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Author Topic: What does triangulation mean?  (Read 25276 times)
ve01603
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« on: June 14, 2010, 07:30:29 PM »

God Bless all of you! Everyone had helped me so much and sometimes I feel much better.

Someone replied to one of my posts and used the word triangulation.  What does triangulation mean?
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« Reply #1 on: June 14, 2010, 08:37:17 PM »

Triangulation is an often misunderstood term on this site.  Triangulation as coined by Murray Bowen MD is the “process whereby a two-party relationship that is experiencing tension will naturally involve a third party to reduce tension” (Bobes & Rothman, 2002).

Simply put, when a two-person relationship becomes unstable the individuals will tolerate only a small amount of tension before they involve a third person. The resulting triangle can hold much more tension because the tension can shift around the three relationships.

Bowen's observations are incredible.  We all do this.  Triangles often help us cope.

Sometimes, however, triangulation can cause more turmoil in the relationship, causing further communication difficulties and conflict. According to Bowen''s Theory, a triangle creates an ‘odd man out,’ which is a very difficult position for individuals to tolerate. Anxiety generated by anticipating or being the odd one out is a huge force in triangles.

In calm periods, two people become comfortably close "insiders" and the third person is an uncomfortable "outsider." If tensions increase, insiders more actively exclude the outsider and/or the outsider may work to get closer to one of the insiders. If the tension is too much for one triangle to contain, it spreads to a series of "interlocking" triangles.

A classic example of triangulation is a mother telling her son that his father is treating her badly, rather than facing her husband directly and resolving the conflict. And while this may initially solve the mothers anxiety, the triangulation may create issues in the relationship between the son and the father where the mother takes sides - in effect, there are now two conflicts being triangulated among the parties.

According to Bowen, these three part relationships (triangles) have at least four possible outcomes which are as follows - 2 are good and 2 are bad:

(1) A stable pair can become destabilized by a third person;

(2) a stable pair can also be destabilized by the removal of the third person (an example would be a child leaving home and no longer available for triangulation);

(3) an unstable pair can be stabilized by the addition of a third person (an example would be a conflictual marriage becoming more harmonious after the birth of a child; and

(4) an unstable pair being stabilized by the removal of a third person (an example would be conflict is reduced by the removal of a third person who takes sides).

The triangulation concept is one of eight parts of Bowen's family systems theory: http://www.thebowencenter.org/pages/concepttri.html.  Bowen's point is that triangulation is occurring all the time - we are all involved in triangles - some good, some bad.

Getting Out  For the purpose of conflict resolution, it's helpful to understand triangulation and to avoid it.  Generally speaking, the first step for getting out of the triangle once you are in it is to identify the original source of the tension or problem and deal with it and not get all caught up the additional issues created by the triangulation.

The way to avoid creating triangles is to be self aware and not be lured by the immediate gratification that they offer.  

The Karpman Triangle further explained the conflict dynamics that can develop in triangulations.  Karpman identified that polarized roles of the participants emerge as one person assumes the role of victim.  He also explained that the roles often shift around in time increasing the conflict among the 3 parties. Staying out of the drama generally means not reacting in kind to the polarized view of the victim or embracing the polarized role in which you are cast. Stay centered. Karpman is explained here: Karpman Triangle.  

Misconceptions  Some members think of "triangulation" as a dysfunctional BPD behavior perpetrated on them by a person with BPD - and why not - this is how we see triangles when we are in them and the '"odd man out" smiley. Seeing it this way is exactly the opposite of what we want to do to end the drama.

Triangles are all around us. This was Bowen's point.  And while it is true that some triangulation can be dysfunctional - triangulation is most often functional or benign.  
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« Reply #2 on: June 15, 2010, 04:00:00 AM »

Hi Ve01603

I'm on the Healing board but as triangulation has been a regular fixture in my life since I was a child, thought I would add to your thread (hope thats okay  wink)

My NPD/uBPD stepfather is a master at triangulation.  When used regularly, it becomes a communication pattern - with one family member acting as the messenger or go between, rather than speaking directly with the person whom they want to communicate.  For example:

Mum and dad have a fight.  Rather than Dad going to Mum and communicating directly with her, Dad goes to 10 year old Billy and says, "Billy, will you go and ask your mother if she's still mad at me?  Tell her I didn't mean what I said, and ask her if she wants to go out for dinner."  Billy, thinking he's helping, does what he's asked.  Mum says, "Billy, tell your father I wouldn't go out for dinner with him if he was the last person on earth.  And you go and clean your room like I've already told you an hour ago."

