There might be affiliate links on this page, which means we get a small commission of anything you buy. As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases. Please do your own research before making any online purchase.
Narcissism is a personality style where the individual, called a narcissist, is excessively interested in satisfying their own needs while overlooking yours.
As a result of a lack of empathy, narcissists tend to form relationships solely to gain control and satisfy those needs.
Narcissists employ different types of psychological manipulation tactics to stay in control. Narcissistic triangulation is one of those. By controlling others, they’re able to achieve a steady flow of narcissistic supply.
Stick around for more on what triangulation means and what it looks like in different settings. Most importantly, I’ve provided tips on how to handle this type of manipulation.
What Is Narcissistic Triangulation?
Triangulation is a harmful psychological and passive-aggressive tool used by narcissists and other types of manipulative personalities. It involves the narcissist complaining about you to someone else in an attempt to solve a problem in their favor.
In this scenario, the narcissist is the “complainer,” you are the “victim” of manipulation, and the third person functions as their “ally”. Instead of handling the disagreement directly with you, they do so through a back channel.
Narcissistic individuals create the triangle to gain the upper hand when they begin to lose control of the situation.
Usually, they’ll bring in someone loyal who will do their ‘bidding’. The person is seen as the narcissist’s defender or ‘flying monkey.’ Narcissists have many flying monkeys that they’ll quickly dispatch to act on their behalf.
The narcissist will give the third person the impression you committed some wrong against them.
Not only is this a breach of your privacy, the narcissist usually omits critical facts favorable to you. The individual then comes and takes their side. This ends up making you look like the villain and the narcissist the victim.
Triangulation causes negative emotional effects on victims whether or not it’s done intentionally. The effects range from emotional distress, anxiety, depression, and loss of trust to developing poor self-esteem.
Why Do Narcissists Triangulate?
The truth of the matter is, certain narcissists are always scheming and plotting ways to manipulate situations in their favor. It’s a core part of their nature and hard to get rid of.
In this case, you’ll notice they practice triangulation more in their close relationships, e.g., with their romantic partners, relatives, siblings, or friends.
However, a narcissistic boss–or even a co-worker–may triangulate you with your colleagues to enhance or undermine your productivity.
A third party is often introduced to create insecurity, make you doubt yourself, or undermine your integrity.
Narcissists also use this form of emotional abuse to distract from the real issue, play the victim, and ‘win’ the argument. If they’re successful, this lets them escape responsibility and feel superior.
If the person is your romantic partner, they may triangulate you with someone else to make you feel jealous or create a power imbalance.
Narcissistic Triangulation Types and Examples
Someone who has narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) or tendencies may create a triangle if they feel vulnerable, wish to avoid tough conversations or feel intimidated by you. Let’s take a look at examples of how it can manifest in various relationship dynamics.
LEARN MORE about narcissistic personality disorder and the different types of narcissists.
Narcissistic Triangulation in Relationships
A narcissist may bring up an ex-lover or someone they’re aware you’re not thrilled about. They may speak highly of the person. If it’s an ex, they might say, “He/she was such a great partner” or “He/she wants me back.”
Mentioning another man or woman can make you feel jealous or inferior to the third party. The goal is to make you react negatively. Getting you worked up reassures them that you care.
Remember, narcissists need to consistently know that other people admire and love them. Otherwise, they feel worthless.
Just so you know, my narcissistic ex used triangulation to defend why he cheated. Like there’s ever a good reason for infidelity. He said the other woman gave him the attention he needed.
I removed myself from the triangle and gave him my blessings to be with the other woman.
By doing so, I denied him the chance of making me feel jealous and inadequate. Responding to triangulation that way also dealt a huge blow to his already fragile self-esteem.
It wasn’t that I didn’t give him lots of time, attention, love, and care. The problem is that narcissistic individuals have an endless need for narcissistic supply.
These include attention, sex, admiration, and validation. Regardless of how much you give, it’s never ever fulfilling. They need a steady flow of fuel from different people to bolster their fragile egos 24-7.
Narcissistic Triangulation in Friendships
The narcissist may use triangulation tactics to create strife between you and another common friend.
They may say, “You know I’m a better friend than X. She always gossips about you.” This is to distract you from their narcissistic tendencies and fish for compliments from you.
If not, they may try to convince you that they love and admire a certain friend very much. Don’t fall for it. The narcissist is only saying this to make you compete with and provide more narcissistic fuel than the other friend.
