What is narcissistic triangulation?

Naomi Carr
Author: Naomi Carr Medical Reviewer: Morgan Blair Last updated:

Narcissistic triangulation is a technique used by people with narcissistic traits to control and manipulate the people around them, whether this is within their family, relationships, friendships, or workplace. Narcissistic triangulation can have negative consequences for those who experience it, but there are ways it can be managed or avoided.

What is triangulation?

Triangulation is a term used to describe a tactic that changes the dynamics of a conversation or argument. Two people in a discussion or disagreement bring a third person into the conversation, creating a triangle. This is often used in conflict situations to deflect some of the tension onto the third person or reinforce one side of the argument [1].

Triangulation can be a useful strategy to defuse tension and conflict. However, it can also be used in a harmful way to manipulate or control situations or to exacerbate conflict.

Who uses triangulation?

Triangulation is not uncommon and can be seen in many different types of relationships, such as parent-child relationships, romantic partners, friendships, and in the workplace. If someone uses triangulation intentionally, it may be seen as a manipulation or control tactic [2][3].

People who commonly use triangulation to reinforce their viewpoint or increase their feeling of superiority may be individuals who [2][4]:

  • Lack empathy
  • Feel that they need to be in control or feel superior to others
  • Are unable to manage conflict
  • Struggle or refuse to accept responsibility
  • Regularly experience interpersonal difficulties and conflict

Some of these may be signs of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), although they may also occur in individuals with borderline or antisocial personality disorders [5]. Triangulation as a form of manipulation or control is often seen in emotionally abusive relationships, in which the abuser may have traits of NPD [6].

However, not everyone with NPD is emotionally abusive, nor does every abuser have NPD [7].

What does narcissistic triangulation look like?

Three distinct roles are portrayed within triangulation. The individual utilizing triangulation as a manipulation tactic may take on any of these roles, although they most commonly adopt the role of persecutor or victim [4][8].

Persecutor: The persecutor uses language and actions that are hostile, attacking, blaming, aggressive, or critical toward the person they feel is in the wrong.

Victim: The victim attempts to gain sympathy and attention by acting helpless or hurt, shifting the blame and responsibility onto others.

Rescuer: The rescuer aims to be superior to the others or tries to make themselves look like the ‘hero’ by jumping in to save or fix the situation. They will try to make others feel guilty for creating conflict.

These roles are commonly seen within family and romantic relationships, although they can occur in any dynamic [1][8].


A parent with NPD or narcissistic traits might use triangulation between their child and the other parent or between siblings, which could involve [3][9]:

  • Buying things for the child to try and win them over or be seen as the ‘good’ parent.
  • Trying to turn the child against their other parent by telling them lies or negative ideas about the other parent.
  • Trying to get information from the child about the other parent that can be used against them.
  • Encouraging siblings to compete against one another, thereby creating persecutor and victim roles, which result in the parent becoming the rescuer.
  • Being hostile or critical toward one child and using their sibling as an example of how they should behave.


Emotional abuse within relationships often involves the use of various manipulation tactics, including triangulation. A person using narcissistic triangulation might [4][10]:

  • Call their partner’s family members to involve them in arguments or expect the family members to tell the partner why they are in the wrong.
  • Argue in front of friends and family, asking them to give their opinion on the argument.
  • Tell lies about ex-partners to invoke jealousy or certain behaviors from their current partner.

Why do narcissists use triangulation?

People with NPD often experience the following symptoms, as outlined in the DSM-5 [5]:

  • A need for attention and admiration
  • Often seeking approval from others
  • Exaggerated or deflated self-esteem, or fluctuations between the two
  • A lack of empathy or interest in others’ needs
  • Believing they are superior to others
  • Believing they are entitled to special treatment

These traits can lead to people with NPD using manipulation and control tactics to meet their needs without any concern for the well-being of others. This often occurs within the persecutor role, using aggression and hostility to control the other person with fear or to demonstrate to others why this person is in the wrong [10].

A person with NPD might use the victim role to gain sympathy, attention, and affection, which allows them to feel special and superior. This role can also help them deflect any responsibility for an argument or mistake, potentially forcing others to take the blame [4].

People with NPD do not cope well with criticism or blame, so they might use triangulation to protect their ego and manipulate others into accepting accountability [8][9].