Billy was trying to help get Mum and Dad back together, but he ended up with Mum taking out her anger at Dad on him, he was then left feeling that he was part of the problem.  

Obviously, the above example could be tailored to fit any relationship, not just a family one.  When triangulation becomes a regular feature in any relationship, communication becomes blurred and people become enmeshed in problems that aren't theirs becoming pawns in power struggles.  

Children who grow up with lots of triangulation between adults at home, may come to believe this is 'normal' behaviour and may repeat patterns in their own adult lives.  It may be this was a staple in your SO's childhood?  I know my ensister communicates in this way with her husband and me to some extent - she has recreated the dysfunctional system she grew up in.
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ve01603
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« Reply #3 on: June 15, 2010, 06:16:00 AM »

Thanks Skip and normally normal and I'm sorry that you had to endure this.
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« Reply #4 on: June 12, 2012, 01:38:11 PM »

This was a hard one to deal with. My expwBPD would try to recruit me to stand against anyone she had a conflict or a disagreement with, from her best friend to my friends.  

If I took her side, she felt that she was right and she felt better, even in situations where she obviously wasn't right.
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« Reply #5 on: June 12, 2012, 04:08:20 PM »

Couldn't a degree of triangulation be perceived as existing in a lot of relatively healthy relationships?  For example, in an argument we might find ourselves saying "I was talking to my brother/sister/friend about this and he/she thinks/says bla bla bla.

The difference being that this form of triangulation isn't always negative and manipulative (although it can be...).  When we involve someone else in our story, it's usually because they have something useful to contribute or express a valid point.  I think the difference with BPDs is that they are ALWAYS in the role of 'victim' in these scenarios?  For myself, I can't think of a single instance when my ex reported something back to me that revealed him to be in anything other than the victim role except for when he lavished praise on somebody else.  In this case it wasn't really a compliment to the other person but more a passive aggressive comment on ME!  Sometimes I couldn't see the direct relationship at first but, a bit like advertising, it would sink in later as a kind of negative subliminal message.  I could never confront him with it though as it seemed to me childish and a bit ridiculous because I don't usually get jealous of strangers who are portrayed as saints when I don't even know them!
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« Reply #6 on: June 13, 2012, 06:05:27 PM »

Couldn't a degree of triangulation be perceived as existing in a lot of relatively healthy relationships?  For example, in an argument we might find ourselves saying "I was talking to my brother/sister/friend about this and he/she thinks/says bla bla bla.

Triangulation is a very common family system dynamic.  We all do this.

It's important to recognize it in ourselves when we do it.  It's also helps to understand why someone else is doing it.
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« Reply #7 on: June 15, 2012, 03:33:22 PM »

Why do they do it and what purpose does it serve.

While we had split up (her doing), she had been telling me that she thought I should date other women. So I did.  We get back together and she asked me if was seeing anyone and I told her yes. She built herself into a rage about it. While she was chewing me out over the phone and in mid sentence she breaks into "and if you think you are gonna replace my friends and my (child) in my life, you are wrong you will never replace them" and got mad and hung up.

Later she told me her child was standing right there when all that took place and could hear her side of the conversation. No talk was about her child or her friends. Her child is in there 20's.

Can anyone shed some light on what possible could have been occurring.
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« Reply #8 on: June 15, 2012, 11:37:22 PM »

As Skip says, triangulation is just a way to (usually, unconsciously and/or habitually) reduce anxiety between two individuals by recruiting a third individual rather than problem solving.  That's all it is.    

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« Reply #9 on: June 16, 2012, 02:31:32 AM »

My exuBPDSO uses her d13 as the third party - too young for this stuff - there should be no-one else in the communication with a BPD when things are not going well.  During one rage in front of the d13 I was required to explain to the d13 why my previous 2 long term relationships failed (one 24 yrs the other 7 years) - the rage was triggered by my then uBPDSO thinking I was a bit grumpy after dinner that nite!
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« Reply #10 on: June 16, 2012, 08:56:00 AM »

After reading the responses. Some of that makes sense. I thought it was a tool to just create jealousy with other men. But While thinking back over other incidents and reading the responses. I see can be with anybody. Her co-workers, other men, child, friends.
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« Reply #11 on: June 16, 2012, 09:21:37 AM »

I thought it was a tool to just create jealousy with other men. But While thinking back over other incidents and reading the responses. I see can be with anybody. Her co-workers, other men, child, friends.

