11 Examples of Narcissistic Triangulation in Relationships

Have you been the victim of a triangulating narcissist?

Triangulation sounds like that part of calculus you daydreamed through in high school.

But understanding the definition of triangulation in psychology is something to learn while fully alert. 

You’ve likely been part of triangulation abuse at some point in your life. 

It’s yet another conniving tool for a narcissist to use against people, and it could come from your lover, parent, or colleague. 

You need to know every angle to tear down narcissistic triangulation when it happens to you again.

What Is Narcissistic Triangulation?

Triangulation can be positive, such as bringing in a third party to mediate a problem or get a second opinion during a health scare.

But that’s not what we’re talking about here.

Narcissist triangulation tactics might also be called “dividing and conquering” or “playing both ends against the middle.”

As is the trademark of any word associated with a narcissist, it’s the motive that makes it sinister. 

  • Control: When narcissists perceive they are losing control over a victim, they’ll bring in a third element to create fear and anxiety. Like puppet masters, the narcissist gets a fresh ego supply by controlling two people and reaping the submissive, and praising the rewards of their actions. 
  • Manipulation: The narcissist wants to manipulate both sides by controlling all communication between the two parties. This isn’t a three-way conversation. It’s two one-sided conversations pitting parties against one another. 
  • Superiority: A narcissist loathes and loves weaknesses simultaneously, so when they can easily and habitually manipulate people at will, it further fuels their ego and enables their ongoing battle to be the center of attention.

This dynamic isn’t just about relationships like dating or marriage. Narcissistic family triangulation is a tactic an ego-driven parent can use to control children or partners by pitting everyone against each other.

What Are the 3 Elements of a Triangulation Relationship?

You can look at the narcissist triangulation jealousy cycle like a courtroom scenario. There’s the prosecutor, defense, and judge/jury.

The unique element is that in narcissistic triangulation, the manipulator can carefully craft their role as any of the three elements to gain the upper hand. 

  • Prosecutor: This person issues charges and accusations and bends the will of the other two parties to see their version of reality. This role is assumed when a narcissist leads a smear campaign against their victim.
  • Defense: This is when a narcissist plays the victim and is much more common with covert or vulnerable narcissists skilled at being a victim or self-deprecating. You’ll often see this when a narcissist is close to being exposed and needs to recruit some “flying monkeys” to take their side. 
  • Judge/Jury: A narcissist in this role will be the “savior” between two conflicting parties in a chaos he created. This dynamic is often created when the narcissist gets bored or needs more supply while keeping all parties separate.

LIFE HACK: If you’re trying to figure out who’s leading the triangulation, take a 10,000-foot view to see who is getting the most attention or benefit. 

parents talking in the background while kids are sitting on the couch listening narcissist triangulation

Why Do Narcissists Triangulate?

Narcissists lack empathy, emotions, and boundaries. They have achieved this by building a facade of superiority and entitlement as a coping or defense mechanism.

Their lives involved building a “supply” of people who feed the ego and support the flimsy facade of grandeur. 

Triangulation Begins with Boundaries

Once a supply person is onto the narcissistic tendencies and pushes back, the narcissist can’t face the embarrassment and transparency of their weaknesses and manipulation. 

If their own skilled exploitation of a person starts to wane, they’ll bring in a third party to create cognitive dissonance or conflict, making the supply person submissive or reliant on them. 

Understanding Narcissistic Supply

It’s important to remember that a narcissistic seeking attention can be a triangle in itself.

They either want to break down someone else to make themselves look better, create reliance on their information or attention by two parties, or keep everyone in a state of anxiety, desperately seeking the balance the narcissist is controlling. 

Am I a Narcissist if I Triangulate? 

First, a narcissist will never wonder if they are a narcissist as they lack self-awareness that any rules or labels apply to them.

As a mentally stable human, you are much more likely to be a victim of triangulation or seek the beneficial rewards of the process to achieve a positive result.

The difference is that narcissists triangulate for a self-serving result that hurts others. 

Do All Narcissists Triangulate? 

All narcissistic are capable of using any tactic to control their supply and refocus attention and accolades on them.

Not all triangulation has narcissism at its roots, but all narcissists are well-skilled at triangulation. 

