This article examines the use of triangulation in the context of the narcissistic abuse cycle and how it impacts the power dynamics of interpersonal relationships. Triangulation is the introduction of a third party into a two-person relationship.
It is a common feature of the devaluation stage of the cycle of narcissistic abuse.
In the realm of relationships, power dynamics play a significant role in shaping the dynamics between individuals. One such dynamic that often goes unnoticed is triangulation, a complex maneuver employed by narcissists to maintain power and control over their victims. Understanding the insidious nature of triangulation is crucial in recognizing and breaking free from the toxic grip of a narcissistic relationship. This intricate manipulation technique involves the narcissist intentionally introducing a third party into the relationship, creating a dynamic of competition, jealousy, and insecurity. By doing so, the narcissist can effectively exploit and control their victims, leveraging their emotions and insecurities against them.
Definition and Characteristics of Narcissistic Abuse in Relationships
Narcissistic abuse occurs in a relationship when one person seeks to assert dominance over another for exploitative purposes. It is an inherently anti-social pattern of behavior that is difficult to spot because it is passive-aggressive and often framed as care, concern, or love. Its aim is to create an unequal power dynamic in which one person is conditioned into the belief that they are subordinate to another through the use of a range of manipulation tactics, including put downs, gaslighting, triangulation.
Perpetrators of narcissistic abuse act out of a maladaptive need to numb feelings of insecurity and toxic shame by incessantly seeking validation of their perceived superiority to others. One of the core thinking errors of dysfunctional narcissism is the belief that for the perpetrator to affirm the supremacy they attribute to themselves, they must ensure that someone else is beneath them. The more prominent and successful their victims are at the beginning of the narcissistic abuse cycle, the greater sense of validation the perpetrator feels when they succeed in subjugating them.
What is Triangulation in Psychology?
Triangulation involves the narcissist intentionally introducing a third party, such as an ex-partner, a friend, or a family member, into the relationship. This third party serves as a tool for the narcissist to create a sense of competition, jealousy, and insecurity within the victim. By constantly comparing the victim to the third party, the narcissist effectively undermines the victim’s self-esteem and creates a constant state of tension and anxiety. This manipulation tactic allows the narcissist to maintain control over the victim, as they become the primary source of validation and attention.
The third part may be brought in as a messenger, agent, or confidante, also known as a flying monkey, or presented as an idealized object that triggers feelings of inferiority in the victim, sometimes called the narcissistic person’s “new supply,” i.e. their new source of validation.
Triangulation can also occur in families. Research shows that children who experience destabilizing triangulation are ” feel caught, trapped, or torn between parents.” (Franck & Buehler, 2007). Further more the triangulation of children can have serious mental health consequences, such as increased anxiety, and self-blame.
“Youths who are triangulated into parental disputes might feel greater responsibility for the conflict and feel more threatened by parental behavior than might youths who are not involved in the parents’ disputes.”Karen L. Franck and Cheryl Buehler, Journal of Family Psychology
The Role of Triangulation in the Narcissistic Abuse Cycle
Triangulation serves several purposes in narcissistic relationships. Firstly, it allows the narcissist to exert control over the victim by keeping them on edge and constantly seeking their approval. By creating a sense of competition and jealousy, the narcissist ensures that the victim remains focused on them and their needs. The victim becomes trapped in a never-ending cycle of trying to prove their worth and gain the narcissist’s validation.
Secondly, triangulation provides the narcissist with a sense of power and superiority. By pitting the victim against a third party, the narcissist can reinforce their own inflated sense of self-importance. They derive pleasure from seeing the victim’s emotional turmoil and insecurity, as it reaffirms their belief that they are superior to others.
Lastly, triangulation serves as a means for the narcissist to deflect blame and responsibility. By introducing a third party into the relationship, the narcissist can shift the focus away from their own shortcomings and onto the victim or the third party. This manipulation tactic allows the narcissist to avoid accountability for their actions and maintain their position of power.
Signs and Symptoms of Triangulation in a Relationship
Identifying the signs and symptoms of triangulation is essential in recognizing and addressing the manipulative tactics employed by narcissists. Some common signs of triangulation in a relationship include:
- Constant comparison. The narcissist frequently compares the victim to a third party, highlighting their flaws and shortcomings to create a sense of competition and insecurity.