Triangulation is not a tool to create jealousy, although someone may have said that here -- this term is often misused. It's not a substitute word nor BPDFamily jargon for cheating or affair, either.

If your partner starts dating another person at the same time she is dating you "seeing other people" is the term.  If the reason is primarily to make you jealous, then "manipulation" is the term.  If the reason is because you treat her disrespectfully (and the new guy respects her), or she does not feel loved (and the new guy is showering her with affection), or she feels unheard (and the new guy is waiting on every word) - real or perceived - now we are looking at "triangulation" and triangulation dynamics.  

For example, lets say the two of you are having reoccurring arguments about respect and it is not getting resolved - you may be wrong, she may be wrong.  She meets someone that provides her the respect and validates her side of the argument.  Her problem is solved - she has all the good things from the relationship with you and she has solved this one area of deficit.  Triangulation!

If you go to her mother and say she is cheating on you - and mom validates your side - this is more triangulation.

If the new guy then punches you out in the parking lot and she tells him she will never see him again for hurting you- this is more triangulation.  

If you then call the new boyfriend and tell him she lied to him all along - this is even more triangulation stuff.

So, the word "triangulation" without context is pretty meaningless.  Triangulation is a broad generic term for the way that we naturally seek out third parties to feel better when things are off.  In the "disrespect triangle" above, all the parties were involved in the conflict and it became a big mess with everyone feeling like a victim in the end, everyone making it worse, and nothing resolved.
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« Reply #12 on: June 16, 2012, 01:35:20 PM »

Common Misuses of "Triangulation"

Following up on misuse of the term, below are some other incorrect uses of the term...  I want to emphasize that this is not intended to criticize any member - the misunderstanding of this term is widespread and involves many more members than listed here. We're just pointing this out so that we may be mindful to others to use this term/concept in a productive way. Here is an good example of the term used constructively <<here>>

Here are some common misuses...


I think I need to read more about the term you used "triangulation " because I often felt like I was somehow involved in a sort of tug of war with her exes, or a competition of sorts, even though I never met them and despite it not being my usual way of relating to people. It's hard to describe but it was like she was  "hinting" about still having some sort of connection to them that was flirty and intimate oriented.
See quote in context

It's just a form of triangulation when they do this. "I've been to see her [another women] because I know it's gonna piss you off. You don't like it? What's your problem? She's just a friend! See how mature I am... "
See quote in context

She won't let NC ever happen and I'm honestly not strong enough to not respond all the time. I was making so much progress but then I'm having a setback and just feel like doing something extreme. I don't know..maybe its a bad idea but I can't take this triangulation anymore.
See quote in context

Do you think she recycled him because she was in constant contact with him because of their son, or did she plan on recycling him all along and just used me for triangulation ?
See quote in context

Triangulation . The more I see this word the more I dislike it.  I struggled with this for so long, (before I knew about BPD) I thought he was confused, or a cheater, or not ready to commit and settle down and now I am learning this is a real trait for a pwBPD.  It is a real term and a common occurrence.
See quote in context

In my experience as she sets the hook in the next one and proceeds with triangulation , she will periodicaly check back on you to see where you are at.
See quote in context

a couple weeks after my ex moved out she was calling/texting vague but suggestive things like "i'll be thinking about you", etc. it felt fake to me, i was still very torn up inside and i felt she was being a fraud b/c her current r/s obviously wasn't all she made it out to be. i knew she was just using me to get some mental relief, which i now realize is what triangulation is.
See quote in context

Triangulation - find alternative relationships
See quote in context

i'm just flowing here--but many people have alluded to this, i just found out about this term here. the "want to have his cake and eat it too" is Triangulation
See quote in context

The other women were triangulation; a BPD gets too close to you, they feel engulfed, need to find someone to idealize, a different phase of the pathology.
See quote in context

Another thing is triangulation.  She will probably show that pic to the new victim, or let him find it himself, to put him on edge and in competition with you, so she's in control right off the bat.
See quote in context

If he starts to triangulate,you make the decision when you've had enough. You'll know it when you see it.
See quote in context

You mentioned that he is seeing someone else...be wary of triangulation.
See quote in context
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« Reply #13 on: June 16, 2012, 01:40:09 PM »

As Skip says in his example, sometimes everyone ends up as a victim.  And while this thread is not about the Karpman drama triangle (which is a different theory than Bowen's triangulation), Karpmen also explains what happens when triangulation takes on a life of its own and all goes wrong.

