.
However, the narcissist could make this a much more harmful interaction by demanding the mutual friend’s loyalty, asking them to side against their other friend without hearing that friend’s side of the story.
This puts the mutual friend into an uncomfortable position because they want to stay in the good graces of both friends. The narcissist, always needing to be the center of attention, cannot see how difficult this is for the mutual friend. The mutual friend’s best course of action would be to ignore the narcissist’s request for loyalty, remaining a neutral party to the situation.
How to React to Narcissist Triangulation?
Narcissists crave attention at all times and thus the purpose of triangulation is to get their victims to jockey for their love. The victim will praise and adore the narcissist until they’re given a crumb of attention in return.
How do you deal with Narcissistic Triangulation? Below are a few simple steps for stopping triangulation in its tracks and recovering from it.
1. Try to Recognise When The Narcissist is Triangulating
The most important thing you can do to protect yourself is to recognize when triangulation is happening. Psychologically healthy adults do not need to bring a third party into the conversation; if the narcissist has a problem with you or your behavior, they do not need to make comparisons to another person. Recognize the problem is with them, not with you.
2. Step Away
As with most things involving narcissists, the best thing you can do is cut off contact with them. Triangulation only works when there are three parties; if you step away, the triangle fails. Narcissists require attention and you’re providing a much-needed supply of it by listening to and responding to their triangulation.
3. Heal Yourself
Work to heal yourself. The constant gaslighting of a narcissistic relationship leaves victims with some deep scars. Your self-worth is not derived from being “better” than someone else, regardless of what you’re told by the narcissist.
4. Stop Giving them Supply
If you decide to stay with the narcissist, stop the triangulation by refusing to supply them with attention. Triangulation is a form of control; disregarding the triangulation efforts lets the narcissist know that this is not an effective or healthy way to deal with others. Doing so could result in a discard though, as the narcissist will have no further use for you.
Triangulation is rarely a healthy behavior; it makes for toxic relationships with poor communication, and for narcissists, that is entirely the point.
It allows them to control two people while receiving attention and affirmation from them – it’s a no-win situation for everyone besides the narcissist at the center. The best defense against triangulation is to never get involved with it.
Walk away as soon as you see it happening and let the narcissist know that you don’t want to be part of their games.