WTF I Just Saw This Wall of Text Why Did You Do This
I know a lot of genuinely good people. Good people often lack a sort of... brutal realism. To put it in the nerdiest possible terms, Hufflepuffs make excellent friends, but they might not spot what a Slytherin does. A Slytherin with any kind of sense of balance will do the right thing and use their cunning and cynicism to watch everybody else's backs.
So, my beloved good-hearted Hufflepuffs and straightforwardly honest Ravenclaws and doggedly honest Gryffindors, I'm gonna try to do the right thing and share what I've learned from learning how to... well, "make people useful" sounds bad, so I'll just say "manipulate people." I can't think of too many ways to use that for good except to reveal the social bad guy secrets so they at least won't have the element of surprise. Nobody deserves to be blindsided by some of this crap, and right now I'm gonna focus on one big big big trap in particular. Some of this comes from actual therapist literature, and a whole helluva lot of it comes from needing to develop certain skills to survive that are not ethical to use in the adult world. Other people's mileage may vary but unfortunately... it probably varies less than a lot of people think it does.
Why I Picked Triangulation
We're all from the internet, and one common experience a lot of us have had is that anybody even remotely interesting is broken or at least a little cracked in some kind of a way. Some people can learn what the world really looks like entirely from watching bad things from a distance, but they are few and far between. People with personality tend to develop it from contact with the actual world.
Unfortunately, people who have bad things crash into them or even just near them can pick up bad habits. After all, the habits that help us survive in emotional wartime aren't always the ones that serve us best longterm. I've tended to think about it like lycanthropy; getting bitten is nobody's fault but that doesn't mean it's okay to pass on the curse.
One of the most insidious versions of this is triangulation. More info about this here. The very very short explanation is that crappy families can often shake down to a trio of roles, with members shifting between them. If someone is consistently scary, they become everybody else's Persecutor (and it's not much of a stretch to see how). Scary people often have at least one person attached to them who sees it as their job to moderate or insulate the scary one, and to those who're getting scared, this person might be their Rescuer. And of course, the Victim of all of this is just that: they're the victim and none of this is their fault.
Where this becomes entertaining (in an abstract sort of way, if you can look past the tangled knot of human suffering feeding itself) is that the Persecutor frequently sees themselves as the innocent Victim who is to blame for nothing, and they have the same Rescuer as the people they scare the crap out of. The Rescuer is the Rescuer to everybody, because at some point they decided it was their job to save everybody from everybody else and themselves. (Full disclosure: I have done the Rescuer thing, bigtime.)
Thing is... when the Rescuer is surrounded by people they're just trying to help and... well, rescue... there's nobody to protect them. And since they've bought into the triangle (or they wouldn't have accepted a role within it), they have to identify who's Victimizing them, and who's their best chance at Rescuing them.
(Victim and Rescuer are the roles people tend to want to be in. Persecutor is usually a role they reserve for someone else.)
Common Example (CN: Addiction, Emotional Abuse)
The Generic Family has a problem. Ma has a drinking problem, and Pops tries his damndest to act as a buffer between her and Kid. Kid sets her off, see, and then she does and says things she'd be sorry for later if she were at her best. So obviously Pops has to rescue her from the way Kid "makes" her act. Kid here is the persecutor because obviously Ma has no agency and can't control herself, right?
Meanwhile, Kid has one parent that seems like the sole and complete cause of the family unhappiness: Ma. Pops is the only one who can help, who has the inside knowledge and parental influence to rescue Kid from the situation.
Ma almost certainly doesn't see herself as anybody's persecutor (though she might talk herself down like she is one to prompt her Rescuer to soothe her like any Victim deserves). To her, she's got her reasons and she's just doing what she needs to because nobody else will take all this crap off her shoulders. Sounding familiar? She's sees herself as the victim who isn't to blame for anything because she's doing her best. Maybe Pops can rescue her. But if he fails... well, that lets him flip-flop between rescuer and persecutor.
As a result, she might actually have to cast Kid as her rescuer, which is why a lot of kids from crappy families end up learning how to be tiny adults who take responsibility for other people's lives. They got that Rescuer training early, and they got serious incentive to learn it and hang onto that role for dear life because there are only two left if Victim's already taken. So either they take on the rescuer role or they get slotted as the persecutor. The choice is pretty goshdarn easy; nobody wants to see themselves or be treated as the persecutor.
