What is love triangulation, and why it can be extremely harmful

This form of manipulation occurs when a person develops a parallel relationship and uses that position to control their actual partner


Love triangulation is a form of manipulation that does not come up often when delving into relationship problems. In the second season of Bridgerton we saw a good example: the relationship between Kate, Edwina Sharma and Anthony Bridgerton, with Edwina being the victim of triangulation. In real life, a case of triangulation would be, for instance, when a person develops a parallel relationship where there doesn’t even have to be any physical contact — and which their partner is unaware of.

“Love triangulation is usually understood as a dynamic in which a person who is in a stable love relationship (or seemingly stable, at least) involves a third person to achieve a goal with their partner. The one who triangulates seeks the attention, affection, or validation of that third person outside the main relationship in order to adjust and/or bring about changes in their main relationship,” explains Desirée Llamas, psychologist, researcher, and teacher at the University of Malaga (Spain). She also points out that triangulations are not exclusive to couples: there are also triangulations among family members and friends. In fact, the theoretical definitions began in the field of systemic family therapy.

Triangulation, which can be related to love but also to sex, means that one side of the couple is migrating emotionally or sexually towards another person. “Their trips, their periods of silence, their astonishing coldness, their excuses, their absences, and their busyness occur because, in reality, their time is invested in another person. In this phase of emotional or physical abandonment, they no longer say anything nice to you, give you gifts or spend time with you. Depending on the case, they could be chronically unfaithful or leave you. In the first case, if you stay with that person, they will cheat on you for as long as you live, although they will never admit it. In the second, when they find another victim, they will leave you,” explains psychologist Lara G. Ferreiro.

When one person is fooling around or falling in love with someone else while they are in an “official” relationship, are we talking about triangulation? Taking into account that the formula calls for a manipulator, a collaborator, and a victim, is that third person, if they are not aware of what is going on, a collaborator? Can we then talk about triangulation? Desirée Llamas responds. “Those terms are used to describe the profiles involved in the triangle, but they don’t really define what the person knows or doesn’t know, or what the person is like. To say otherwise would be to fall into abysmal reductionism. Love triangulations can be intentional or not. And it doesn’t always mean fooling around, but rather spending more time, prioritizing, confiding, talking about each other’s problems and so on.”

When triangulation is a tactic

There are particularly manipulative people with narcissistic traits who can do it consciously, but the reality is that triangulations are often the result of not knowing how to manage emotions, conflicts and other situations, rather than the machinations of an evil person pulling strings. And it happens frequently. In the end, in a triangulation, one person regulates or manipulates another through a relationship with a third. Whether they do it consciously or not, if they meet these criteria, we can talk about triangulation; what matters, to define it, is the purpose this three-way relationship is fulfilling. What’s more: people can switch roles in the same triangulation. Maybe a couple has a mutual friend, for example, and both members alternate the relationship with her in order to make each other jealous.

“The roles of victim and manipulator alternate; they are not static. For this reason, it is best not to use labels and describe what goes on in the relationship and what function each person’s behaviors fulfill,” says Llamas. Psychologist and family and couples therapist Carlota Iglesias agrees: “If there is a triangulation, the initial couple becomes a trio, but one of them doesn’t know it. I don’t like to use labels like ‘manipulator,’ ‘collaborator’ and ‘victim’ when there is an infidelity, because then it is difficult to get out of that role. There are people who will always consider themselves manipulators or victims because of what happened to them, and then that unshakable belief prevents them from healing that experience. They are roles that one has in a certain relationship, not personality traits,” she says. “It is very harmful because your project for a couple, for your life or for your future goes up in smoke, your life disappears overnight, and you feel vulnerable, cheated and broken inside,” she adds.

Psychological consequences

Sometimes, the triangulator leaves their partner and goes on to date the person with whom they started the triangulation. “In my clinical experience, the effects of discovering that the person they triangulated with is the person they end up with can vary; many times one feels a relief that comes from confirming the suspicion. This happens when they had been told that that special relationship with a third person existed. Perhaps the most problematic thing, in terms of consequences, is the period when one suspects but lacks the evidence to confirm it. Because in that period, if the person who triangulates is manipulative, they will make the victim feel like a crazy person, labeling them as distrustful and toxic, and that is when their self-image may be disrupted and strong episodes of anxiety and pathological jealousy may arise,” explains Llamas.

Although triangulation is usually associated with narcissistic people, who use manipulation as a weapon, not all people who are unfaithful are, as Carlota Iglesias points out. However, the relationship between triangulation and narcissism is quite common. Some people consciously triangulate and use the third person as an anchor to make any decision regarding their main partner. “In the end, a person with narcissistic traits doesn’t want to be alone; they feed on having someone who gives themselves to them, and having only one romantic connection can be very risky. Having two connections allows them to adjust when things go wrong in one, and to confirm that they are still ‘the good one,’ because there will always be someone who pays attention to them, who agrees with them or who spends time with them when the other can’t. At the same time, they will have a perfect tool to cause jealousy, insecurities and transfer responsibility to the other person through phrases like ‘you’re crazy, she’s just a friend,’” says Llamas.

Without a doubt, outside of geometry, triangles can be devastating.

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