A Karpman drama triangle where adults are involved requires 3 roles, a victim, a persecutor and a rescuer. Each person enters in a role, but will take turns in all 3 roles as the drama plays out; being on a drama triangle always ends up in "victim", all roads lead to victim despite taking turns in the various positions. It all leads to the role of victim because the purpose of a drama triangle is to avoid self responsibility.  

If we are taking care of self, are engaging in self care and self responsibility, they will not find themselves part of a drama triangle and will not play one of these roles. They step away, they do not engage, they refuse to play any Of the roles and focus instead on keeping their eyes on their own paper.

Drama triangles are a big part of transactional analysis and is well thought of as a map or framework for understanding interpersonal dynamics. It's a extremely valuable framework for understanding patterns in dysfunctional families and relationships where a personality disorder exists. I would not discount the study of drama triangles as "facile". It's probably one of the best tools Ive come across to get healthier and stay healthier. Understanding drama triangles is one if the best things a person can do in detangling from unhealthy relationship patterns.

Mod note: More information here  Karpman Triangles
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« Reply #14 on: June 17, 2012, 05:32:37 PM »


In just about every story you see the same exact themes ...including denial and self abandonment.

MaybeSo, I'm intrigued ... what is self abandonment?
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« Reply #15 on: June 17, 2012, 05:42:31 PM »

When we are not attending to our selves, listening to our guts, caring for ourselves, respecting ourselves, noticing and respecting our own feelings, protecting without explanation our own values.  When we accept or tolerate abuse. When we ignore red flags. When we believe our happiness and well being depends upon another. These are all ways we abandon "self".
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« Reply #16 on: June 17, 2012, 06:01:21 PM »

When we are not attending to our selves, listening to our guts, caring for ourselves, respecting ourselves, noticing and respecting our own feelings, protecting without explanation our own values.  When we accept or tolerate abuse. When we ignore red flags. When we believe our happiness and well being depends upon another. These are all ways we abandon "self".

So we've been involved with someone who may in fact love us, but can't remain consistently close due to abandonment fears. We do everything we can to help alleviate those, but our attempts just help to drive the other person even farther away. Which leaves us as the abandoned ones. In trying so hard to help them not feel so abandoned, to prove that we're not like that, we end up abandoning ourselves.

In the end, coming through our healing, we've still been abandoned by them in some ways but have reclaimed ourselves. They'll wind up both abandoned by us (even if this is just in their own minds) AND by themselves. Such a sad, strange situation.
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« Reply #17 on: June 21, 2012, 09:00:44 PM »

Thanks everyone for all the comments. This thread has been especially useful to me in the last week.
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« Reply #18 on: May 02, 2013, 07:11:08 AM »

Great to have this clarified. I felt often a bite insecure about it, at least with love triangle and triangulation.
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« Reply #19 on: May 08, 2013, 12:01:11 PM »

Triangulation isn't unique to BPD. We do it as well and we've experienced it.

It isn't a "technique" that one studies. It comes naturally to those who seek validation.We see it here on the boards with ourselves.We triangulate the person with BPD with those on the board. In turn,we're validated. We take on the role of victim, the person with BPD as the perpetrator,and those on the boards act as rescuers.

It takes work to get off,and stay off, the "triangle". You no longer see yourself as the "victim" or the pwBPD as the "persecutor". It doesn't mean that they will do the same. This is where you take control of yourself and step back. You no longer participate.

What this does is diffuse the situation and releases you from the guilt, control, and obligation. (See how all of this goes hand in hand?)

It took me a long to realize that I don't have to particpate in triangulation.Once you're able to let go though,you learn when to communicate and when not to.That helps greatly in moving forward and sticking to your boundaries.
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