The roles shift around, and if there are more than three people some might be squashed into a role as a unit (The Kids, The Inlaws, The Neighbors) or those who don't fit will be pared away. The common wisdom that abusers like to isolate their victims from other sources of support? Yeah. That's a real thing. Anybody who doesn't fit into the convenient model is a Problem and a cooperative effort of everybody in the circle will usually get rid of them sooner rather than later (temporarily casting them as Persecutor is useful for this, but after the ostracism that role's gonna need to be filled by someone else).
Note on Isolation: A great way to isolate people from each other is to make sure they only talk through an intermediary. People who refuse to address issues to one another but instead play "tell so-and-so I said" and "oh well so-and-so told me" games are making themselves the third party to every two-person combination they can reach, because that's what makes sense to them. Even people who don't seem like classical abusers because they seem too pitiful to hurt anyone can successfully do this. In fact, they are some of the most successful.
Two things can and generally will simultaneously be true.
- Everybody in the situation is doing their best to stay afloat in the short term, because there is no long term.
- Every adult buying into this model is responsible for the fact that they're feeding it. I am exempting children here because kids don't get to just choose the social dynamics that go on in their lives (no matter how often someone might try to cast them as an adult Rescuer).
What gets tricky is that children who learn to triangulate to survive grow up into adults who triangulate to survive. Kids who learned to triangulate can eventually gain adult agency and adult power over social situations. They got bitten, and now they have to go out of their way to take measures so they don't pass on the curse. The last part of this run-down is geared toward two classes of people (though obviously there are plenty of people who fit into neither).
Two Classes of People Who Can Break Out of the Triangle
The first class of person learned to triangulate and did not learn anything else. That's not their fault, but they seriously cannot be happy if they just recast the triangle and stay living there. The triangle is a miserable place. The most reliable way I've seen to break out of it is to understand it, and understand that nobody is only ever one role at a time. I've had to catch myself in that kind of black-and-white thinking: find someone to blame, find someone to fix it or someone to save from it. There are no other things to find, right? Nooooo this is terrible. I know it seems like a good idea at the time but that is the lycanthropy talking.
The second class of person is a triangulator in training. They're probably very close to someone in the first class, someone who doesn't know any other way. These people make eeeexcellent Rescuers (in that they're attractive targets because they don't know The Game). It is important not to be this person either, and the first step is the same: know the triangle when it's taking shape. Refuse a role, even if that refusal prompts the triangulating loved one to have some kind of unsightly or unruly response. I'm not even gonna say that the triangulating loved one is faking! They are probably genuinely freaking out because they cannot get a handle on the situation and if they can't understand what's happening it's going to be even more upsetting to them. Their reaction is real. You just need to be careful about Rescuing them from it, or you will graduate to a proper triangulator in your own right. That's bad.
When It's Time to Respond Carefully
It can be really really hard to do the right thing here. After all, triangulating is common because it works. It works because of how mammal brains work. If it has worked on you, that's not your fault; someone was desperate or callous (or both) enough to effectively hack your brain and that was their choice. This whole thing relies on bugs most of us have in our systems, and anybody who takes advantage of them is doing an unacceptable thing. The only thing you can control is how you respond to their choices.
If someone is sitting in the middle of a disaster that they honest to goodness swear they had no hand in and was all done to them because someone is awful and someone else failed to rescue them, they are offering to be your Victim. If you have the Rescuer software running (as I do), you may choose to be their meatshield, their safety net, their anything and everything. After all, you don't wanna be the Persecutor, do you?
If someone only seems to have interest in you when you are in the midst of a crisis, they are a Rescuer looking for a Victim. Thing is, if they start seeing you as their helpless angelically-innocent ward, they may inevitably see you as more of a project than a peer. Nobody respects a project, not really. I say this as a semi-reformed Rescuer.
If someone passes messages between you and other people, if they constantly position themselves as the primary medium by which you and someone else interact, watch your ass with them too. Odds are they don't know which role you'll be yet! But I would bet good real money that they'll find one if they can make sure they are a necessary glue or source of friction in your relationships with others.
Those are the big ones. If you can learn to spot those, that'll be most of the early trouble signs and you should be pretty well covered.