Three people stand outside talking to each other.

You’ve heard of love triangles, but what about drama triangles? Turns out, triangulation isn’t just a flashback to your high school geometry class—it’s one of the narcissist’s go-to tools for playing mind games. 

But what exactly is triangulation and how does it work? Here’s everything you need to know. 

The psychology of drama triangles 

The drama triangle is a psychological framework first introduced by psychiatrist Dr. Stephen Karpman in the 1960s. It says that, in a conflict situation, there are three roles to play: 

  • The Persecutor: The persecutor refuses to take responsibility in a conflict and blames the victim entirely. They tend to be critical, controlling and obstinate. 
  • The Victim: This person isn’t necessarily a victim, but they certainly feel like one. The persecutor’s behavior makes them feel helpless and in need of saving. 
  • The Rescuer: The rescuer steps in to defend the Victim against the Persecutor. They do this for many reasons. For example, they feel guilty or they want to avoid dealing with their own problems. However, more often than not, they react by becoming angry. This flips the dynamics of the drama triangle, where the Rescuer becomes the Persecutor themselves and perpetuates the conflict. 

If you’ve ever found yourself in an argument that’s going round in circles—or triangles—then you’ve probably felt the frustration of being caught in the drama triangle. It can happen between almost anyone: friends, colleagues, partners, even families. 

But innocently entering a drama triangle is wildly different from intentionally using it as a manipulation tactic. 

Enter the narcissist.

What is narcissistic triangulation? 

Narcissistic triangulation centers around the same three characters within the drama triangle. 

The major difference, though, is intentionality. While dysfunctional families and hot-headed couples may inadvertently slip into the drama triangle without realizing, the narcissist purposefully brings in a third party to tip the scales in their favor. 

Reading about the Persecutor, Victim and Rescuer, you might naturally think that the narcissist would assume the role of Persecutor. After all, narcissists are domineering, self-obsessed and cold to the bone. 

But narcissistic individuals are also cunning, and they often deliberately play the Victim to get themselves out of hot water. 

What does that look like in practice? Here are examples of narcissistic triangulation:

  • In a family dynamic, a narcissistic parent assumes the role of the Victim when their partner pulls away. They manipulate their child into being a Rescuer, complaining to them about the other parent’s poor behavior. They might lavish the child with praise and gifts, and stonewall their partner. 
  • Also in a family dynamic, a narcissistic parent might triangulate their two children against each other. One is the golden child who can do no wrong and the other is the scapegoat who can do no right. The siblings resent each other and learn to seek their parent’s approval. 
  • In a relationship, and common among female narcissists, the narcissist makes up lies, saying that their ex keeps reaching out to them. They also overtly flirt with other people in front of their partner to make them jealous and insecure. 
  • At work, a narcissist gossips to their colleague that a coworker has treated them unfairly. This primes the colleague to dislike the other person and defend the narcissist. 
  • In a friendship, the narcissist becomes upset when their friend hangs out with other people. Eventually, they may go as far as to make the person choose between them and the other friend. 

Why do narcissists triangulate? 

Triangulation serves the narcissist in three ways: 

  1. It reinforces their need to control the people around them. If someone they're close to starts doubting their motives or pulling away, triangulation works as a powerful method to reinforce the status quo and make the other person feel guilty. 
  2. It pumps up their fragile-yet-bloated ego. Narcissists fundamentally believe they are special and above others. So, they enjoy manipulating the people around them to reaffirm how ‘clever’ and ‘unique’ they are.  
  3. It’s a diversionary tactic. Narcissists must always be right, and they will never admit wrongdoing. If someone points the finger of blame at a narcissist, they may use triangulation to distract from the cause of the conflict and paint themselves as the Victim, rather than the Perpetrator they truly are.    

Four steps to escape the narcissist’s drama triangle 

In traditional drama triangles, leaning on your emotional intelligence is almost always enough to restore equilibrium. But with narcissistic triangulation, all the empathy in the world won’t work. In fact, it will only reinforce the dysfunctional power dynamic, enabling the narcissist to step into the role of the Victim. 

So, what do you do? 

Here are four steps to help you escape narcissistic triangulation. 

1. Notice triangulation as it happens 

Already, you’ve equipped yourself with an invaluable tool for combatting triangulation: knowing what it is. Put simply, this manipulation tactic won’t work if you can see through the game.

Of course, realizing you’re in a drama triangle can provoke all sorts of difficult feelings, even though you know what the other person is doing. The trick is to stay calm and neutral. Remember, the narcissist is using this tactic to try and throw you off balance and entice you into fanning the flames. 

Once you feel collected, you can move onto step two.  

2. Set firm boundaries 

This step is all about letting the narcissist know that you won’t play ball. If you can, have a private, direct conversation, where you let the individual know that you are aware of the triangulation technique, and won’t take part any longer. 

Resist the urge to get angry or upset, and communicate your boundaries in a firm, steady tone. While the narcissist might try to guilt trip you or deny any wrong-doing, remember that this is just another attempt to draw you back into the drama triangle. 

3. Build your support network 

The narcissist’s whirlwind of drama is exhausting to be a part of. Your self-esteem might have taken a beating, and you’ll likely feel confused, angry and upset. 

To help yourself heal, it’s wise to confide in trusted friends and seek the support of a therapist. They can help you process your emotions and maintain the boundaries you’ve set. 

4. Maintain emotional distance 

Unfortunately, even if you choose to withdraw from narcissistic triangulation, the narcissist in your life will probably continue the cycle. This could mean spreading rumors about you, showering you with compliments or coming forth with a sudden apology to bait you back in.

While it will be challenging, do your best to maintain emotional distance and take the high road. After all, the only way to truly exit the drama triangle for good is to refuse to take any part in it. 

Hannah Pisani
Hannah Pisani is a freelance writer based in London, England. A type 9 INFP, she is passionate about harnessing the power of personality theory to better understand herself and the people around her - and wants to help others do the same. When she's not writing articles, you'll find her composing songs at the piano, advocating for people with learning difficulties, or at the pub with friends and a bottle (or two) of rose.