What Is Triangulation In Relationships?

Understanding the dynamics of triangulation in relationships can help you to protect and improve your significant-other relationship. Although you may have heard of the term before, having more solid familiarity with it will also allow you to better navigate any social setting you find yourself in.

The word ‘triangulation’ has a variety of meanings outside of the psychology realm. However, when we speak of triangulation in a relationship, it most often refers to a highly effective manipulation technique.

What’s a good working triangulation definition? Let’s take a look. 

What is Triangulation in Psychology?

Triangulation can take place in any social setting. It can happen at work, school or among friends and family. But, for the sake of this article, we’ll focus primarily on triangulation in marriage or a long-term romantic relationship.

An all-too effective manipulation strategy with low risk to the user, triangulation starts when one person stops communicating directly with another. Instead, of communication existing between just two individuals (the dyad), a third person communicates between the two parties.

This forms a relational ‘triangle’. ‘Outside help’ may initially be requested by both in the relationship, only one partner or by neither.

Most times, this set-up becomes unhealthful. Instead of the couple directly working through their differences, the third party disrupts this process creating a ‘divide-and-conquer scenario’. Either intentionally or on a subconscious level, the third party pits the two in a relationship against each other.

More on Toxic Triangulation

Sometimes, triangulation happens a little differently, however. The third person may be brought into the situation unwillingly (like when a young child is expected to ‘smooth things over’ between their parents). In this case, the child obviously suffers the most as it’s the parents doing the manipulating.

In other scenarios, the person brought into the scenario may initially have good intentions, but their efforts, more often than not, do more harm than good. This typically happens because the third party has a bias or favors one of the two involved in a romantic relationship.

Triangulation in families commonly involves this sort of bias. One triangulation example is a partner in a marriage or other committed relationship telling too much negative and personal info about their partner to a parent or adult sibling.

Maybe they’re just venting or asking for advice. Either way, it’s not hard to see what can play out next. Because there’s already a strong alliance with a family member or friend, that third party looks down on the other partner in the relationship. They may try to cause problems in the romantic relationship or break it up altogether.

Another challenge is the unequal sharing of details. One partner in the relationship tends to share their frustrations about the other partner outside the relationship. But too often, they don’t share about their part in the problem.

Further complicating matters, the third party who receives this negative information tends to overlook the faults of the partner with whom they have a stronger alliance while magnifying the faults of the weaker partner alliance.

It’s also possible that the third party will intentionally attempt to cause harm to the significant-other relationship when this is completely unwanted or unwarranted. This is especially true of narcissist triangulation. In this scenario, a third party elevates their selfish desires above your relationship.

Narcissistic family triangulation can become especially volatile at times. Imagine, for instance, a parent-in-law or sibling-in-law attempting to test the loyalty of a spouse originally from their ‘clan’ by making them choose between their marriage and family of origin.

In a narcissist-triangle scenario, the trespasser won’t see you and your partner as people who want and need autonomy. Rather, they’ll view you more as inanimate pawns on a chessboard with complete disregard for the health of your romantic relationship.

Be Careful About Who You Involve in Your Relationship Struggles

Be careful about who you share your personal relational details with as a couple. All of us are flawed. Each person in a relationship has contributed less-than-flattering problems to their romantic relationship in some way.

If you share these sensitive details with a close friend or family member, you could eventually be in for big-time triangulation. Even if that doesn’t happen right away, your family or friends may begin disrespecting your spouse or partner in subtle or passive-aggressive ways.

This can cause a slow-burn of toxicity that gradually poisons your relationship as your significant other grows bitter from the mistreatment (and your family or friends grow resentful because they only recognize the negative traits of your partner).

Triangulation in Relationships: Can it Ever Be Good?

Although triangulation generally gets a bad rap, it can sometimes be good for your relationship. Getting help with your relationship through a counselor is technically triangulation but it’s the positive version of it.

In her “Psychology Today” article entitled The Art of Triangulation, Susan B. Winston LMFT, shares about the benefits of triangulation in counseling:

“Therapy allows people to voice to a relative stranger what they cannot voice to one another. That is somehow more comfortable, less threatening or embarrassing, and more honest.”

Triangulation in therapy is best played out with someone both you and your partner feel comfortable with. You both willingly bring in a trained third party to help you work through challenges and difficulties you’re struggling to resolve on your own.

By doing this, you enjoy three major benefits you often wouldn’t get from sharing your relational challenges with friends or family:

  1. You work with a professional trained in helping individuals to restore their relationship.
  2. Your counselor is a neutral and unbiased third party. They’re not emotionally tied to one of you like a close family member or friend would be.
  3. It’s confidential. Too often, when sensitive details of a relationship are shared with family or friends, these details are told to others in their circles, causing untold emotional and relational turmoil (which can lead to ever-increasing triangulation attempts). This isn’t a concern with couples counseling.

Would you like to break free of unhealthful manipulation tactics that could be harming your relationship? If so, you can reach out to the OC Relationship Center, and get the help you need as a couple.

Providing counseling in Mission Viejo, CA and counseling in Newport Beach, CA, we can assist with marriage counseling, relationship counseling and individual therapy. Scheduling with us is quick and confidential.

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