The most powerful defensive technique that those suffering narcissistic abuse can use once they’ve acquired a sufficient amount of knowledge about narcissism is to limit the amount of narcissistic supply they provide to their abuser. One of the most prolific techniques narcissists use to accumulate narcissistic supply is called triangulation. It’s a very common technique that narcissists use so learning what triangulation looks like puts those suffering narcissistic abuse in a position from which they can limit the amount of narcissistic supply they provide.

As a general rule, triangulation looks like one-on-one conversations, disagreements, feudes, and arguments becoming two-on-one situations. It can manifest in subtle settings like social media or very brazen settings like infidelity. Triangulation causes self-doubt, trust issues, and low self-esteem. 

Triangulation is such a common form of manipulation that narcissists use to remain in power and control of any given situation. However, it can play out in many different ways so it is important for victims and survivors of narcissistic abuse to have a comprehensive grasp of each type of triangulation if they are to reclaim power and control over the narcissistic supply.

Triangulation in Family Settings

It’s very common for narcissists to have a disproportionate level of disdain towards one of their family members. This often manifests in the relationship that narcissistic parents have with the child they’ve singled out as the family scapegoat. A scapegoat gets the worst version of the narcissist because they’re essentially a repository for all of the narcissist’s negative emotions. 

Why? 

It’s important to note that scapegoats aren’t randomly chosen. Due to the fragility of a narcissist’s ego, they tend to ruthlessly target things that contradict the falsified identity they’ve created for themselves. So, scapegoats often antagonize the narcissist in a very specific way.

What does this have to do with triangulation? 

In our article How Is a Scapegoat Chosen we explain this much more thoroughly but scapegoats actually contradict the narcissist’s falsified identity. They serve as a constant reminder that they are living a lie, that is why they’re a scapegoat. 

“The need for revenge, for righting a wrong, by undoing a hurt by whatever means, and a deeply anchored unrelenting compulsion in the pursuit of all these aims which give no rest to those who have experienced narcissistic rage — these are features which are characteristics of the phenomenon of narcissistic rage in all its forms and what sets it apart from other forms of aggression.” Heinz Kohut. M.D.

In the midst of this convoluted rage, narcissists often manipulate others into participating in the abuse. What ends up happening is that the narcissist’s abuse fosters a level of fear so severe that the other family members turn against the scapegoat as well to avoid the narcissist’s wrath.

So, instead of a one-on-one feud, it becomes, at the very least, a two-on-one feud. 

Triangulation in Intimate Relationships

In a family setting, the children are rarely able to escape the environment before the age of eighteen and their spouse is unable to cut the narcissist out of their lives because they share parenting responsibilities. 

However, in intimate relationships with no children or any other significant aspects of their life keeping them tethered to the narcissist involved, once the victim of narcissistic abuse is able to acknowledge that what they’re experiencing is abuse, they have the ability to go no contact with their abuser. 

So, narcissists have to be much more clever when attempting to keep the victim trapped within the narcissistic abuse cycle and triangulation is one of the ways they do it. 

Comparisons

The most common way that triangulation manifests in intimate relationships is through comparisons. The narcissist may openly compare their victim to past partners or people they are friends with in an attempt to make the victim jealous and feel as if they aren’t good enough. 

As we mentioned before, triangulation is on a continuum, meaning that it can manifest in very subtle ways and very bold ways. 

Social Media

Generally speaking, narcissists love social media. Platforms like Instagram, dating apps, TikTok, Facebook, Snapchat are HUGE sources of narcissistic supply. Narcissists can effortlessly post a picture, video, or statement and just watch as the validation, admiration, reassurance, and even chaos rolls in. You can learn more about this hidden aspect of narcissistic abuse in our article Do Narcissists Like Social Media but social media is also a way a narcissist can use triangulation. 

How? 

On the subtle end of the continuum, triangulation on social media could look like the narcissist liking inappropriate photos or videos of other men or women. It’s certainly not a crime but given a narcissist’s tendency to be unfaithful or at the very least inappropriately flirtatious with others while they’re in a relationship, this subtle form of triangulation can trigger a lot of trust issues, self-doubt, and low self-esteem within the victim. 

A brazen form of triangulation on social media would be things like dropping inappropriate comments under the picture of others, posting intimate images with others, or even constantly bringing up how good someone else looks.

Take this information about triangulation on social media with a grain of salt because some of these behaviors may be harmless in healthy relationships. However, mal-intended behavior patterns are woven in the very fabric that narcissists are made of. Meaning that when these types of behaviors come from a narcissistic individual, it’s cause for concern. 

