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A Communication Tactic People With Borderline Might Use While 'Splitting'

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When people talk about people who have borderline personality disorder (BPD) one of the things they often talk about is how “manipulative” we are.

I agree that people with BPD can use manipulative behavior, but I don’t think we are inherently manipulative — that is, I don’t believe we are born that way or can’t learn other ways of behaving or more effective ways to communicate. People, whether they have BPD or not, often use a mechanism called “triangulation” when they are being manipulative. I must say, I believe that people only resort to manipulative behavior when every other avenue for getting what they want or need has failed. Manipulative behavior should be seen as a behavior of last resort for almost every person. I also believe that this character trait is, like most other things “BPD,” is learned behavior. People use triangulation when they do not wish to engage in direct communication with another person. When we are angry at someone but still need or want that person to do something for us, many of us resort to triangulation to get our needs met.

So for example, Jane, the mother, is angry at Dave, the father, but she wants him to take out the garbage. Rather than ask him directly, she will triangulate the discussion by injecting Bobby, the son. It often happens like this, “Bobby, please ask your father to take out the garbage.” This automatically puts Bobby in a bad place because he is being forced to act as the go-between for his mother and father. It has now become an awkward situation for him because his father might not want to take out the garbage or may be using his refusal to do that task as a way to get back at his wife, either consciously or subconsciously. Jane’s behavior can also be interpreted as a form of “splitting” because she is using the third person in the relationship — her son — to try to exert control over her husband.

Triangulation can also be looked at as a way to foster a rivalry between two people. This is the case when a child triangulates the parents when asking for something. Some people refer to this type of behavior when used by children as a “divide and conquer” technique. This is looked upon favorably by child psychologists because it is a way for a child to explore new relationships. In 1971, Dr. Ernest L. Abelin talked about this phenomenon as a helpful way for a child to develop object relations in a father-child relationship in which the father “lures” the child away from its close relationship with its mother and introduces him or her to the greater outside world. In this case, the father is the triangulator.

In family units, triangulation is almost always used when one person wishes to express some form of unhappiness with another family member but does not have the communication skills to do so effectively. This scenario often plays out in families where one parent is an alcoholic. The non-alcoholic parent will express dissatisfaction about the other parent’s behavior to the child who might then feel obligated to try to “fix” the alcoholic parentthus parentifying the child. The non-alcoholic parent may triangulate the child because he or she feels unsafe talking about the issues with the alcoholic partner. The two partners who are triangulating the situation become toxicly enmeshed with the situation and each other. This type of communication technique is not only passive-aggressive but it is almost always doomed to fail from the get-go because it engenders hostility in all three members of the triangle and shuts down active problem solving. It is easily formed into a habit and will then be utilized to try to solve almost all the relationship problems but will never solve any of them — often only makes things much worse. It may solve the immediate problem on a short-term basis but it won’t take care of the underlying issues.

People with BPD can sometimes use triangulation when splitting because they lack other, more effective communication skills. DBT (dialectical behavior therapy) contains a module called Interpersonal Effective and can help dramatically reduce this phenomenon.

Getty image via Lidiia Moor

Originally published: June 25, 2019
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