How to deal with narcissistic triangulation

There are various ways to deal with narcissistic triangulation, which may vary depending on the relationship you have with the person [4][7][11][12]:

  • Recognize triangulation techniques: Understanding how narcissistic triangulation is used can make it easier to recognize when someone is trying to manipulate or control you in this way, thereby helping you to manage the impact of the situation.
  • Set boundaries: Understanding and setting your boundaries can help you avoid being part of narcissistic triangulation. Let the person know you will not engage in the conversation or allow yourself to be put into one of these roles.
  • Form and utilize your own support system: Having family or friends to talk to can help you avoid being part of narcissistic triangulation. If you experience a disagreement or difficulty, you can go to trusted people to discuss it and receive support to resolve the situation without conflict or encountering manipulation tactics.
  • Walk away: If you can, walk away from the situation. If someone regularly tries to pull you into these tactics, it may be best not to have any contact with them at all, if possible.
  1. Gale, J., & Muruthi, B. (2017). Triangles and Triangulation in Family Systems Theory. In: Lebow, J., Chambers, A., Breunlin, D. (eds) Encyclopedia of Couple and Family Therapy. Springer, Cham. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-15877-8_758-1
  2. Fosco, G.M., Zia, M., Lynn, M.G., & Grych, J.H. (2015). Triangulation and Parent–Adolescent Relationships: Implications for Adolescent Dating Competence and Abuse. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 26(3), 524-537. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1111/jora.12210
  3. Dallos, R., & Vetere, A. (2011). Systems Theory, Family Attachments and Processes of Triangulation: Does the Concept of Triangulation Offer a Useful Bridge? Journal of Family Therapy, 34(2), 117-137. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6427.2011.00554.x
  4. Graham, L. (2023). The Triangle of Victim, Rescuer, Persecutor – What It Is and How To Get Out.Linda Graham, MFT. Retrieved from https://lindagraham-mft.net/triangle-victim-rescuer-persecutor-get/
  5. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5thed).Arlington, VA: APA
  6. Postmus, J.L., Stylianou, A.M., & McMahon, S. (2016). The Abusive Behavior Inventory – Revised. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 31(17), 2867–2888. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260515581882
  7. National Domestic Violence Hotline. (n.d). Narcissism and Abuse. The Hotline. Retrieved from https://www.thehotline.org/resources/narcissism-and-abuse/
  8. Lac, A., & Donaldson, C.D. (2022). Development and Validation of the Drama Triangle Scale: Are You a Victim, Rescuer, or Persecutor? Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 37(7-8), NP4057–NP4081. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260520957696
  9. Bell, L.G., Bell, D.C., & Nakata, Y. (2001). Triangulation and Adolescent Development in the U.S. and Japan. Family Process, 40(2), 173–186. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1545-5300.2001.4020100173.x
  10. Reis, S., Huxley, E., Yong Feng, B.E., & Grenyer, B.F.S. (2021). Pathological Narcissism and Emotional Responses to Rejection: The Impact of Adult Attachment. Frontiers in Psychology, 12. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.679168
  11. National Health Service. (Reviewed 2022). Domestic Violence and Abuse. NHS. Retrieved from https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/getting-help-for-domestic-violence/
  12. Mental Health First Aid USA. (2020). The Importance of Having a Support System. Mental Health First Aid. Retrieved from https://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org/2020/08/the-importance-of-having-a-support-system/
Medical Content

Our Medical Affairs Team is a dedicated group of medical professionals with diverse and extensive clinical experience who actively contribute to the development of our content, products, and services. They meticulously evaluate and review all medical content before publication to ensure it is medically accurate and aligned with current discussions and research developments in mental health. For more information, visit our Editorial Policy.

About MentalHealth.com

MentalHealth.com is a health technology company guiding people towards self-understanding and connection. The platform offers reliable resources, accessible services, and nurturing communities. Its mission involves educating, supporting, and empowering people in their pursuit of well-being.

Naomi Carr
Author Naomi Carr Writer

Naomi Carr is a writer with a background in English Literature from Oxford Brookes University.

Published: Sep 20th 2023, Last edited: Sep 22nd 2023

Morgan Blair
Medical Reviewer Morgan Blair MA, LPCC

Morgan Blair is a licensed therapist, writer and medical reviewer, holding a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling from Northwestern University.

Content reviewed by a medical professional. Last reviewed: Sep 20th 2023