Triangulation—the narcissist’s secret weapon
“Triangulation ” can be defined as indirect communication where one person acts as messenger between two others, often times altering or fabricating the message to suit the tale bearer’s objective. Triangulation is a common tool of the narcissist and it goes hand in glove with “gaslighting” (previous entry) and “projection” (next entry).
In the psychology of dysfunctional families, triangulation may take two forms: “[It] 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, forcing the third family member to then be part of the triangle.
“Triangulation can also be used as a label for a form of “splitting” in which one person plays the third family member against one that he or she is upset about. This is playing the two people against each other, but usually the person doing the splitting, will also engage in character assassination…”
Splitting and narcissistic personality disorder: “People who are diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder also use splitting as a central defense mechanism. They do this to preserve their self-esteem, by seeing the self as purely good and the others as purely bad. The use of splitting also implies the use of other defense mechanisms, namely devaluation, idealization and denial.”
Narcissists tend to use both forms of triangulation, sometimes virtually simultaneously. I have a friend—I’ll call her Sandra—who has a malignant narcissist for a mother, a woman so warped and evil, she would give my own a run for the money. Unlike lucky me, however, whose MNM has been dead for nearly 15 years, Sandra’s predatory NM continues to live and torment her. Not everyone in Sandra’s FOO is under the MN’s spell, however, so Sandra has some family support. Sandra’s brother regularly gets letters from their mother outlining how horrible Sandra is and going into great detail about Sandra’s terrible behaviour. Like my MNM, Sandra’s mother will take a tiny grain of truth and build on it, massage it, and twist it to give it new meaning. The brother then calls Sandra and reports the content of the letter to her, sometimes even forwarding the letter on to Sandra. Through these letters, Sandra knows that her NM assassinates her character with other family members through the same splitting technique: uncles, aunts, cousins and even Sandra’s sister, receive similar messages about her. One might be tempted to suggest to the brother that he relinquish his part in the triangle and keep the letters to himself, but then Sandra would not be aware of what her MNM is up to…and since the woman has made threats to have Sandra arrested on trumped up charges, it is in Sandra’s own best interests to know what bee is currently in her MNM’s bonnet.
One of the things that makes triangulation works is the human tendency towards “confirmation bias.” This is a subconscious mechanism that we all have and, unless we are actively aware of it and take steps to control it, we can easily fall prey to it. “Confirmation bias” is our tendency to believe things that support what we already believe (or that which we heard first) coupled with a tendency to discount things that do not support our existing beliefs. “My mind is made up, don’t confuse me with facts,” might be the motto of the person with an active case of confirmation bias going on.
It is very hard to dislodge a person who has made up his/her mind—if they listen to information that is contrary to their existing beliefs and give them credence, they may have to admit they are wrong. Even if their own observations go contrary to their belief, some people will simply discount their observations; they may believe it an anomaly or even an intentional effort to fool them. Whatever they do to discount their observations…or yours…you can be sure that getting them to change their minds is a uphill battle that may never be won.
On the other hand, even when you have a confirmation bias going, if you are bombarded with enough contrary information for a long enough period of time, especially if you seldom have an opportunity to make observations that shore up your own bias—and most especially if a few things happen that seem to support the contrary information—most of us will eventually begin to subconsciously shift our opinions. Confirmation bias is what allows otherwise sensible, intelligent people to disbelieve a truth that may well be obvious to the rest of us.
Indoctrination plays a part in confirmation bias, as does “cognitive dissonance ,” which is “the feeling of discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs. When there is a discrepancy between beliefs and behaviors, [or first-hand observation] something must change in order to eliminate or reduce the dissonance.” So, if you are indoctrinated over a period of years to believe that your Uncle Bob is an evil man who cannot be trusted, yet your observations of Uncle Bob is that he is a kind-hearted man who goes out of his way to help others, you may experience cognitive dissonance with regard to him. Since few people tolerate cognitive dissonance well, we are motivated to “settle” the matter by choosing one or the other: Uncle Bob is good and the people who have been telling you otherwise have been lying or those people are right and Uncle Bob is someone to be wary of. Confirmation bias will lean you towards Uncle Bob being a bad actor and a little critical thinking may push you further in that direction: why, after all, would these people lie about Uncle Bob? What’s in it for them? And, since you cannot come up with a single good reason that these good people would lie about him, they must be correct, right?
In a normal family primarily peopled with normal people, this deduction would be largely accurate. In the dysfunctional family, particularly a family driven by a narcissist, the deduction based on how normal people think and feel will be largely inaccurate, simply because the narcissist does things the rest of us would never do—like damage Uncle Bob’s reputation out of spite or as an exercise in the narcissist’s power. You think all of those people saying bad things about Uncle Bob cannot be wrong? Actually, they can—it takes only one narcissist feeding ugly misinformation and accusations about Bob to a lot of people over an extended period of time for people, especially those who do not see Bob often, to become indoctrinated to the idea that Bob is bad news. Those who have no frame of reference will uncritically accept the information they receive as truth because, after all, why would anyone lie about this stuff?
