A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

Triangulation: A Method Used by Abusers

This is Wikipedia’s definition of Triangulation:

The term triangulation is most commonly used to express a situation in which one family member will not communicate directly with another family member, but will communicate with a third family member, which can lead to the third family member becoming part of the triangle. The concept originated in the study of dysfunctional family systems, but can describe behaviors in other systems as well, including work.

Lights blog writes this:

When functional people have something to say, they say it to you. When dysfunctional people have something to say, they may tell someone else instead. (More Here on their article entitled “Psychological Triangulation”)

We believers would probably classify gossip in the category of Psychological Triangulation. But, there is also more to it. Those who practice triangulation also add manipulation to the pot. If I send one email to Johnny that plants a seed of serious doubt about Sally’s ethics (or something — I am just making this up) . . . then, I send a similar letter to Sally about Johnny’s ethics . . . I have just triangulated. I have, possibly, isolated them from each other. I have rather put myself in charge. At best, I have made myself an authority and dragged others into a game of sorts. At worst, I have managed to isolate both parties from each other, while still holding the power.

This paragraph in Lights blog is highly revealing:

Ill-intentioned triangulation comes from a toxic person who is manipulating. It serves this triangulator best to have others involved in their toxic drama games. In these cases, the triangulation is little more than a tool used to drag the most people possible into the toxic swirl of their schemes as possible. Telling third (and fourth, and fifth) parties brings them more power or more gratification than it does to work toward the resolution of any issues.

How many of us have experienced this??  After I left my ex, I was getting letters from people I have not heard from in 15 years because abusers were just so very busy in pulling others into their drama games. Do they ever rest? I don’t know. I imagine that those who are addicted to drama just move on to something else, eventually. Not one time did I receive a letter showing any amount of love or concern for our welfare (when we left my ex) from the very people who swarmed and buzzed around me, contacting every single person they could find in my circles except me. And, I know that I used to do this, as well, because this was how my family functioned (or disfunctioned, rather). It was not until God set me free from them that I began to see how manipulative we all were. Afraid to speak up or speak out. I must say that it is not easy to break these habits and be direct — but I will also say that it can be done with effort and by the grace of God.

That being said, not all triangulation is bad. Sometimes, it is just life. I communicate with David about our five year old because she is only five. She cannot really make many decisions about her little life so David and I do isolate her, to a degree. This type of triangulation is healthy and fades as children get older. Sometimes, it is forced upon us. Divorced parents do not always communicate with each other so the children are isolated from unified parents. This is not a bad thing . . . it is just something that is and has to be for the safety of the children.

However, abusers use triangulation to isolate and stay in control. They need to just stop it. Because of all we went through, when approached by someone who wants to gossip . . . or someone who wants me to somehow relay a message to my husband (who is a pastor), I just say, “Well, you’re talking to the wrong person!” or “I really can’t help you. You will have to approach so and so.” Our children know better, as well. They simply do not take part in triangulation or gossip.

I believe that the damage done by triangulation is why Jesus spoke so definitively on approaching people face to face, rather than the round-about-way (Matthew 18). We go to people — face to face. We look them in the eye and then, in compassion, we speak. And why do we speak? Not because we want to prove others wrong .  . . but because we have the best interest at heart of the listener. In fact, we have their ear because they know that we love them. It has been proved over and over. We have earned that right. Otherwise, we need to keep our mouths shut.

33 Comments

  1. Good job, Megan.

    ” We go to people — face to face. We look them in the eye and then, in compassion, we speak. And why do we speak? Not because we want to prove others wrong . . . but because we have the best interest at heart of the listener.”

    How rarely this is practiced.

  2. Marianne

    Oh, Megan.. I so understand this. I dealt with it with my ex and also with another family member (you know who I’m talking about) who is using every triangulation method possible to hurt me. I’m so glad you posted this. It clarifies a lot of things, including the email I sent to you and David last week. The fog is lifting more and more.

