Triangulation within a romantic relationship involves one partner sharing details about the partnership with a third party (hence the triangle) to get an edge 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 unfold: “Imagine a couple, John and Lisa. If John is upset with Lisa, instead of directly addressing his concerns with her, he tells his friend Mark about his issues and asks Mark to speak with Lisa on his behalf.” While, at first blush, it might seem like John is just avoiding confrontation, he’s actually manipulating the dynamic in his favor by getting Mark on his side and using him to gang up on Lisa. In other scenarios, a narcissistic person might threaten to bring an ex into the picture 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 individuals involved.”
What does triangulation look like in a romantic relationship?
Triangulation is a form of manipulation using indirect communication with a third party, whether among friends, relatives, or partners. In the case of triangulation in a romantic relationship, one partner will go behind the back of the other 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 someone else to “do their bidding for them,” says psychotherapist and narcissistic abuse expert Alena Scigliano, LPC. “I see this happen a lot when people are separating,” she says. “The narcissistic partner will reach out to their partner’s parents and downright lie about what’s going on or exaggerate in order to try to get their in-laws on their side instead of on their partner’s side.” Naturally, this can put the partner being triangulated in the challenging position of having to defend themselves not only to their narcissistic partner but to their parents, too.
To be sure, not all scenarios in which someone consults a third party about a relationship conflict are narcissistic triangulation; it’s not the same thing as venting about a partner to a friend. A person engaging in triangulation strives to gain power and control in the situation, with no regard for anyone involved—besides themselves, of course, says therapist Katherine Glaser, LCSW. “It brings manipulation and toxicity into the relationship, so they can get what they want from the other two parties,” she adds, who are typically pitted against each other for the benefit of the triangulator.
Why is triangulation common among narcissists?
Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental-health condition where people have a grandiose sense of self, a strong 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 typically use various tactics to manipulate people around them, sometimes without even realizing it, Scigliano adds, and one of the most common is triangulation.
Narcissists view triangulation as a strategy to get things to go their way: The third person that they involve is someone whom they can convince to side with them, boosting their sense of righteousness and making the person with whom they were initially disagreeing look like the wrong one.
“It’s partly human nature: We don’t want to feel like we’re the one who’s wrong,” says Scigliano. “But with narcissists [and those with narcissistic tendencies], they’re also not thinking about how their actions are impacting others.” Someone who’s not a narcissist, by contrast, likely isn’t using the third person so much as just trying to feel validated, she says.
Narcissists, however, use triangulation to wield power and control in their relationships, distract from their behaviors and shortcomings, isolate others, and boost their ego, 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 difficult to pin down until it’s happened enough times and over a long enough period.” Below are four signs that your partner may be engaging in triangulation.
1. They always involves others in your problems
Bringing a friend, family member, or someone else into your conflicts (instead of actually trying to resolve them with you) is the hallmark of triangulation, Glaser says.
2. They ask other people to discuss the relationship with you
When triangulating, your partner may avoid talking to you, instead using the third person as the go-between. “Your partner communicates their feelings or concerns about your relationship to you through someone else rather than discussing it directly with you,” says Dr. Lacy.
3. They try to isolate you
When your partner has private conversations about you with others, you may feel excluded or isolated, says Dr. Lacy. They may also turn people against you by portraying themselves as a victim in your relationship.
4. They gaslight you
Triangulation and gaslighting go hand-in-hand, says Dr. Lacy. In using others’ opinions to invalidate your feelings and perceptions and to make themselves out to be the “right” one in the conflict, their actions could 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 angry when you learn that your partner is telling someone else about your business, and potentially exaggerating the situation to make it look they’re completely in the right and you’re in the wrong. But, try not to lose your temper, Glaser says. “Even though it feels like you don’t have much control in this situation, you do have control over your own words and actions.”
Boundaries are your best tool for dealing with narcissists and those who display narcissistic traits, Scigliano says. “When it comes to triangulation, it could be saying, ‘You know what, this is between you and me. My mom does not need to be a part of this, or so-and-so does not need to be a part of this. You need to leave them out.’”
You may need to set boundaries between you and your partner and you and whomever they’ve involved, Scigliano says.
Don’t engage in the triangulation
Don’t argue with the third party, try to explain the situation to them, or otherwise bring up what your partner has done wrong with them. Even if your partner tries to involve someone else in your issues, it doesn’t mean you should, too, says Dr. Lacy. “Always strive to communicate directly with your partner about issues that affect your relationship, and encourage them to do the same.”
Seek professional help
When triangulation happens repeatedly and causes emotional distress, it’s wise to talk to a mental-health practitioner. Dr. Lacy says therapy can help you develop strategies to manage communication breakdowns and the strain that triangulation puts on a relationship. Just make sure the therapist is experienced in 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 overall well-being. Don’t neglect your own mental health, she says. “Engage in activities that you enjoy, practice stress-management techniques, and maintain a strong supportive network of friends and family.”