Toxic Triangulation – Third-Party Manipulation
Abuse is not always easy to recognize. While some forms of abuse leave obvious bruises or hateful words ringing in the victim’s ears, there are other stealthy techniques abusers use to influence and control their victims so that they don’t even notice it is happening. DVSN’s July 2021 blog post, “Fostering Self-Doubt: The Manipulative Abuse of Gaslighting” delves deeper into the way abusers brainwash their victims into doubting their own reality and sanity. An equally subtle and injurious technique abusers utilize to exert gradual and often undetectable control is through toxic triangulation.
What is Triangulation?
Triangulation is a psychological term applied when one person in a relationship uses a third individual to bypass, communicate with, and/or influence the other person in the relationship. The word “triangulation” implies that three (or more) parties are involved. It’s about playing people against each other. Often, the triangulated individuals have limited or no contact with each other except through the manipulator, who strives to create conflict, miscommunication, and/or jealousy to influence their feelings and actions. The abuser seeks to spread their own desired narrative by controlling the flow of information through other people so that they are the one in charge. Triangulation reinforces their sense of superiority, specialness, and entitlement while leaving others confused and unbalanced. By devaluing one person, the abuser makes themselves look better and prevents others from aligning against them (Healthline). Triangulation can be used in any type of relationship, be it romantic, familial, friendly, or professional, and can manifest in various ways. It is possible to triangulate someone without meaning to, but when used deliberately, it is a highly manipulative, toxic tactic that makes it easier for abusers to assert control over their victims.
One way abusers can bring a third party into the relationship is by comparing their partner unfavorably to someone else. This is typically done in an indirect way so that the victim does not necessarily feel attacked but notes an area where they should improve to please their partner. The abuser may bring up an ex, for example, and mention how good they were together or how attractive they are.
“She keeps texting me saying she wants to get back together. Look, she’s so hot in this pic! Honestly, I don’t know why we broke up in the first place.”
Without outright saying that they are unhappy in their current relationship, the abuser is setting up a comparison with this idealized former partner who they could be with if they wanted to. They are setting themselves up as a prize to be fought over. This makes the victim feel insecure, that they are not good enough or that their partner may leave them at any time for their ex, and thus they work harder to please the abuser and accommodate their needs. It causes the victim to want to prove that they are just as good, if not better, than the appealing and available ex, so that the abuser will choose to stay with them. Abusers can use this desire to please to get the victim to do what they want. In this toxic triangulation technique, the third party may be completely oblivious that they are being used in this way.
Even if they are not being directly compared, such as a current partner with a former partner, abusers can triangulate their victims by making them compete for the abuser’s attention with someone else the abuser is close to. They may favor a friend or family member, spend more time with them, or even use them to communicate with the victim.
“He told me to tell you he’s not coming tonight. He needs some space for a while. He said not to call him, he’ll call you when he’s ready.”
“Oh my god, we’re busy! Tell her to go away, maybe she’ll listen to you!”
In this way, the abuser controls all communication in the relationship. By not speaking directly to their partner but getting someone else to deliver their message, they are suggesting that they are closer to that person, that maybe they trust them more than the victim. They make the victim doubt their relationship with the abuser or spark jealousy of the relationship the abuser has with their friend. It is an attempt to prompt the victim to try harder, to be what the abuser wants them to be so that the abuser will choose them over the third party, to spend more time with them, talk directly to them. Being forced to compete for attention can also make a person feel like they are not worthy of other people’s affections (Regain).
Another common way abusers use triangulation to control their victims is by isolating them from the third party. They become sociable with the victim’s family and friends and talk to them about the victim behind the victim’s back. Often, it sounds like concern for the victim or the relationship, but is, in fact, purposeful miscommunication designed to cause conflict between the victim and their loved ones.
“I’m worried about her. She just seems off and I found some empty bottles she hid in the garage. Can you text me if she drinks too much when she’s with you? Let me know if you think she’s hiding something.”
“Look, I really shouldn’t tell you this, but I thought you should know that he makes fun of you when you’re not around. He says you’re clingy and not a true friend.”
The abuser is commonly very charismatic and likeable. They deliberately establish bonds with the victim’s friends and family so that they think of the abuser positively and subtly drop hints of concern that cause the loved ones to see the victim more negatively. This deviously drives a wedge between the victim and their friends or family members, often leading to estrangement from their support system. It may make them more hesitant or reluctant to tell anyone about the abuse for fear of not being believed. The victim becomes more and more alone and more and more in the abuser’s power. According to clinical psychologistCarla Marie Manly, PhD, “Abusers know that the more control they have over the life of the abused, the greater chance they will have of maintaining the toxic relationship. Thus, the abuser will often manipulate the abused individual’s friends and relatives into taking sides with the abuser—leaving the abused person feeling hopeless and unloved… asking, ‘Where did my support people go? They all love him and hate me.’” Beyond losing support, the victim may begin to question their perceptions if they feel differently than everyone around them.
Besides isolating the victim from their support system, cozying up to a third party who is in some sort of position of authority over the victim can lead them to make changes that negatively impact the victim. For example, the abuser gets chatting with the victim’s boss at a work function and through maliciously inaccurate comments, the abuser begins to insinuate that the victim cannot handle their job.
“He doesn’t want anyone to know, so don’t tell him I told you, but he’s been having some personal problems lately. He’s so stressed about this project on top of that, and I’m really worried about him. He can’t keep track of tasks and deadlines. You know his co-worker really wrote most of that report…”
All of a sudden, the victim finds themself relieved of certain responsibilities or with another co-worker supervising them with no idea why. The work environment now feels untrusting and uncomfortable. Their employer may express concern to the victim over the supposed issues the abuser hinted at, which the victim knows nothing about. The victim then wonders why their boss is concerned and thinks they have done something wrong or that they are somehow failing to carry out their job satisfactorily. This creates real stress and could have many implications for their career. The abuser used toxic triangulation to sabotage the victim’s position and professional relationships, creating more dependence on them, all the while seeming like a concerned and supportive partner to both the victim and their employer.
What Can You Do?
Toxic triangulation can be very difficult to identify, both for victims and for those trying to support them. Even when a victim does recognize that they are being manipulated, the abuser can still sway third parties against the victim. They attempt to control the narrative, to “get in front of the story”, to ensure others are on their side. Though it may be challenging, it can be helpful for victims to remember who they have known the longest, who they trust the most and to talk to them. When the two isolated corners of the toxic triangle connect, it can be easier to see how the abuser manipulated them and what lies were told to play them against each other, sow distrust, or drive them apart.Manlyreminds family members that they know the survivor best: “They grew up with them. They know them inside and out… ‘Wait a minute. This is my daughter. I know her—let me talk to her.’”
Forming new friendships or speaking to a counselor or mentor can also help the victim distance themselves from the abuse and find support outside of the manipulation. Victims can also speak directly to the abusers. By letting them know that they are aware of and understand what they are doing may make them pause before trying to do it again. For those outside of the triangle, things like anxiety, depression, a lack of interest in activities, sleeplessness, weight gain or loss, and avoidance of family activities may be a red flag that something is wrong (DomesticShelters). Keeping the lines of communication open, asking what is wrong, and reiterating their support can be crucial to helping victims.Healthy communicationis key to avoiding toxic triangulation.