  3. Then there is the element of when a person can’t be spoken to directly. At least, not to any good end. I’m not sure what to call that. But I’ve seen it happen a great deal with this situation. My friend could not and cannot speak to her abuser about the issues in their marriage for reasons that are obvious to anyone in an abusive situation. The abuser’s allies then also become people she cannot speak directly to because it is just spitting into the wind. But often the question will come up, “well, have you spoken to so-and-so about it?” 😦

    • I think I understand, BIT. When I think of triangulation (and I am just now re-reading my post and I am not sure I made it clear), it is more the act of isolating people from each other, in order to have all the cards. I agree with you — sometimes, a person cannot be spoken to directly. And that is just the way it is and we have to deal with it. 😦 And, with those people you describe above, anything your friend says will be twisted and announced, anyway. She is in such a bad spot. 😦

    • Not Too Late

      You’ve nailed a common difficulty, BIT. When a victim can’t speak directly to the abuser or an ally of the abuser, she often tries to get the help of another party. This person often doesn’t recognize what is happening and refuses to help, accusing the victim of triangulation. On the other hand, when the victim makes it clear to the abuser that she doesn’t want direct communication from him, he commits triangulation through involving pastors and friends. These well-meaning people end up passing on messages they shouldn’t. In the first case, the purpose of involving other people is for personal protection. In the second, other people are involved to perpetrate abuse. There’s a big difference!

      • This clarification by Not Too Late is so important I have to repeat it in bold:

        It is okay to involve other people for the purpose of personal protection.
        But it is not okay to involve other people in order to perpetrate abuse.
        There’s a big difference!

      • MeganC

        Thanks, Barb. That is perfect.

      • MeganC

        And “Not Too Late”!

      • This answers my question… I understand. Was thinking I may have had a problem with triangulation … But I realize that what i do is self protection, what I husband does is abusive
        Thank you

  4. Sarah

    This has been huge for me. But how much of it is directly caused by my stbx and how much is the gossip that characterizes his family and this community, I can’t tell. But there has been much said about me, assumed about my decisions and motivations, and even decisions made about what I “should” be doing/not doing… and nothing is said directly to me. Yet i’m supposed to know all these things.

    Often, things were said to my stbx who would then tell me — with his own spin. I’ve learned not to believe him when he says that someone told him to tell me something, because what he said they said, may not actually be what they said. It is sad how he thrives on this drama, and even sadder how his family and community are right there with them!

    • Sarah — I understand this so well: “Often, things were said to my stbx who would then tell me — with his own spin.”

      I have talked with many people in the past few years and told them what my ex said THEY said. It was almost always similar, but with his wicked twist — used to keep me isolated from them. 😦

  5. fiftyandfree

    I guess I was fortunate. The anti-husband had no friends and no real relationships, so there was no one he could use for the purposes of triangulation. Instead he used abusive language (mainly intimidation) to communicate with me.

  6. Megan, this is a GREAT article…and so many have/are falling victim to this technique but don’t really know what to call it or how to handle it! It is a tremendously frustrating thing to experience this in a relationship…especially over a long-term period. Thank you for exposing it for what it is and helping us to become better-aware of its existence and harmful effects!

  7. Happytobursting

    I have experienced this many, many times after leaving X. Friends of his that I had met ONCE, suddenly had to write and condemn my actions without ever asking me about the truth. People in the church who knew us, but didn’t really know us, were more than willing to write letters and emails and leave phone messages imploring me to “reconcile and return”. The worst (and most willing) offenders in the triangulation X coordinated, were the pastors. Numerous pastors (some known, some strangers – all hand-picked) who wanted nothing more than to counsel us together with the only goal of my return (their definition of reconciliation).

    In watching all of this triangulating going on, it struck me vaguely then, but strongly now (11 years later), that it is flesh/sin/the old nature that made these people so willing to jump into the cesspool of abusive drama that X created. It was flattering to them to be begged: “Please help me. She won’t listen to me. Maybe you can help.” (Cue tears.) In none of them did I see a true desire to help the real situation, only a desire to make it see the outcome they pre-determined should occur – no matter what. That is the only way their counsel could be effective. What pastor or Christian counselor worth his salt wants the wife to stay away forever?

    Even now, remarriage and many years later, he still triangulates every communication with me by only using the courts and other third-party “professionals” to make every decision regarding our children. I’m still dreaming of the day when there is a cure for dysfunction.

  8. Meg, thanks. I think we shall now find that the word ‘triangulation’ becomes a regularly used word on this blog.
    And BIT, yes, there are some people you cannot confront directly to any good purpose. Sometimes they are the abusers themselves. Other times they are not abusers but rather, weak and bruised reeds, so frail that they simply can’t take any feedback without going into a tailspin . . . which can sometimes end up with them badmouthing you to others while venting their pain. But those of us who are stronger can bear the burdens of such folk without taking umbrage.