Triangulation Between Friends and Family

A common way that narcissists will justify, normalize, or rationalize their behavior when confronted with criticism or feedback is to triangulate the conversation they’re having with an intimate partner with friends and family.

With that being said, there are conversations where it is appropriate to seek the opinion of others but it becomes a form of triangulation when someone seeks the opinion of friends and family for a conversation that is only relevant to the two people inside of the relationship.

Infidelity

In our article, Is Cheating Actually a Part of Narcissism, we conducted a study among 81 survivors of narcissistic abuse to determine how common cheating was in narcissistic relationships and found that 71.6% of the participants were cheated on by their narcissistic ex.

One of the ways that narcissists justify these types of betrayal is by claiming that they were unfaithful because the victim wasn’t there for them. In the midst of the narcissistic abuse cycle, this may seem like a very valid claim. 

With all of the self-doubt, self-blame, anxiety, and low self-esteem that narcissistic behavior patterns are designed to foster, this type of triangulation could make the victim feel as if they aren’t good enough and even push them as far as changing their own identity based on the identity of the person that the narcissist was unfaithful with to try to conform to the narcissist’s toxic desires. 

Triangulation in Workplace Settings

Unfortunately, we live in a world that rewards narcissistic behavior patterns. Due to their lack of empathy, willingness to exploit others, superficial charm, manipulative nature, insecure need for power and control, and an emotionally immature desire for profit, pleasure, and success, narcissists often find themselves in leadership positions. 

Toxic leaders LOVE to use behaviors designed to accumulate the validation, admiration, and reassurance of others like triangulation. This could manifest in the form of a toxic leader creating an inner circle within the workplace, holding secret meetings, favoritism, purposely leaving employees off the group email list, or even starting/enabling gossip and rumors to spread. 

From a narcissistic perspective, this type of triangulation is a fantastic way to have power and control over others because it involves people’s livelihoods. We all much rather minimize, justify, rationalize toxic behavior, desperately attempt to get on a toxic leader’s good side, or even remain silent in the face of narcissistic abuse than risk not being able to provide for the ones we love.

Flying Monkeys

One of the most common forms of triangulation, especially when the narcissist feels as if they’re losing their power and control over their victim, is the usage of flying monkeys. Flying monkeys are people that narcissists manipulate into participating in their smear campaign. 

You see, the victims and survivors of narcissistic abuse are usually the only ones that know the narcissist’s true identity. Narcissists spend their entire lives maintaining a falsified identity to the public because an unhealthy/abusive childhood has led them to believe that their true identity, which happens to be very insecure and vulnerable, makes them undesirable. 

So, when victims of narcissistic abuse escape the abuse cycle, it puts a narcissist in a very vulnerable position. In an attempt to keep their falsified identity intact, they often spread lies and gossip to mutual friends and family members they share with the victim to discredit their version of reality before the victim has the chance to expose the narcissist.

If done successfully, these friends and family members will actually turn against the victim. It’s a horrible form of triangulation that nearly every single person who has suffered narcissistic abuse will most likely have to go through at one point or another. 

You can read our article How Do Narcissists Get Flying Monkeys to understand how narcissists are so successful at this technique. 

What Should You Take Away From This Article? 

A narcissist’s insecure need for power and control makes triangulation a core aspect of narcissistic abuse. The self-doubt, self-blame, trust issues, and low self-esteem can keep victims of narcissistic abuse trapped within the abuse cycle for months, years, and even decades. 

As powerful of a technique as it is, it certainly has its weak points. We suggest that you read What Are Narcissists’ Weaknesses to grasp a comprehensive understanding of how you can use a narcissist’s dependance on narcissistic supply to free yourself from the narcissistic abuse cycle.


All of the content that Unfilteredd creates is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for clinical care — please visit here for qualified organizations and here for qualified professionals that you can reach out to for help. This article has been reviewed by our editorial board and has been approved for publication in accordance with our editorial policies.

References:

Seth A. Rosenthal, Todd L. Pittinsky, Narcissistic leadership, The Leadership Quarterly, Volume 17, Issue 6, 2006, Pages 617-633, ISSN 1048-9843,

Braun, S. (2016) ‘Narcissistic leadership.’, in Global encyclopedia of public administration, public policy, and governance. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, pp. 1-9.

Lee-Rowland, Lauren Marie, “Is Parent-Initiated Triangulation Associated with Pathological Narcissism in Youth?” (2019). Dissertations. 1693.