Some abusers use a tactic called toxic triangulation as one more way to gain power and control over their partners. In this tactic, abusers manipulate their victim by communicating with a person outside of the relationship who is close to their partner—a friend or family member—and cause conflict through purposeful miscommunication.
The abuser’s goal may also be to isolate their victim by sharing harmful mistruths about each person—she’s crazy. She doesn’t like you. She said you weren’t a true friend. Think of it like gossiping, but with much more sinister motives. Abusers use toxic triangulation to turn the victim’s family members, friends, colleagues and sometimes children against them.
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“A skilled abuser will often utilize an array of tactics to terrorize and control the abused individual. Much of this is done on a conscious, highly manipulative level,” says California-based clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD.
“Abusers know that the more control they have over the life of the abused, the greater chance they will have of maintaining the toxic relationship. Thus, the abuser will often manipulate the abused individual’s friends and relatives into taking sides with the abuser—leaving the abused person feeling hopeless and unloved,” she says.
Manly acknowledges that triangulation can happen in all types of couples, but it is almost always a male abuser who draws in family members and friends.
Limiting Access to Support
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One way toxic triangulation comes into play is when abusers cut off the survivor’s ties to friends and families, minimizing the network their partner can rely on for help. “They may say, ‘I don’t like this person’,” Manly says.
The survivor may feel it’s better not to have friends and family over, since the abuser will make the experience unpleasant. The survivor feels it’s easier to minimize contact with that person, to avoid conflict. So, the survivor is left with a smaller support system.
Connecting with an Ally
The abuser then attaches to someone who’s left in the support system—often a mother, but sometimes a sibling, friend or colleague. “They don’t really have any interest in that person for any reason other than to turn the energy in their favor,” Manly says.
Abusers often have a charismatic façade, so these people can view them in a positive light. “They tend to have a very lovely exterior. They do well at work. They’re kind to women. But all of that is on the outside,” Manly says. “He presents as this loving guy to the outside world.”
An abuser might start dropping by to see his mother-in-law, chatting and planting little thoughts and suggestions that he’s concerned about his wife.
Or he might connect with her friends and subtly draw them in. “He might collect the names of friends and say, ‘text me about this or that,’ and then start manipulating them by text,” Manly says. Coworkers then can begin to distrust the survivor.
Here’s another example scenario from Manly: An abuser knows a survivor’s boss very well. The abuser has drinks with the boss, deftly planting doubts about the survivor’s capabilities and insinuating that a drug habit exists. The boss slowly takes the bait, and the survivor finds herself in a work environment that feels untrusting and untenable.
At the same time the abuser, who is adored by the survivor’s family, connects particularly well with the survivor’s mother and older brother. When the survivor finally comes forward to tell her family about the abuse, her family doesn’t believe her. They cannot imagine the abuser to be anything but an ideal man. The survivor is left feeling completely alone and mired in self-doubt.
“It’s usually about creating doubt in mental health,” Manly says. “The abuser’s mindset is, ‘Well, your mother thinks you’re crazy too.’”
The abused person is left asking, “Where did my support people go? They all love him and hate me.”
Abusers can also target children. They may say they don’t like their partner’s children from a previous relationship. Or, especially if they are biological parents, they may become “Disneyland dad.” Manly says, “They present that wonderful side, taking them on trips, and the children only see this one side of him. When they’re not present he dives in and does his damage.”
Toxic Triangulation Is Tough to Spot
It’s difficult for survivors to identify this behavior, especially survivors who feel shame for getting into a relationship with an abuser. Being aware that abusers can and do use this tactic is an important first step. If you even slightly suspect you might be a victim of toxic triangulation, connect with counseling or a domestic violence support organization.
Toxic triangulation is also very difficult for others to identify, since the survivor is often protective of the relationship and hoping that things will improve. Plus, people often don’t see signs of emotional abuse. “They have to be pretty attentive,” Manly says. “Abusers don’t [always] leave physical marks, just horrible, lasting emotional marks.”
Abusers’ charisma can make it tough to notice this triangulation. “They make the individual doubt reality, rather than saying, ‘Wait a minute. This is my daughter. I know her—let me talk to her’,” Manly says.
But Manly reminds family members that they know the survivor best: “They grew up with them. They know them inside and out.” Ask yourself, why is that partner going to the mother and not working with his wife? Why is he not saying, ‘Let’s go to a therapist; let me help you’?”
If you suspect triangulation, Manly recommends talking to the survivor with an attitude of curiosity. Ask questions like, “What’s going on here?” and say, “I’m here to support you.”
Keep in mind the abused person is already judging themself, Manly points out. They’re questioning, “How did I get myself into this? What did I miss?”
Family members and friends can also watch for anxiety, depression, a lack of interest in activities, sleeplessness, weight gain or weight loss and avoidance of family activities, Manly says.
Feeling like no one’s listening? Read, “When No One Believes You” for more information on this tactic.
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