    The book of Jude seems to speak to some of this; I hope you will not see me as highjacking this thread by copying it here. I’ve bolded the parts that talk about abusers who can triangulate, and put within *** *** the parts that seem to speak about the frail who are hard to confront.

    Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James,
    To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ:
    May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you.
    Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.

    Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day — just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.
    Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones.
    But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you.” But these people blaspheme all that they do not understand, and they are destroyed by all that they, like unreasoning animals, understand instinctively. Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error and perished in Korah’s rebellion. These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.

    It was also about these that Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied, saying, “Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgment on all and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him.” These are grumblers, malcontents, following their own sinful desires; they are loud-mouthed boasters, showing favoritism to gain advantage.

    But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. ****And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.****

    Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.

    • MeganC

      Barb — This is so good. I read through it twice (sometimes I forget to read Jude!). What an amazing description of manipulators, triangulators and just . . . foolishness! “It is these who cause divisions . . . . ” Thank you for this. xo

  9. So is this when my husband speaks to my older children individually and they come back at me, abusively or telling me off like I’m a child and my husband does nothing to support me or protect me?
    Is this when my little girl comes to me and tells me how much her daddy is hurting her feelings by being mean and I tell her to talk to one of your older siblings? I tell her not to talk to her dad as this will not get anywhere. He has been telling her a lot lately to stop being pathetic

  10. thepersistentwidow

    Meg, I will be using this information as my Presbytery case progresses because this is exactly what the church did to me. Thanks for explaining triangulation so clearly.

    • MeganC

      So glad this helps, friend. xo

  11. mommatoseven

    Maybe I don’t understand the difference between this and just plain gossip?

    • MeganC

      Momma . . . Let me give you an example. Say that I have two co-workers who are my supervisors. Say their names are John and Mary. As a manipulator, I decide that I want to gain the upper-hand at the office. So, I began whispering and gossiping about Mary with John. I plant seeds of doubt about Mary’s character in John’s mind. Concurrently, I begin whispering and gossiping about John with Mary. I plant seeds of doubt in Mary’s mind about John. They begin to be isolated from each other because I have spoken so ill of one to the other. I become their “go to”. I hold all the cards. It is gossiping in such a way as to give ME the control over the office and hold all the cards. I am the triangulator in this example . . . I am the “point” and I have distanced the two other points of the triangle from each other. Does this make sense?

      • mommatoseven

        Ok, that makes sense! Thanks for the clarification!

  12. TPW, I pray God’s speed for you as your Presby case progresses. You are one brave woman to be in this battle. May God fight for you. I think of you often having had first-hand experience with power-hungry elders who misused their God-given position for their own gain. My prayer for these kind is that God will bring them to their knees in repentance or boot them out.

    Regarding triangulation in my aforementioned experience, it amazed me to see elders of different denominations (and in some instances, with opposing beliefs) come together to agree on the judgement for me…excommunication. It truly provided my children and me a vivid picture of wolves salivating over their prey and brought to life the Scriptures found in Ezek 34 regarding false and true shepherds. With this experience as a teaching tool, it reminded me that God really can work all things together for good for those who love Him (Romans 8:28). What they intended for evil, God meant for good, to save many lives and to set us free from their clutches!

    • MeganC

      BSD . . . .I continue to be amazed at that good head on your shoulders. What they have done to you is unfathomable . . . and who do they think they are?! They truly wanted to shut you out of the Kingdom of God — as though they have that kind of authority. I thought of this verse . . . Revelation 3:7:

      “Write this to Philadelphia, to the Angel of the church. The Holy, the True—David’s key in his hand, opening doors no one can lock, locking doors no one can open—speaks . . . ”

      Jesus is the only one who can open and shut those doors. Big hugs, my strong friend.

  13. Searcher

    My father in law does this. He creates so much drama that it has become too much for my mother in law so she left. He now has people calling her to find out what is going on. He will disparage anyone who supports his wife.He will tell siblings negative things about the other. Susie said this and that. The only way to deal with this is to have very limited communication with him. The goal is to have no one on good terms with each other. Divide and conquer.

    • MeganC

      That’s it exactly, Searcher — “Divide and Conquer”.

  14. Anonymous100

    Another application of triangulation is narc husband with other women. He flirts with them in my presence, shows them preference, is available to help them out, all the time denying and deflecting making you question what you see and hear. It leads you to be angry with the other woman–exactly what he wants as it takes the focus off of him. You may become visibly upset with her and maybe even let her know. She in feels empowered to flirt back –‘poor guy’ she thinks, look what he has to put up with. It’s a sick game he plays to make you fight for him and make you feel like a nothing. It’s also a way he establishes a fresh supply for when you out live your usefulness and he decides to discard you.

