When I was nine years old I had a beautiful, charismatic best friend. Jessica was pretty, kind, clever and funny, and we had the best time together. Making up plays and dreaming of boys, we got on a treat if it was only the two of us. Add another player and we argued ferociously. Three girls equaled drama, kid me decided. But kid me was wrong.
Recently I discovered a more accurate hypothesis: we couldn’t have fun as a three because Jessica enjoyed narcissistic triangulation.
Narcissism in friendship
One sunny Saturday, Jessica, my official BFF, suggested we invite Lisa over to play too. Lisa was the girl who might replace Jessica in my heart if there was a best friend-related accident. It was exciting, having my two favourite friends over, but it was a big responsibility too. What would the three of us do?
Lisa arrived and the three of us sat in my bedroom, wondering what to do.
“We could go and play in the fields or paddle in the brook?” I suggested, but Jessica wasn’t enthusiastic.
"Maaaybe," she shrugged.
Lisa looked between us, uncertain. At school, the three of us spent hours making up stories and acting them out. Longwinded melodramas about child abuse were our bread and butter.
"We could do a play?" I said. "We're sisters and our parents are dead, and there's something scary in the loft...!"
It was a potential classic of our genre but Jessica was unmoved.
“I’m thirsty, can I have a drink?” she said, and so I went to get us all some blackcurrant. My brain scanned for ideas, anxiously. I desperately wanted us to have a good time. For my house to be given that friendship seal of approval.
When I came back, a few minutes later, Jessica was upset and Lisa was comforting her.
“Why, Chel?” Jessica asked. She pointed to something on the wall by my bed and I moved closer, still holding our drinks.
On the wall in very small letters, right next to where I slept:
I HATE JESSICA
“That’s not my writing!” I said.
Jessica and Lisa glared at me, and I realised this was a set-up.
“You wrote it when I was downstairs,” I said.
“Why would we do that? It doesn’t make any sense,” Jessica said, and Lisa nodded.
“Yeah, that would be mental.”
It was a game, but I wasn't included. I was beyond bewildered. No matter what I said they wouldn't break role. They were more determined method actors than Daniel Day Lewis and I swore never to have two friends over ever again.
This was my first experience of triangulation and I had no idea how to deal with it. Narcissistic triangulation requires two easily manipulated people and one narcissistic type. It is a game of control.
Dr Ramani is a clinical psychologist who has made it her life’s mission to help people understand narcissism. She describes triangulation as: “a psychological threesome that you didn’t consent to.”
She explains: “It is one of the narcissist’s favorite manipulations and they use it to create chaos and then harness that chaos to control the situation and the people in that situation.”
She gives the analogy of a person setting a fire so they can then put out the flames, saving the day and being the hero, as well as making the most out of the chaos that ensues.
By accusing me of betrayal, Jessica strengthened her bond with Lisa, at the same time as she made me feel insecure of what had been my most important friendship. Jessica also ensured that Lisa and I would not become closer to each other than we were to her.
Narcissism in the family
A classic and damaging form of triangulation is in families where children are treated differently. One kid is the good kid and the other is the bad one — the scapegoat. This can be subtle and relative or outright obvious, but either way can have devastating consequences.
At best, siblings don’t trust each other as the narcissistic parent plays them off against each other. At worst, the scapegoated kid suffers traumatic psychological, emotional and physical abuse. Even the ‘good kid’ doesn’t escape without injury. They often have survivor’s guilt when they realize what has been happening (if they ever do).
Their coping mechanism was to be untouchably good. They couldn’t face the conflict and poor treatment the bad kid got, and so they stayed on the narcissist’s good side. This might have made their sibling hate them or see them as dishonest.
Meanwhile, the bad kid often feels there is something intrinsically wrong with them, because of the way that their parent treated them.
Neither child feels truly seen and appreciated for who they actually are.
Narcissism in romantic relationships
Children who have grown up with narcissistic parents are vulnerable to becoming narcissists themselves. They are also more likely to marry a narcissist, due to having become desensitized to the domineering and grandiose nature that sets narcissists apart.
Triangulation is common in romantic relationships, too. The narcissist brings in a third person — an ex-partner or a colleague at work — either literally or abstractly, to create insecurity and shift the power balance within the relationship towards themselves.
Perhaps they keep their ex in the relationship by making sure you know that their ex wants them back. Or they pay more attention to their hot colleague than you on the work night out. Triangulation can be subtle or blatant, but its aims are the same: keeping power with the narcissist.
Narcissists love to keep admirers close. It is how they keep their ego inflated. They want to give the impression that you are lucky to have landed them, at the same time as implying that you are replaceable.
Beware of narcissistic techniques
The scene from my childhood was a classic example of gaslighting. Poor nine-year-old me had no idea how to defend against it. I was more than twenty years away from learning about emotional abuse. But this incident, childish as it was, wounded me deeply.
I knew that Jessica was attacking me, but I couldn’t understand why. The strangeness of the situation made me begin to question myself. She was right, her writing it didn’t make sense. Could I have written it in my sleep?
I couldn’t trust Jessica afterward, but I didn’t want to lose her either. She was my best friend! And we normally had such fun together. Maybe my brother wrote it, I told myself. Or Lisa?
I tried to push the incident to the back of my mind. It didn’t make sense and so I couldn’t make sense of it. Gaslighting is a more well-known narcissistic power trip than triangulation, but they are both equally toxic.
Learn the signs of narcissistic abuse
It is difficult to defend against such subtle crimes from people who insist they love you. This is why narcissistic abuse is so damaging.
Narcissistic abuse isn’t very well known, but it is very real and very painful because it erodes self-esteem. Many of us now know how to recognize gaslighting. By learning the signs of triangulation, too, you can avoid accidentally dating narcissists, as well as dealing better with any narcissists you cannot easily avoid.
If a friend always dominates the conversation and keeps telling you that another friend speaks badly about you, then tread carefully.
If your partner frequently uses a third person, abstractly or concretely, to tip the balance of power in their favor, then watch out.
If your parent openly prefers one sibling to another and often compares you favorably or unfavorably, then proceed with caution.
Dr. Ramana has many videos that offer tutorials about triangulation, gaslighting and much more. Educate yourself, so that you can catch the red flags the first time they are waved, and save yourself from acting in plays you never auditioned for.