Triangle, Triangle, Triangle

Triangulation. Loosely, the term means, “making a triangle.” I thought it was a geometry application. Then I learned that it’s the perfect word for a devastating mind game.

Triangulation is a tactic in which one person (Party One) manages to manipulate a relationship between two other parties by controlling their communication, causing a rift between them that suits his (or her) own needs. This I’ll call “Triangulation Type I.” It can also be a cowardly ploy when Party One doesn’t have the courage to speak directly to Party Two with whom she or he has an issue, and so she engineers a set-up by crying to Party Three, who then jumps in to “save her” from Party Two, thus forming a triangle. (Triangulation Type II).

These are the personal applications. There are business applications too, but that’s not for this essay.

For the perpetrator to make Type I Triangulation work, he (or she) needs to be willing to breach the trust of one or both of the other two people he’s planning to manipulate. He needs to be narcissistic enough to justify the damage he does to the relationship between the other two by convincing himself he “was just trying to help,” or he “was just speaking the ‘truth.’”

Triangulation Type I might be employed by Party One to drive a wedge between Parties Two and Three, playing one against the other. This is known as “Divide and Conquer.” There are several reasons why Party One might want to split up Parties Two and Three. Maybe Party One is a husband and Party Two is his wife, and he’s threatened by her relationship with Party Three, who might be a friend or family member. The husband notices “changes” in his wife that he associates with her relationship with Party Three. It’s irrelevant to him if these changes are positive for his wife. The husband feels threatened by them, and is looking for an opportunity ─ consciously or unconsciously ─ to detach his wife from Party Three.

He does this by attempting to control the interpretation and flow of communication between his wife and the third party. He might emphasize to his wife that something the third party said or did was hurtful, insulting, or detrimental far more than it actually was. He might try to limit when and how long his wife and Party Three speak. And if his wife confides in him about any situation that comes up between herself and Party Three, instead of allowing his wife to make her own adult decisions about her other relationships, he’ll tap into any insecurities she might have by shaming her with questions such as why she’s “letting Party Three take advantage of her.”

If his wife trusts him more than she trusts Party Three, the manipulation works. Party Two (wife) is now upset with Party Three, and Party One’s (husband’s) goal of pulling them apart is achieved. The balance in the relationship that Party One preferred is restored. Party Two now recognizes that the only person she can depend on is Party One, which is exactly what Party One wanted.

That the relationship his wife had with Party Three might have been valuable to her, that she might need some independence and friendships outside of her marriage, doesn’t override his craving to control her. Triangulation successful. Wife has been convinced husband was trying to help her. Or, she might be so trusting, so oblivious to his schemes, that she’ll never realize he orchestrated the rift. Even worse, she might be aware of it, but be so afraid of confronting him that she pretends she doesn’t see it. In order to justify her willful obliviousness, she might even collude with him by repeating his narrative, that yes, Party Three was trying to harm her, and luckily for her, husband stepped in.

In any of these scenarios, she’ll now defer to her husband in future contact with Party Three, which was precisely his goal. A narcissist wants to ensure that those who are important to him remain isolated, able to communicate with others only through him.

It’s not only spouses who might do this. Controlling parents can manipulate their children by triangulating them. A friend might triangulate the relationship between two other friends. In any of these cases the end game for the selfish Party One is to remain first, front and center in the life of Party Two, heedless of the fact that his interference has harmed Party Two emotionally.

Alternatively, in the case of Triangulation Type Two, in which Party One feels she (or he) needs saving from Party Two, rather than dealing directly with the Party Two they have an issue with, the spineless Party One introduces Party Three in a way that gives credence to Party One’s grievance with Party Two. Party One then convinces herself that she had nothing to do with any discord that then occurs between Parties Two and Three. She was just an innocent bystander, but now she has to choose a side, and the side she chooses is the side she triangulated for her own purposes.

I’ve been the victim of triangulation more than once. The one that sticks out in my mind happened years ago, while I still contending with self-esteem issues, brought on by my upbringing. (Talk about dysfunctional triangles. There were enough in that family to supply the percussion section of several orchestras.) Anyway, I had a ‘friend,’ whom I’d yet to realize was heavily invested in my remaining insecure and vulnerable. When I finally managed to pull myself together for the most part, and become much more proactive, this self-transformation was intimidating to this friend. I could tell by her change in attitude toward me. Our talks had stopped being about how pitiful my life was and how wonderful hers was in comparison, and she had no use for the friendship any longer.

How to end it, though, when I hadn’t done anything to harm her? Simple. She introduced a third party. Two, actually ─ her husband and the United States government. This triangulation took place right before the US invasion of Iraq. I was actively against it. I sent letters to Congress, I wrote articles, I attended protests. Being such a close friend, she knew how passionately invested I was in this issue. So she told her husband, someone staunchly on the side of the invasion, about my stance. He began a bombardment of emails to me ─ articles written by pro-war pundits, jokes which I considered in revolting taste ─ you get the picture. To me, it felt like harassment. To my ‘friend’ and her husband, it was “just teasing.”

In hindsight, I should have just hit ‘delete’ and let the friendship fade away to the point where the only contact we had was a yearly holiday card. But instead, I reacted emotionally. Her husband and I exchanged words, and of course, she “had to side” with him because, after all, he was her husband, her faultless excuse for ending our decades-long relationship, her own “Mission Accomplished.”

It was a painful lesson for me, but a good one. I’d do things much differently now. Obviously, I would handle a devious colleague in a more assertive manner, but if it’s personal relationship, I pretend as though I am blind to the manipulation. I wish both parties well, and back away as quickly and subtlety as possible.

That’s not a very satisfying ending, especially when one of the parties involved means something to you, is it? You feel betrayed, you want to defend yourself, to discuss the misunderstanding, so there might be some insight gained.

Guess what? There won’t be an epiphany on their part, because this wasn’t a misunderstanding ─ this was a purposeful scheme against you, which one, or even both, of the other parties was in on. There’s nothing to gain from personal relationships where the people in them seek to control us, or control one another, but further destruction to our psyche down the road. So, be sad for a while, because you’re human. But take it from one who’s been burned: Walk away, wiser and with your spiritual well-being mostly intact.

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