    • healingInHim

      “…. for when you out live your usefulness and he decides to discard you.”
      DOESN’T EVEN HAVE TO ‘OPENLY’ FLIRT … IT CAN BE VERY SUBLTE … DEFINITELY SHOWS PREFERENCE TO ‘OTHERS’ OVER THE ‘wedded one’.

  15. Tess

    One year ago I had never even heard of triangulation. I haven’t managed to read all the comments re this, due lack of concentration (PTSD). So please bear with me if my query has already been covered.

    I have just had to go “no contact” with an abusive, manipulative female friend, after attempting to do so several times over the past year. This time, I have changed my phone number and email in an attempt to get back some control.
    This lady was very kind at first, giving me support as I recovered from a long abusive marriage. However, even though I was bowled over by her concern and kindness, from the very beginning of our friendship, I was uneasy about some of her behaviours which were probably red flags which I failed to discern.

    I want to ask if the following traits would be considered as “triangulation” or if not, what category would they fit into?

    1. Allowing me, as a new friend, to listen into private phone calls from obviously distressed third parties, other friends, ….In which the people ringing were totally unaware that I was being allowed to listen in?

    2. Similarly, sharing texts from other close friends which I would have considered as confidential.

    3.Sharing facts about third parties, usually other friends. This would cover personal details about their lives which I, as a new friend, hadn’t asked for and found disturbing and unsettling.

    4.Telling untruths about her other friendships….. Always putting herself in a favourable light.

    5. Constantly discussing other friends, almost obsessively……Showing over involvement in their lives….. Obviously, reveling in knowing so much about the lives of these other people.

    6. If I tried to pull away from the manipulation and bullying of this lady, she would immediately confide to lady elder in the church, often with manipulative tears, what I had said and how unfair it was.

    All this was confusing for me as I had never come across anything like this behaviour before and wondered if I was over reacting….. Also this affected my trust in his new friend as I wondered if I also was being discussed in this way.

    I did not know what to make of this behaviour, and am still unsure what to make of it. Does it come under the category of triangulation or is is merely Narcissism?

    I would really appreciate what others think of this, as it is still messing with my head.

    Thanks everyone.

  16. Tess

    This is PostScript to my last query …..It’s about being being expected to be involved n the lives of others by proxy, by a church member who insisted I “listened in ” to or “read” confidential outpourings from third parties.
    I forgot to mention that I did in fact challenge this church member about this behaviour which I found unpleasant and unnecessary.

    This resulted in a torrent of abuse in which I was accused of being a very poor friend, not being there for her as she had been for me. She tried to bully me into this” listening in,” behaviour, making me feel like an awful person, unsupportive and selfish.

    This lady had a lot of responsibility within our church, was admired and seemed to have some influence on the leaders so I was in a difficult decision when I decided to speak up.

    I cannot explain how bad this behaviour made me feel. I feel I didn’t handle it well , not understanding it and am still confused and bewildered.

    I would appreciate any enlightenment about this type of Control.

    Thank you

  17. Anonymous

    [Edited by ACFJ to be less identifying, for the protection of the commenter]

    If anyone reads this; please, please pray for my young adult daughter. Her stepfather has fully triangulated her, brainwashed her, and she is totally under his spell, he even gets her to report on me to him (I saw text messages between them to prove this).

    So please, anyone who reads, please pray God will open her eyes up to what he really is and set her free from his lies, prevent him moving in there, and protect her heart, mind, soul and body from him. I have no family to intervene and feel so alone, but I know that the truth is that God is with me. Thank you.

  18. Finding Answers

    From the original post Ill-intentioned triangulation comes from a toxic person who is manipulating. It serves this triangulator best to have others involved in their toxic drama games. In these cases, the triangulation is little more than a tool used to drag the most people possible into the toxic swirl of their schemes as possible. Telling third (and fourth, and fifth) parties brings them more power or more gratification than it does to work toward the resolution of any issues.

    I always thought of this as “playing people off each other”. Now I know there is a term for it. 🙂

    Having lived my entire life in abusive relationships, both personally and professionally, I’ve never known anything different.

    I have some sorting out to do, as there were times third-party communication was the only route…sometimes for safety, sometimes to obtain necessary information that was not being provided.

    There is no “pat” answer to this one…

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