- Gaslighting. The narcissist manipulates the victim’s perception of reality, making them doubt their own experiences and feelings. They may deny or invalidate the victim’s concerns about the third party’s involvement.
- Isolation. The narcissist tries to isolate the victim from friends and family, making them dependent solely on the narcissist for validation and support.
- Intermittent Reinforcement. The victim experiences a constant cycle of highs and lows in the relationship, as the narcissist alternates between showering them with affection and withholding it.
- Low self-esteem. The victim constantly feels inadequate and unworthy of the narcissist’s love and attention, as they are led to believe that they can never measure up to the third party.
The Psychological Effects of Triangulation on the Victim
Triangulation can have severe psychological effects on the victim of a narcissistic relationship. The constant comparison and competition fostered by the narcissist can lead to feelings of insecurity, low self-esteem, and self-doubt. The victim may develop anxiety and depression as a result of the emotional rollercoaster created by the narcissist’s manipulation tactics.
Furthermore, triangulation can erode the victim’s sense of identity and autonomy. They become hyper-focused on meeting the narcissist’s demands and gaining their approval, losing sight of their own needs and desires. The victim may also develop a fear of abandonment, as they are conditioned to believe that they are replaceable and that their worth is contingent on their ability to outperform the third party.
The long-term effects of triangulation can be devastating, impacting the victim’s ability to form healthy relationships and trust others. It is crucial for victims to recognize the detrimental effects of triangulation and take steps towards breaking free from the cycle of abuse.
How to Recognize Triangulation
Recognizing and breaking free from triangulation in a narcissistic relationship is a challenging but necessary process for healing and recovery. Here are some strategies that can help victims regain their autonomy and escape the toxic grip of triangulation:
- Educate yourself. Learn about narcissistic personality disorder and the tactics employed by narcissists. Understanding the dynamics at play in your relationship can empower you to recognize and address the manipulation tactics, including triangulation.
- Build a support network. Reach out to trusted friends, family members, or support groups who can provide you with emotional support and guidance throughout the healing process.
- Set boundaries. Establish clear boundaries with the narcissist and communicate your needs and expectations. Be firm in asserting your autonomy and refusing to engage in their manipulative tactics.
- Focus on self-care. Prioritize your physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Engage in activities that bring you joy and nurture your sense of self-worth.
- Seek professional help. Consider seeking therapy or coaching to work through the psychological effects of triangulation and develop healthy coping strategies.
Breaking free from triangulation requires strength, perseverance, and a commitment to self-healing. It is essential to remember that you deserve to be in a relationship that is based on mutual respect, trust, and love.
Recovery After Experiencing Triangulation
Healing and recovery after experiencing triangulation in a narcissistic relationship is a journey that requires patience and self-compassion. Here are some steps you can take towards healing:
- Acknowledge your emotions. Allow yourself to feel and process the range of emotions that arise from the experience of triangulation. Give yourself permission to grieve the loss of the relationship and the betrayal of trust.
- Practice self-compassion. Be kind and gentle with yourself as you navigate the healing process. Remind yourself that you are not to blame for the narcissist’s manipulative tactics.
- Rebuild your self-esteem. Engage in activities that boost your self-esteem and reinforce your sense of self-worth. Surround yourself with supportive and loving people who appreciate and value you.
- Set new relationship standards. Reflect on the lessons learned from the narcissistic relationship and establish healthy boundaries and standards for future relationships. Trust your instincts and prioritize your emotional well-being.
- Seek professional support. Consider working with a therapist or coach who specializes in narcissistic abuse to gain further insight and guidance on your healing journey.
Remember, healing takes time, and it is a process unique to each individual. Be patient with yourself, celebrate your progress, and know that you have the strength within you to overcome the effects of triangulation and create a brighter future.
Triangulation is an insidious manipulation tactic employed by narcissists to maintain control and dominance over their victims. By understanding the power dynamics at play in narcissistic relationships, recognizing the signs of triangulation, and implementing strategies for breaking free, victims can empower themselves to reclaim their autonomy and create healthier, more fulfilling relationships.
- Franck, K.L. and Buehler, C. (2007) A Family Process Model of Marital Hostility, Parental Depressive Affect, and Early Adolescent Problem Behavior: The Roles of Triangulation and Parental Warmth. Journal of Family Psychology.
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