Narcissistic Triangulation at Work
The workplace could become an environment for gaslighting and triangulation if your boss is a narcissist.
They already hold power over you and may use it to their advantage. One example is comparing you with your workmate to make you feel incompetent or work harder.
On the flip side, they may confide in you about something negative your colleague said about you. They’re doing this to make you think they got your back. That way, they can exploit favors from you in the future.
In another workplace scenario, a fellow employee may triangulate your boss in a spat between you two.
This activates the boss, who gets involved to settle the dispute even though it has nothing to do with them. Usually, a co-worker will do this if they know the boss will take their side.
Narcissistic Triangulation between Parents and Children
A narcissistic parent may use the toxic tactic to pit children against each other. Children are also used as a medium to pass certain information to the other parent.
For example, the mom or dad may say something like, “I bet your dad/mom doesn’t treat you as well as I do, right?”
Here, the narcissist triangulates to get reassurance that they are the better parent. They also hope the child will report back to the other parent.
This can make them angry at the narcissistic parent for painting them in a bad light. The narcissist then feels powerful about being able to affect the other parent’s emotions.
Narcissistic Triangulation Involving Siblings
Once again, a narcissistic parent may triangulate, only this time by putting siblings against each other to get the approval of one.
For example, the parent may constantly praise one child as the favorite to manipulate another child they’ve painted as the black sheep of the family.
This forces the less favored child to kiss up to the narcissistic parent in order to get their approval. The narcissist, in turn, feels superior and in control.
Similarly, a narcissistic sibling may pit their brother or sister against their parent or a parent against a sibling.
How Do Narcissists Benefit from Triangulation?
As the old adage goes, “Two’s company, three’s a crowd.” All triangulation does is create more problems for everyone involved. Dark narcissists, in particular, thrive on chaos and causing emotional harm to others.
After looking at the examples of narcissistic triangulation, you may have noticed the narcissist gets something out of each situation.
Praise, attention, admiration, reassurance, control, a self-esteem boost, or an “I-told-you-so” moment are among the perks. They are willing to manipulate situations and put people against each other if that is what it takes.
Individuals who practice this type of narcissistic abuse on others never really stop. They just find new targets or victims. Usually, this happens when their targets catch on to their games and turn the tables on the narcissist.
A Step-by-Step Way to Respond to and Stop Narcissistic Triangulation
Involving third parties in your relationship with family, friends, or co-workers is all about what the narcissist wants. You may be a victim of this style of narcissistic abuse if they have a pattern of putting you against others or vice versa.
Now that you know what triangulation by a narcissist looks like, it’s time to shut it down and protect your mental health. Below are some tactics you could try. Beware. Going up against them can be emotionally draining, as narcissists do not like to be held accountable.
Step 1: Be aware of when triangulation is happening
Understanding what narcissists usually say and do when in the process of triangulation is the first key step to confronting it.
Of course, they use other manipulative methods, such as deflection, gaslighting, and crazy making. However, the primary tell-tale sign they’re triangulating is when they rely on a third person to mediate on their behalf.
Another sign is comparing your qualities to those of another person in a negative way. Saying someone else is better than you is how the narcissist manipulates you into getting their way.
Step 2: Request a meeting with all parties
Getting the narcissist and their henchmen to agree to a meeting isn’t going to be easy. Narcissists are tricky and are careful with linking you with their allies.
They set up the triangle in a way that only they alone could control the movement of information between you and the third party.
Even though they may say, “X knows agreed you took advantage of me,” they’re not going to let you and “X” interact directly. Linking you is risky as the individual may find out how devious they are.
Step 3: Give your side of the story
Usually, the third party in the triangle isn’t someone you’ll have easy access to. Besides, the narcissist may go out of their way to prevent contact between you two.
A scenario like this is more likely to occur in a romantic relationship where your narcissistic partner ensures you remain isolated from their ‘flying monkeys’. These include friends and family members.
If you’re successful in making contact, explain your side of the story. This can help them see the situation from all angles. You may even learn damning or untruthful things the narcissist said to X! For example, telling you X said something negative about you or telling X you cheated.
Don’t be surprised. Some narcissists are compulsive liars who tell tall tales to exploit what they want from others.
Step 4: Be prepared for the third person to defend the narcissist
Dealing with the toxic behavior of a narcissistic parent, partner, friend, or boss is already mentally taxing. Now there’s a third party who can make your life as difficult as the narcissist.
