Survivors of intimate relationships with malignant narcissists are often put through the psychological wringer. This is not surprising, as they have been chronically mistreated, demeaned and diminished by character-disordered individuals who are masters of interpersonal exploitation and who show severe deficiencies in their ability to empathize. Dr. George Simon asserts that grandiose, malignant narcissists feel entitled to abuse and exploit empathic individuals for their own gain because they truly believe in the delusion of their own superiority.
Abusive narcissists are contemptuous, haughty, condescending and cruel beyond words. They are also insatiable attention-seekers, constantly looking for validation from the outside world to bolster their grandiose egos.
We’ve all heard the saying, “Never trust the date that is rude to the waiter,” but what about the partner who is overly flirtatious with the waitress, each and every time? Survivors of intimate relationships with narcissists can attest to the insatiable attention-seeking that a narcissistic abuser exhibits as he or she tries to gain narcissistic supply (ex. attention, praise, admiration, sex, status, etc.) from anyone and everyone they meet.
TOXIC TRIANGULATION – WHAT IS IT?
This leads us to talk about one of the common ways malignant narcissists demean their victims and retain narcissistic supply: triangulation. Triangulation in the context of narcissistic abuse is the act of bringing another person or a group of people into the dynamic of a relationship or interaction to belittle the victim and make the victim “vie” for the attention of the narcissist.
This method is often used to create love triangles among the people that the narcissistic abuser depends on for his or her daily “fix” of attention. Triangulation is one of the most insidious, heartbreaking tools malignant narcissists use to manipulate their former partners, their current partners, their harem members as well as their new sources of supply.
Narcissists enjoy using triangulation as a mind game that enables them to gain a sense of power and control over multiple people simultaneously. It confirms to them their own grandiosity – after all, aren’t they superior if they have all these people competing for their approval and validation? They certainly think so.
The ways narcissists triangulate include but are certainly not limited to: flirting with others in front of their partners, emotional and physical infidelity, as well as comparing their partners to others as a way to manufacture insecurities in them. They may also report back falsehoods about what one person is saying about another, in order to pit their victims against each other so that neither one of them approaches the other about the abuse taking place.
This form of triangulation can enables victims to doubt the reality of the abuse (ex. “My ex never had this problem with me!”) and serves to make the victim feel unworthy and doubtful of their own experiences. As survivors who have met the ex-partners of their narcissistic abusers and have had honest conversations with them can testify, these claims are far from the truth. You will find that malignant narcissists deplete and drain each and every one of their victims, who all have similar horror stories about the relationship.
Triangulation also has the added “reward” of allowing narcissists access to resources from each and every victim – whether that resource be wealth, status or simply the delicious compassion of an unsuspecting empath. The need for narcissistic supply can be almost gratifyingly sadistic – a way to punish victims for seeking to be independent agents and to keep them reliant on the narcissist’s approval.
You may be wondering: why would anyone fall into this trap? It’s because triangulation can happen in covert, underhanded ways meant to subtly make victims question themselves. The narcissist’s false mask helps to reinforce his or her charming presence, which lures both potential victims as well previous partners into a horrific abuse cycle filled with love-bombing idealization, cruel and callous devaluation and a comfort-punishment dynamic that creates trauma bonding between victim and predator.
What survivors must understand is that triangulation is not an indication of anyone’s worth or desirability. Nor are the narcissist’s new victims immune to encountering this tactic. It is ammunition and leverage to devalue former victims to new partners (ex. “My ex was so crazy!”) or re-idealize old partners while devaluing new ones (ex. “My last girlfriend/boyfriend got my jokes, why can’t you?”). It is also used to annihilate a former partner’s sense of self by flaunting the new source of supply shortly after a discard.
This is something narcissists are prone to doing publicly post-breakup, especially if you discarded them first. It is done in order to regain power over your emotions, hoover you back into the abuse cycle or provoke you into breaking No Contact.
How to Heal from Triangulation
There are many excellent resources in the survivor community about the methods of triangulation and its effects. What is lacking are more tips on how to best address the wounding that can result from triangulation and how to begin healing from it. Rejection on its own is hurtful enough, but manipulative, deliberately damaging comparisons set up by an emotional terrorist is quite another affair.
This can be a complex and daunting undertaking, as narcissists not only trigger old wounds, they also manufacture new ones – creating what I like to call “simultaneous wounding.” It is important that in resisting triangulation, one minimizes as much contact as possible with the narcissistic abuser (even in a co-parenting situation where Low Contact is more appropriate). This entails blocking the abuser on all social media platforms, cutting off contact with the abuser’s harem members to ensure peace of mind as well as taking any steps you can to legally protect yourself from potential stalking and harassment after the break-up.
Healing from the effects of toxic triangulation is not an easy task, but gaining self-mastery, self-confidence and learning how to self-validate is essential to the recovery journey. You may also require professional support to address any symptoms of trauma in addition to these methods, as well as any other traditional or alternative healing modalities that can assist you in the healing journey.
Here are three powerful ways survivors of abuse can begin to heal from the impact of toxic triangulation and rise in their authentic, glorious selves:
1. Know that you are irreplaceable and learn exactly why.
Toxic partners work hard to instill in us a belief that we can be easily replaced with another source of supply. This is why survivors of narcissistic abuse can be so devastated after they’ve been abused, devalued, discarded and not too soon after, seemingly replaced by a shiny new target. They reminisce about the ways their narcissistic partners treated them in the idealization phase, wondering if the new person in the abuser’s life is being treated better.
We all know logically that narcissists put each and every partner through this cycle of abuse regardless of who that person is. The fantasy relationship they display on Facebook or in public spaces is an illusion – you know that for a fact because they concocted the same fantasy with you, posting happy images on social media or bragging about you to their friends even when they began abusing you behind closed doors.