11 Examples of Narcissistic Triangulation in Relationships

The challenge with understanding narcissistic triangulation is that several other mental health and personality disorders mimic this popular tactic.

It can also be a sign of immaturity or poor adaption skills. 

1. Triangulation While Dating

A narcissist can create an inflated sense of desirability by creating a fake or finding a real person to make the victim feel like they’re about to lose something. 

Even if the narcissistic behavior feels uncomfortable to the victim, the imbalance of triangulation creates a stronger desire to keep the relationship going, even with obvious red flags. 

The manipulator can also use this tactic to get a supply victim to submit earlier by pitting one against the other. 

2. Triangulation While Married

Narcissistic partners get bored easily, and the monotony of married life can breed triangulation. They do this to make a spouse try harder to please or stop a spouse’s suspicions of cheating. 

For example, he may connect with a former girlfriend and let you know about it. If you get upset, he says you’re being ridiculous while indicating how attractive he finds his former flame.

He leads the old girlfriend to believe he’s genuinely interested in her while mentioning what a great wife you are. Now he has both of you on the hook.

The manipulator can also use the third person to back up their version of an event or perception of a situation. 

3. Triangulation as Parents

A narcissistic parent can’t offer unconditional love as most people understand it. They lack that bond with a child and see their child as another tool to build their self-esteem. 

corporate employees talking narcissist triangulation

They can manipulate the children into seeing them as the “only parent who cares” or the “fun parent” while the other parent must take a second-hand role.

The toxic parent will shut down any effort by the other parent to be seen as a hero or favorite.

4. Triangulation as Divorced Parents

The only thing worse than marrying a narcissist is divorcing one. The narcissist will use the children as a weapon by providing controlled and limited information that sways their opinion of the other parent. 

They can also make the child desperately seek their approval by having them participate in the communication chaos.

Children can feel compelled to share untrue or hurtful information with family and friends, which turns more people against the victim. 

5. Triangulation as Friends

It’s common for the “Mean Girls” scenario to unravel when we’re in middle school or high school, where the alpha teenager uses her minions to keep her dominant social position. 

Narcissists don’t mature enough to grow out of this, and they’ll create a sense of tension with a new friend or old classmate to make a friend more loyal to them.

They might also share damaging lies the third party allegedly said to make the victim feel more indebted to the narcissist. Since so many people avoid conflict created by triangulation, every part leans into the narcissist for a fresh supply of ego.

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6. Triangulation as Colleagues

The same conflicts can brew in offices, meant to make a colleague feel more popular, powerful, or reliable.

This works especially well when a new employee is brought into the triangle, as they aren’t aware of the ongoing narcissistic tactics. 

If a new employee is told everyone makes fun of them for staying late, they will rely on the narcissistic for support, leave work earlier, and thus become less of a professional threat. 

7. Triangulation as Employees

Narcissistic bosses love to see their employees battle for their attention, so instead of creating a competitive workplace, they pit employees against one another.

Employees fearful of losing their job or status are much less likely to confront one another, making the boss control conflict, opportunities for advancement, and job security. 

Narcissistic bosses can also use corporate offices as the scapegoat for shrewd or hurtful business decisions. They might even convince an employee that Human Resources isn’t going to listen to their complaints. 

8. Triangulation as Siblings

Siblings are already, by design, going to compete with each other for their parent’s attention, but narcissistic parents will use this to their advantage.

One child can be treated as a favorite who always gets what they want to keep the other children from trying to get the same level of attention. 

woman watching a couple being touchy narcissist triangulation

Unfortunately, when a parent relies on this tactic, the victim child can do nothing to make them happy. As a result, the “golden child” can also reap the reward of excessive praise and become a narcissist. 

9. Triangulation in Families

Have you ever had a family member who is constantly referred to negatively?

The entire family seems to have turned against them. When narcissistic triangulation is at the center of this, one family member controls the narrative with ongoing examples of bad behavior. 

Cognitive dissonance creates a facade where even though our favorite aunt seems cool, enough family members whisper behind her back. “Straw-manning” is a tactic used in triangulation to exaggerate claims. 

10. Triangulation at Church

Narcissists love the trust, forgiveness, and caring nature of the church-going crowd.

