Published: December 28, 2021Updated: August 24, 2022
Published: 12/28/2021Updated: 08/24/2022
MA, MHP, LMHC
MD, MPH, FAAFP
MA, MHP, LMHC
MD, MPH, FAAFP
Triangulation is a relational dynamic where two people disagree, and a third person gets pulled into the disagreement; this forms a “triangle” within the argument.1 While many people don’t do this intentionally or maliciously, in the hands of a narcissist triangulation is absolutely an intentional tool of manipulation that is often used to control the situation. While narcissistic triangulation can feel frustrating and disarming, understanding what it is and how to respond can help get you out of this toxic triangle.
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What is Triangulation?
Triangulation is an emotional manipulation tactic where two people in an argument try to pull in a third person to change the argument dynamic. The goal of triangulation is to divide people within the argument and to tip the scales of the argument. Often this is done with indirect communication, with the third person being the go-between of the two people who are initially disagreeing.
People often use triangulation to:
- Distract from the real issue or argument
- Tip the scales of the argument in their favor
- Reinforce their sense of superiority
- Attempt to resolve the argument through the third person
- Divert some of the stress from the argument onto the third person
What Is Narcissistic Triangulation?
It’s not uncommon for people to employ triangulation unintentionally, because conflict is difficult and uncomfortable to navigate. However, the piece that makes triangulation from a narcissist different is that it is intentional. This often shows up in consistent patterns, which Dr. Stephen B. Karpman coined as “roles.”2
The three roles of triangulation are:2
- The Persecutor: The narcissistic person in this role is typically seen as the instigator. The person in this role might use threats, blame, criticism, personal attacks or harsh/aggressive language in order to establish who is the “wrongdoer” in their eyes.
- The Victim: When a narcissist is in this role, they will present themselves as helpless, being taken advantage of, and in need of someone to rescue them. By doing this, they are able to deflect responsibility for their own words and actions onto someone else.
- The Rescuer: This role typically falls to a support person in the narcissist’s life, but sometimes a narcissist will engage in this role to gain more of a sense of superiority in this way as well. The person in this role fixes things, “smooths things over”, and sometimes accepts responsibility for the narcissist’s feelings or behaviors in order to restore peace.
Why Do Narcissists Triangulate?
Narcissists have a very fragile self-esteem, and they need a constant supply of attention and admiration in order to cope, otherwise known as filling their narcissistic supply. Engaging other people in triangulation fills narcissistic supply in several ways.
The first way that triangulation fill’s narcissistic supply is by increasing their feelings of superiority.3 By bringing in a third person to agree with them and make the other person look wrong, it increases their sense of “rightness” and superiority over the other person.
Triangulation also is a way for narcissists to gain attention, particularly when they’re in the “victim” role. When a narcissist takes on this role, they’re looking for the “rescuer” in the triangle to reassure them, dote on them, and make up for the “persecutor’s” actions that threaten the narcissist’s fragile ego, causing narcissistic injury. Ultimately, all of these things provide the narcissist with what they desire most: attention, affection and reassurance.
Lastly, the cornerstone of narcissistic personality disorder is a deep need for control. If a narcissist is not getting what they want (i.e. winning the argument on their own using manipulation) they will change the dynamic from two people to three. By bringing in a third person and manipulating the third person’s view of the situation to mirror their own, the scales of the argument inevitably get tipped in the narcissist’s favor.
By changing the odds from one-on-one to two-on-one, the disagreeing party often feels ganged up on and outnumbered, and will disengage from the argument. This leaves the narcissist feeling like they “won” the argument, which fills their desire to feel right and superior.
5 Examples of Narcissistic Triangulation
Narcissistic triangulation can and will show up in any relationships within that person’s life, particularly within relationships that the narcissist cannot avoid (for example: family ties do not change, but a narcissist can stop being friends with people once their control is restricted) and in any and all relationships where their sense of control feels threatened.
1. Triangulation With Parents & Children
A narcissistic parent will often use their children in triangulation when their partner pulls away, disengages from the relationship, or altogether leaves the relationship. The narcissistic parent works to buy the child’s love in order to make the other parent look and/or feel bad, and to try to force the other parent to revert to doing things in the way the narcissistic parent thinks they should be done (i.e. giving back all the control to the narcissistic parent).
Triangulation between a parent and children might look like:
- Offering treats or indulgences the other parent doesn’t normally allow
- Convincing the child that the parent who left is solely at fault
- Ignoring the other parent’s reasonable rules and limits, and setting unreasonable rules and limits
- Refusing to communicate directly with the other parent, and instead only passing along information through the child
- Parents venting and expressing their emotions about the other parent to their children, in order to influence the child’s feelings about the other parent
- The narcissistic parent asking about the other parent’s life through the child, in order to use that information later as leverage against the other parent
2. Narcissistic Triangulation Between Siblings
Another common way that narcissistic parents triangulate within their families is by triangulating siblings against each other. The parent will do this in order to feel like they have control within their family, and to encourage a child to seek out the narcissistic parent’s approval.
Triangulation between siblings often shows up as:
- The parent designating one child as a “perfect” or “favorite” child, while designating the other sibling as a “problem child” who should alter their behavior to gain the parent’s approval
- Alternating what child receives the parent’s focus of affection and approval in order to make the siblings feel they’re in competition for the parent’s love
This could also happen with a narcissistic sibling pitting a parent against another sibling, or vice versa.