Since the situation is iffy, you must go in with an open mind. More than likely, the person is loyal to the narcissist. You could wind up getting verbally attacked by both of them and more emotionally wounded than before.
Step 5: Cut the third party out of the equation
If the third party comes to you on their own to do the narcissist’s bidding, this provides an opportunity to take a different approach. Instead of trying to hash things out with them, tell them you’re going to handle the problem directly with the narcissist.
Quite frankly, these outsiders have no right to meddle in your business. The narcissist is actually also manipulating and using them to source narcissistic fuel. However, they are so loyal to the narcissist, they keep doing their bidding.
In some cases, the third person has a codependent relationship with the narcissist and enables their narcissistic abuse against others.
Step 6: Remove yourself from the triangle
Alternatively, you can choose not to participate in any three-way interaction with them and the narcissist.
Simply bypass the third party and communicate directly to the wrongdoer (the narc). Do this if you determine that communicating with the other party will make things worse.
Right away, this breaks up the triangle and destroys the narcissist’s plans to manipulate you through an external medium. You’re also eliminating the third person who, by the way, isn’t necessarily your ally.
The narcissist may still feel powerful for creating so much drama.
Step 7: Call out narcissistic triangulation
Taking a calm and respectful approach, tell the narcissist you observed a pattern of involving others in your relationship, work, or family affairs. Ask them why they insist on taking that route. Trust me, they’ll act as if they don’t know what you’re talking about.
Another response is to defend their action or deflect from your question by blaming you for the drama. “You’re difficult to deal with, so what do you expect me to do? I had to talk to someone else who understands me!”
Actually, they’re the difficult ones and are only projecting their traits onto you. Double down and insist that triangulating you is unhealthy.
Step 8: Set boundaries
Explain to the narcissist that even though you love them, you won’t accept them violating your relationship this way. Be assertive and confident when laying down the rules and boundaries.
You don’t have to let them know their action is hurtful. Narcissists don’t care how others feel due to a lack of empathy. In fact, some enjoy causing emotional harm.
Tell them you will only communicate one-on-one with them. Spell out the consequences if they disregard your boundaries. Let them know if there's ever a need to involve someone else, both of you should agree.
Insist it’s an impartial person, such as a relationship counselor or therapist–not one of their minions.
Step 9: Leave if the conversation gets toxic
Narcissistic individuals hate it when you hold them accountable. At this point, they’ll feel overwhelmed or anxious and resort to other manipulative tactics. For example, countering or changing the subject, or denying they triangulated you.
All of it is aimed at throwing you mentally off-balance or causing you to lose your cool. Recognize when they shift to other toxic behavior and shut things down by leaving.
You don’t have to go toe-to-toe with them or get the last word in. You already called them out, drew your boundaries, and warned them of the consequences.
Prolonging the conversation allows them to continue the emotional abuse and drain your energy. The more flustered you get, the more they feel like the winner.
If nothing else, remember you are a key person in the triangle. It cannot be created or function without you. Do not participate. You’ll protect your well-being and starve the narcissist of ego fuel.
Forgive yourself if you allowed yourself to get sucked into the toxic behavior pattern by the narcissist. Now you know better, do better.
Final Thoughts on Narcissistic Triangulation
Introducing a third person to help solve issues or piss you off is a passive-aggressive way for the narcissist to get their needs met.
They lack the self-confidence and communication tools to advocate on their own behalf. As such, they rely on others to do their bidding and prop up their fragile self-esteem.
The problem with complaining to others about you is that it puts you on the defensive. You may automatically be seen as being a troublemaker although the third party doesn’t have all the facts.
But then again, that’s the whole point. Narcissists triangulate using people who will help them take you down.
Hopefully, the counter strategies provided will help you beat the narcissist at their own game. Actually, I’m a fan of 17 Ways to Make a Narcissist Really Fear You.
Check it out! In addition to these self-help tips, you may also benefit from talking to a therapist if you feel overwhelmed by the experience.
And if you're looking for articles about narcissist and narcissism, be sure to check out these blog posts:
- 15 Subtle Ways to Manipulate a Narcissist in Your Life
- 11 Weird Things That Covert Narcissists Do
- 19 Weird Things That Narcissists Do to Manipulate People
Finally, if you want to identify YOUR personality type, then take one of these 11 personality tests to better understand what makes you tick.