Sometimes the triangulation
takes the form of “he said/she said” dramas with the narcissist in the middle, controlling the flow of information. Some people will stir up strife between others to take attention off themselves, as an exercise in power, or simply to entertain themselves. Think “mean girls” in school who play people off against each other, meanwhile keeping their own skirts clean. Suzie tells Mary that she saw Jenny flirting with her boyfriend, which makes Mary mad at Jenny and causes her to say some rude things about Jenny’s character. Susie may then tells Jenny that Mary is mad at her and even repeats some of the things Mary said, causing the antipathy to flow in both directions. In the unlikely event that Mary and Jenny stop shouting at each other long enough to compare notes and then jointly confront Suzie, Suzie can feign surprise and claim that she did see what looked like a flirtation to her and those ugly words were spoken. Neither of her victims will have a defense against her claims and the conflict may well resume, providing Suzie with endless entertainment.
Narcissists, however, seem to favour the “splitting” form of triangulation, a circumstance in which the victim is denigrated to others, often for extended periods of time, in order to make the victim to look bad in the eyes of many. Why would anyone do that? Because it is an essential first step to demonize someone, to divide and conquer, to set the stage for the narcissist’s acquisition of Nsupply.
In narcissistic households it is common for one (or more) child(ren) to be designated as a scapegoat. There does not need to be a triggering event to identify the child, although such “sins” as being a colicky baby or even a child demanding attention at a time the narcissistic mother is disinclined to provide it, may make the NM select one child over another. In my case, my NM once informed me that nobody had told her that a baby was not like a doll that you could “just put up on the closet shelf when you were tired of playing with her.” Add to the fact that I was colicky, had eczema from my earliest months, and had the audacity to get dirty when she set me out to play in a dirt chicken yard wearing starched and painstakingly ironed embroidered and pin-tucked white cotton batiste baby dresses like the one show here and—well—it seemed my fate was sealed. I was a lot more work than she bargained for and every need that had to be filled on my timetable instead of hers was an imposition. I was a disappointment, not at all what she wanted or expected, but she couldn’t take me back to the store for a refund. I was not the endless source of adoration she had expected, and so, since I would not provide her with the Nsupply she wanted, NM found another way to get it: by declaring me “bad” and difficult and (as I got older) manipulative and contrary, she got Nsupply in the form of sympathy from people. “Poor Georgia, saddled with that intractable child! How wonderful, how brave she is to be able to deal with her and keep cheerful and positive!”
By the time I reached my teens, I was virtually evil incarnate in the eyes of my NM. I was regularly blindsided by accusations of behaviours and motives that had quite literally never crossed my mind. Such things left me confused and often tearful, for I felt unjustly accused and was not permitted to speak in my defense: anything I said was labelled excuses or lies. On a weekend visit to my father’s I managed to find some time alone with him (I didn’t dare speak my mind in front of my brother, who was already well-groomed as a spy) and poured out my heart particularly about my NM’s accusations of things that I had never even thought of. “She’s assuming you are like her,” my father told me. “These are things she would do, reasons she would have, stuff she would think. It really has nothing to do with you—she doesn’t even see you, she sees what she would have done or thought or said.” My first clue about projection and how the narcissist incorporates it into her dealings.
But, of course, my father knew me…he had spent years living with and observing me at the same time NM was writing those letters back to her family telling them how awful I was. Their own brief observations of me, observations in which I was a rather withdrawn, fearful child (I once refused to “help” my grandmother make mud pies because my mother would be angry if I got dirty—despite the fact that my mother was 1000+ miles away) were offset by more than a decade of indoctrination and triangulating. According to NM, I had not been incarcerated by the juvenile court as “incorrigible” because I had “charmed” the judge; and even though the truth was that I had never even seen the judge and I was not sent to reform school for the simple reason that I had never been in any kind of trouble either at school or with the law. NM pronounced me a “liar” when I told that truth—and nobody believed me. Why, after all, would she lie about her own child that way?
Triangulation depends on one person sitting in the middle controlling information flow between others. The person in the middle is the arbiter of information: she tells people what she wants them to hear and often does her level best to prevent the others from talking to each other and comparing notes. She channels information between parties, removing stuff she doesn’t like, twisting—or even outright fabricating—information that will tend to cause her “correspondents” either take the bait and form opinions that mirror her own or be kept in the dark as to what is really going on. A narcissist’s motives for triangulating those around her are as varied as the narcissists themselves—some do it for power and entertainment, others do it to make others look bad so they can look good by comparison, others may be exacting a spiteful “payback” or retaliation for some real or imagined wrong.
But the legacy of being the victim in narcissist’s triangulation scheme can be long lived—it may even live longer than the narcissist herself. Nearly fifteen years after my MNM’s death and more than thirty years after her treachery in stealing my children and giving them to her brother for adoption was revealed, there are still family members who shun me, who believe the truth is an elaborate lie designed to discredit NM. “Why,” they ask, “Why would a mother say such awful things about her own daughter if they weren’t true?”