As a bonus, being part of a church group gives the glowing perception to the community that this person is a God-fearing and good person. 

Narcissists can control the narrative, funds, and activities with whisper campaigns and pitting two parishioners against one another or the church leaders to get their way. 

11. Triangulation on Social Media

Triangulation doesn’t always have to involve a person. It can involve a set of circumstances outside reality.

Since social media is already competitive and triggering at its core, a narcissist can create a sense of approval with fake accounts or posts that don’t connect directly to them. 

They can also select specific posts that will make you feel bad for them, care for them, or make you more adamant about reaffirming your deviation. 

How Does Triangulation Abuse Impact Partners and Families?

As with any form of narcissistic rage, triangulation can make people feel off-kilter, anxious, depressed, and desperate.

Victims constantly internally ruminate between the truth, the perception, and the information provided. At best, it can make you question yourself.

At worst, it can create a lifetime of mental health struggles.

  • Children: Triangulation is especially hard on children who don’t have a powerful enough position to speak up, have a primal desire to trust those who care for them, and are still maturing through their environment. It can create a lifetime of people-pleasing habits or attachment issues that make them more vulnerable to narcissistic abuse in the future. 
  • Families: The root belief that “family takes care of family” is one reason narcissists in families get away with so much. We tend to overlook or underplay these tactics believing the family member has our best interests at heart. Trust issues and insecurity thrive in this environment, which impacts future relationships. 
  • Partners: Narcissistic partners not only threaten our sense of self but can cause extreme duress as parents see their children become pawns in the game. Since narcissistic abuse starts with love bombing and adoration, we generally don’t know we’re dancing with the devil until It’s way too late.

How to React to Narcissist Triangulation

Since the narcissistic is playing all sides of the courtroom, respond in kind.

While these steps aren’t easy for the average person prone to narcissistic abuse, it’s also a self-awareness-building exercise that can benefit you for years to come.

The Truth and Only the Truth

Have you ever heard a prosecutor say, “I feel bad I have to try this case”? No, because they remove emotion from it. Look for the truth and only the truth from all parties.

Bring context and perspective to every bit of information you are given. Ask yourself: 

  • Am I reacting from a place of logic or emotions?
  • Do I have all the facts? 
  • What about this situation feels manipulative? 

State Your Case

Anyone abused by a narcissist wishes they had done things differently. Usually, that’s because they kept quiet or were emotionally pushed into submission.

This toxic person knows their victims will run from conflict, so they create it to control us. 

If a narcissist knows you are more likely to confront conflict than run from it, they’ll be less likely to use triangulation on you. However, they’ll still use other, more effective forms of manipulation. 

Gather Evidence

You’ll need to know all sides of the story instead of just believing one source of information.

It can get tricky if the narcissist has already convinced others, so you must just get the facts and not rely on passionate or emotional pleas from others. 

How to Stop Triangulation in Families

Triangulation should be avoided in family settings, even if it doesn’t have narcissistic foundations.

Whether a loved one uses this strategy to avoid, address, or enable conflict, it’s a pattern that should be shut down at every attempt. 

  • Acknowledge It: Not everyone realizes they’re triangulating, or at least aren’t doing it to hurt people. By giving it a name and showing how each person is impacted, an emotionally responsive family member can adjust their behavior. A narcissistic family member will not. 
  • Don’t Play: If you refuse to play the game by taking yourself out of the equation, you can’t be used as a pawn or fall victim. If you feel yourself being triggered by a triangulation, walk away
  • Be Consistent: You can’t draw the line with your narcissistic mother but then join the triangulation between cousins. A narcissist will see there’s an opening of weakness and continue to probe at it. 
  • Teach Kids: Instead of making kids take yet another side in a battle, teach them to face challenges directly and respectfully while setting a good example with your own behavior. 

Final Thoughts

We will all face or have faced triangulation in our lives, and knowing the hallmarks of manipulation vs. resolution will make us better prepared when a narcissist weaponizes it. 

As with any healthy relationship tactic, set firm boundaries that you won’t talk behind people’s backs or allow others to influence your decision without facts and evidence. We rest our case. 

What is narcissist triangulation and how do you spot one? Read this post and learn all the negative things about this manipulation tool.

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