Helping Parents, Families, & Caregivers

Triangulation: Why the term can be dangerous

three people photo
Photo Credit: francisco_osorio

Have you ever heard of the term “triangulate” or “triangulation?” It’s a term that refers to the act of confusing a situation in such a way that 3 or more people are fighting against each other. A classic example of this is when your son or daughter runs to dad to ask for something that the mother has already told the child she/he could not have. Another classic example of this is when a teacher tells a child why she/he is failing 7th grade and the child goes to dad (who has a very short fuse and can be verbally aggressive) and complains about the teacher and how unfair everything is. In both scenarios, the adults in the situation are likely to start fighting each other and forget about the true problem at hand.

Triangulation occurs in many areas of interpersonal communication. Some people engage in triangulation to control others or achieve a specific purpose (intentional triangulation), while others are very unaware of the fact that they are actually doing it. In other cases, it might appear as if the person is triangulating when in fact, they are simply trying to get someone else’s point of view about something or support. It is important to know when this is happening and when it is not. This is very difficult, even for therapists such as myself! But with experience and knowledge about the concept, you are more likely to spot when triangulation is occurring and how to stop it.

The dangerous use of the term triangulation

I’ve been in many situations where triangulation was occurring (intentionally and unintentionally) and I’ve also been in situations where it wasn’t happening at all but someone termed the interaction “triangulation.” In cases where someone uses the term “triangulation” to manipulate how others see your situation, you are likely to feel unheard, unloved, and misunderstood. I’m a firm believer that any psychological concept or term can be used against an innocent person. There are, and I’m sure you have met them, people who will use psychological concepts and intelligent lexicon to manipulate and cause others to view you as the “troublemaker.” An example of this is often noticed in divorce or custody situations where the burned spouse (“evil spouse” – we’ll use this term for purposes of this conversation) will do anything to make the other spouse (“good spouse”) look evil. This might entail using the children as pawns or speaking negative things about one spouse to the children when the other spouse is absent. When the “good spouse” finds out that they have been talked about negatively to the children, they run to someone else (an aunt, a grandmother, a friend,etc.) to talk to for support. The evil spouse then tell the children “your mother is trying to control us by trying to be the “good person.” Some people will actually use the term triangulate: “your mother is trying to triangulate me and my kids.”

I’ve seen situations where the term is used in workplaces against people who are trying to do the right thing. I’ve also seen the term used in mental health clinics to describe client’s with borderline personality disorder who tend to struggle with healthy relationships. It’s frightening to think that this term can be used against you. But this is why I bring this topic up. Being educated to this is the first step toward learning how to defend yourself.

To see how others describe triangulation, watch this brief interesting clip:

As always, I wish you well