Triangulation: Playing One Person Against Another

Triangulation is a manipulation tactic where one person will not communicate directly with another person, instead using a third person to relay communication to the second, thus forming a triangle. It is also a form of splitting in which one person manipulates a relationship between two parties by controlling communication between them. Triangulation may manifest itself as a manipulative device to engineer rivalry between two people, known as divide and conquer or playing one (person) against another. Source: Wikipedia Triangulation happens in nearly all relationships. Two people that find themselves in conflict may seek out the assistance of another person to help resolve an issue or improve their communication. In this case the original two people (the dyad) create a triangle by bringing in another person into their relationship issue. Triangles can be formed when two people are in conflict and one (or both) of the individuals avoid addressing the conflict directly and instead they bring a third person into the issue. This is an ineffective triangle that can happen between friends, family members, romantic partners, even parents and children. Here’s an example: A 14-year-old gets pulled into her divorced parents’ relationship because they refuse to speak to each other and will only pass information through her.  In addition to being the messenger, she is the person her parents vent to when they are angry at the other parent. Instead of the parents addressing their issues with each other directly, they triangulate the daughter into the relationship which causes discord, strife, and continual dysfunction for everyone involved.

Is Triangulation Good or Bad?

The answer is, “it depends.” When triangulation serves to improve a relationship, and both central individuals in the dyad have a voice, and benefit from the involvement of the third person in the triangle, triangulation can be beneficial. When triangulation results in one or more parties feeling ignored, disrespected, or put into an inappropriate role, then triangulation may be toxic. Based on these distinctions, it’s easy to identify the parenting scenario as an example of dysfunctional triangulation. The daughter was being put into an inappropriate role as the go-between for her parents. In addition, she was made to tolerate both parents venting their relationship frustrations to her even when she did not want to be in that position.

Identifying Toxic Triangulation

Still unsure whether toxic triangulation is affecting your relationships? Here are a couple additional examples of triangulation in common relationship scenarios. The in-laws: A husband and wife are struggling in their marriage due to the husband’s job loss. The wife feels critical about her husband playing video games all day instead of applying for jobs and sending out his résumé. To avoid fighting with her husband, the wife calls her mother and shares all of her frustrations and asks her mother not to say anything to her husband about it. The mother gets triangulated into the relationship, the daughter avoids addressing conflict with her husband, and the relationship between the mother-in-law and the son-in-law is negatively impacted. The Frenemy: Amelia is friends with Bianca and Charlotte. Amelia and Bianca recently got into a fight when Amelia chose to go on a date with a man she met online and canceled plans to go out with Bianca. Bianca felt hurt and betrayed by Amelia and called Charlotte to talk about it. Amelia put Charlotte on the spot and asked her to side with her on the issue. In the meantime, Charlotte also received a call from Bianca venting and asking her to take her side. Charlotte became triangulated into the relationship without wanting to be, and both Amelia and Bianca avoided dealing with the conflict between one another.

What to Do?

Do you believe that dysfunctional triangulation is at work in your relationships? Here are some ways to minimize the effects of this dynamic.
  • Take a stance of silence and refuse to engage in the triangulated situation if you are being pulled into the middle of a conflict between two people.
  • If you think you may be part of the dysfunctional dyad, evaluate how each person is involved and work toward stabilizing the dyad through open communication and cooperation.
  • Maintain an awareness of triangles in your relationships, the relationships of other people, and even family relationships. Look for positive triangles and toxic triangles.
  • If you seem to end up in dysfunctional triangulated relationships and you would like to identify why this happens to you, and how to avoid the triangle, counseling can help.
Triangulation can be helpful and also harmful. Learning to identify this in your life and in relationships around you can help you avoid the trap of dysfunctional triangulation. If you want more information and to explore how triangulation has impacted your life, contact NewPoint of View Counseling today to get started on your personal path of knowledge and understanding! As a professional therapist, I look forward to helping you to live your most authentic life, filled with love, trust, and joy.