The abuser’s lack of empathy and sense of entitlement carries forward in every relationship – even the person they eventually seem to ‘settle down’ with (and let’s all say a collective prayer for this person). Yet on a subconscious level, we may still be plagued by victim-shaming ideas cultivated by the blameshifting, projection and gaslighting that we endured throughout the relationship.
Our abusers, after all, have brainwashed and conditioned us over time into believing that we were the problem, and this is an ingrained belief system that needs to be addressed at its core in order for healing to take place.
It is this belief that arises not only during toxic triangulation in the relationship, but after the ending of it. Not only do trauma bondswith the narcissist need to be severed, our cognitive distortions need to be replaced with healthier, more realistic beliefs about the toxic nature of the narcissistic ex-partner, the reality of the abuse we experienced as well as the integrity of our identity that the abuser attempted to erode, erase and diminish.
That’s where the power of self-appreciation and self-validation come in. Combating triangulation requires knowing that you are truly irreplaceable and why. I am sure you’ve heard it before, but the fact of the matter is, your particular “package” cannot be replicated. The dynamic combination of your unique inner and outer beauty, success, talents, skills, can never be found in another.
Remember also that narcissists see their victims as objects, not as individual beings, making them unlikely to even appreciate the complexity of the various identities they work hard to erase. Additionally, you as a person can never be ‘copied.’
It is interesting to note that narcissistic abusers may also triangulate their victims with targets that are “surprising” to say the least – people that victims did not realize the narcissist would ever have an interest in due to the narcissist’s so-called “preferences.” This can get us wondering whether the narcissist even liked our “type.” The truth is – the narcissist’s preferences quickly go out the window because they are overridden by the need for supply. It is just further evidence that narcissists don’t discriminate when they need sources of supply after the ending of a significant relationship…they’ll gain attention, praise, adulation and validation from whoever offers it to them.
The fact that the abuser has seemingly ‘replaced’ you only means that they have replaced you with who they see as yet another object to cater to their needs. They do not see their new sources of supply as human beings nor do they truly appreciate the intricacies of who they are beyond a shallow representation.
The narcissistic abuser is so self-absorbed that they rarely ‘know’ the true personalities of their victims – only the aspects that can be used to serve them and their image. They may know that their partner Sally is a talented, good-looking musician, but they don’t truly ‘know’ Sally as a person. You’ll discover that even after a long-term relationship, asking a narcissist what they liked about their ex-partner will elicit only baffled looks. Even asking a narcissist what they like about you while in the idealization phase will only result in shallow responses. That’s because throughout the abuse cycle, the narcissistic abuser focuses on the traits of the victim that could be used to prop up the narcissist’s ego – not on the deeper qualities that defined who they were. Therefore, it is a waste of time to ever compare yourself to a narcissist’s old or new sources of supply or their harem members.
This can be difficult to accept when the narcissist is pulling out all stops to create a happy public image of his or her new or old relationship – but remember that appreciating what makes you who you are can act as an antidote to their poisonous efforts to diminish you.
HOW TO STOP IDEALIZING THE NEW SOURCE OF SUPPLY.
When a narcissistic abuser moves onto a new target, survivors may begin to ‘idealize’ the target! They may begin to compare themselves unfavorably with the new source of supply, nullifying who they are in the process. They forget that they can never truly be replaced – with anyone. Sure, narcissistic Brad can date new target Melissa who is attractive and sporty, but they can’t get you. Not only are you attractive, you may also be intellectual, have a successful career, a passion for helping others, a quirky sense of humor, and a penchant for making the best dirty jokes. You could be a head-turner on the dance floor, be financially stable, deeply spiritual and have an active lifestyle. What are the cool and interesting things you’re forgetting about yourself? There are so many incredible things about you and your life that you tend to dismiss or minimize because you’re so busy focusing on the new victim.
You have all sorts of quirky facets to your identity that fit together in a scrumptious way that frankly, no one could mirror even if they tried. Maybe I am drawn to Cory with the six-pack and smooth pick-up lines, but at the end of the day it might be Zach with the sweet smile, who is not only smooth but also emotionally validating, empathic, mature beyond his years and has a deep voice that would probably make me melt in the long run.
Attractiveness is not a one-dimensional thing: it is a kaleidoscope of factors. It is not just one or two qualities that define us and make us desirable to people. It is a whole spectrum of nuanced attributes and larger-than-life traits that are stirred to make the magical potion that is your essence.
Everything from your intelligence, passions, hobbies, interests to the twinkle in your eye – beautiful qualities and attributes that anyone who is not a narcissist will be sure to cherish about you. So ask yourself: what is the potent cocktail of qualities that make you extra delicious and irreplaceable?
I am serious – there is something absolutely yummy about your particular mind, body and spirit – about your soul. There are parts of us – sometimes even the very ones we’d rather hide from society – that make us unique in ways people wouldn’t expect. Maybe the way you laugh is captivating; there might be something about your energy that is magnetic or your strong stride that catches the eye of everyone in the room. People pick up on those things about you because they’re seeing you with fresh eyes – and now it’s time for you to value these things in yourself too.
Remember, this rule of people being multifaceted applies to your abuser too, but in a way that gives survivors the advantage in moving forward. The once appealing and charming narcissist gets pretty boring in the long run when we factor in the attributes of their true selves – their flat affect, their inability to be happy for others, their cruelty, their pathological envy and a number of other undesirable traits. Who are they to compare or triangulate your badass self to anyone? No one.
I want you to take the time to acknowledge those parts of yourself – both light and dark, that make up the sum of the complex, nuanced and multidimensional human being you are. That is the magic key to unlocking the safe to your sense of security – knowing who you are and owning allof it.