3. In Romantic Relationships
Narcissists in romantic relationships will often use triangulation in order to reassure themselves of the partner’s affection and devotion, as well as to ensure they maintain control within the relationship.4
Some ways that narcissistic triangulation can come into a romantic relationship might be:
- Sharing with you that their ex won’t leave them alone or wants to get back together with them in order to get you to give them reassurances or behave in certain ways that fill their narcissistic supply
- They might call your mother and complain how badly you’re mistreating them or being unfair, in order for you to be reprimanded by her later
- Bringing a platonic friend into one of your arguments and asking that friend to choose a side (typically a narcissist will prime that friend to influence them to choose the narcissist’s side)
4. Your Boss Uses Narcissistic Triangulation
Dealing with a narcissistic boss is a particularly tricky situation because the boss already holds more power than the employee, which impacts your paycheck and your overall life quality.5
Some ways that a narcissistic boss might use triangulation could look like include:
- Publicly comparing an employee that isn’t as productive to a team member that is more productive
- The boss confiding in you about potentially having to hire a weaker employee, in order to influence your view of your boss or to alter your behavior in some way
- Asking for your input to make a final business decision that two employees are disagreeing about, instead of making the decision as the boss
5. Narcissistic Triangulation Between Coworkers
Narcissistic triangulation often shows up in the workplace, since it offers a passive aggressive way to even the playing field with workplace rivals and manipulate interactions between coworkers.
Some ways narcissistic triangulation shows up in the workplace between coworkers include:
- A coworker sharing with the boss that you don’t deserve your leadership role, in order to secure that position for themselves
- Gossiping to you that someone else treated them poorly, in order to have you stand up for them in the future
- After disagreeing with a narcissistic coworker, they might triangulate the boss into the situation in order to get you reprimanded as a ramification for disagreeing with them
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How to React to Narcissistic Triangulation
Once you’re able to recognize and understand the dynamics of triangulation, the next step is to figure out if you want to change the dynamic and how to go about doing so. Changing and avoiding triangulation is often difficult, and narcissistic individuals will most likely fight the change every step of the way.
Here are seven strategies that can help you respond healthily to narcissistic triangulation:
1. Recognize When Triangulation Is Happening
The first step to shifting this pattern is to work on recognizing when you’re being pulled into a triangle dynamic. Understanding that this is a manipulation tool can help you release some of the guilt they’re putting on you.
Review interactions with people who engage you in triangulation afterward with yourself, with a trusted individual outside of the triangle, or with a therapist. Even if you don’t notice the triangulation until after it’s already happened, you’re more likely to recognize it sooner in the future.
2. Work Toward Accepting Your Role in the Triangulation
It’s likely that you have played all the roles of a triangulation dynamic at some point when you’re in a relationship with a narcissistic person. There might have been times you were aware of your role, as well as times you weren’t fully aware of this dynamic. Acknowledging and accepting what you have brought into the triangulation is the first step in changing this relationship pattern.
Again, remember that this is a manipulation tool, and people with narcissistic traits are master manipulators. You cannot change the past, but you do get to decide how you engage in the future — including what roles of a triangle you do or do not decide to engage in.
3. Have a Direct, Private Conversation
Highlighting triangulation in a direct way can feel stressful, especially when one person is intentionally sowing division. Remember that a narcissist is engaging people in triangles with them in order to gain control of the person or situation. Speaking to them privately about their behavior removes some of the possibility that they will blow up in order to seek approval and defense from onlookers, but it also lets the narcissist clearly and definitively know that you aren’t willing to continue to engage in this dynamic.
Essentially, you’re letting them know that they won’t be able to control your emotions and reactions moving forward. They may think twice before attempting to engage you in triangulation again. Please note that sometimes a narcissist will still test this to make sure your actions will follow through with your words, so being prepared for that is your next course of action.
4. Respond, Don’t React
Sometimes having a private and direct conversation is not enough to make a narcissist stop trying to pull you into a relational triangle. Remember that in these situations, the narcissistic person is seeking your emotional reaction in order to draw you into your typical patterns.
In order to reinforce the idea that you will not be engaging in triangulation anymore, you just have to not engage. In this case, meeting triangulation with silence is actually the loudest way you can communicate this boundary. Using other techniques like “grounding,” learning and practicing phrases to disarm a narcissist, or mentally rehearsing this situation beforehand with a friend or therapist can also help you hold this boundary in the moment.
5. Set Your Own Boundaries
You may have gotten yourself out of actively participating in narcissistic triangulation, but that doesn’t mean they won’t still talk about you to other people in your life. Setting boundaries with someone you have to see at work or in family settings can be difficult, but you can set personal boundaries that the narcissist cannot directly influence in order to help you navigate the situation.
Boundaries to set with a narcissist include:
- Leaving situations where you find yourself alone with them
- Ignoring comments that are meant to bait you
- Avoiding sharing personal information
- Not going into situations without certain trusted people present who understand the situation and will support you
6. Strengthen Your Own Supports
Narcissistic triangulation can severely impact your own self-esteem and emotional well being. Making sure you have your own support outside of this person is crucial in being able to navigate this situation and to stay emotionally and mentally healthy.
Work on intentionally cultivating a network of supportive friends and community — this could be friends, family, neighbors, or people who share similar interests as you. Anybody who is supportive and will not pull you into unhealthy triangles or be judgmental fits this category.
7. Find a Therapist
Having a therapist in your corner is an invaluable tool in navigating narcissistic triangulation and narcissistic abuse. A therapist’s purpose is to help you recognize relational patterns and to help you figure out how to navigate or change those patterns in a nonjudgmental way. Choosing a therapist who can help you recognize and recover from narcissistic abuse is a good place to start. Online directories are a great place to start looking.
Dealing with a narcissist who is using triangulation can be a stressful and exhausting process, but you’re not alone. Talking to a therapist or reaching out to a trusted friend or family member can make a big difference in how you feel, and can help you to set the boundaries you need to live a healthy and balanced life.
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