The Drama Triangle to understand (and change) dysfunctional relationships
In part 1 I introduced the 3 roles: Rescuer, Persecutor and Victim.
- Why do we play?
- How does it start?
- Different situations
WHY DO WE PLAY?
In the Triangle we satisfy some needs like being recognized or seen, being stimulated by the exchange and getting confirmation of who we are. At the same time, the interaction structures our time: for a while we are being busy in an activity full of “twists and turns”.
Then we gain something although the pay-offs are finally negative. That is to say we establish a contact, which is better than having none. But the interaction is not satisfying, since the result will manifest in form of conflicts, malaise, anger, guilt and resentment, which will affect our well-being.
When we are in the Triangle, things never change. Inside of us we feel safe because we follow a script where everyone knows the moves of the game. We adopt the role that we master and there are hardly any surprises.
But this way of interacting creates distance between people since it is inauthentic. Sincere communication that would tackle the problems cannot happen. As a result we can avoid intimacy, responsibility and authenticity. Moreover, it confirms the beliefs that we have on ourselves (“The same thing always happens to me”).
HOW DOES IT START?
The family is the setting where children learn to play the 3 roles of the Triangle. Both parents who interact in their favourite part are the models. They were taught within their own family and transmit them to the next generation creating inauthentic relationships.
Each member of the family chose one of the 3 roles and usually “specialize” in this role. They adopt it many times until it becomes part of their identity. In the end, the whole family interacts unconsciously in the Triangle.
Which roles do or did your parents, your siblings and you adopt?
When you recognize who assumes or assumed the role of Rescuer, Persecutor and Victim you can observe how the Triangle develops in your family.
To become conscious is the first necessary step to be able to change the dynamic.
DIFFERENT SITUATIONS WITH RESCUER, PERSECUTOR AND VICTIM
Preamble: I use the terms father / mother / son / daughter / man / woman randomly. I don’t mention systematically all the genders to keep the reading fluid.
Many parents want to avoid that their children experience disagreeable situations because they are afraid for them. They don’t want them to suffer. Not trusting the children’s capacity to find their own path, they tell them what to do and how to do it. In doing so they deprive them of the opportunity to fail and to learn from their mistakes. Wanting to control one’s offspring creates conflicts and arguments since each person acts in their role as a Rescuer, a Persecutor or a Victim.
On the other hand, for the reason that some parents need to feel that they are “good parents”, they do everything for their children without setting boundaries. This attitude creates children who are Victims (“Poor me”) or Persecutors (“Little tyrants or dictators”). Consequently, the children don’t know how to make decisions or how to set boundaries. Then they blame others on their own mistakes, opening the door to a future role as an adult Victim or Persecutor.
An example of a game in the family could be a son who doesn’t show his bad grades (in Rescuer) because he doesn’t want to disappoint his parents and to get in trouble. When the father realizes the deception, he punishes him (Persecutor) because he didn’t tell the truth. The son finishes in Victim. At the same time the mother tries to “rescue” the son by arguing with the father so that he leaves the son alone. The result is an accumulation of disagreeable emotions for the three of them, each one confirming their own negative beliefs.
Another playground for games is the romantic relationship where each partner adopts the part of the Rescuer, the Persecutor or the Victim.
The intensity with which we play in the Triangle can be classified in 3 categories. Each category entails consequences that are more or less serious. The news items in the newspaper belong usually to the third degree.
Let’s have a look at three examples illustrating these categories:
- First degree: Anne and her husband go to a party. There, Anne flirts openly with a man. When she arrives at home, she refuses the advances of her husband who now feels frustrated.
- Second degree: Anne has a lover and makes sure that her husband finds out. She claims that the extramarital relation is not important for her. The husband and wife argue and squabble.
- Third degree: The husband finds Anne and her lover in bed. In a state of shock, the husband reacts in one way or another: he files for a divorce, he kills her, commits suicide or takes refuge in alcohol, …
1. The first degree
The first degree is socially acceptable and unfolds verbally. It happens in everyday life.
The next example belongs to the first degree. This kind of stereotypical dialogue allows the couple not to tackle the real problem and to vent some pent-up emotions.
In this couple’s conversation the tone is critically important and doesn’t show in a piece of writing:
– Darling, I can’t find the keys of the car. (Victim, without trying to find them and without asking clearly for what the person needs)
– Why do you always blame me? (in Victimhood, the word “always” suggests that this type of conversation is repetitive) Ah, I remember now that some months ago you promised to buy another set of keys. (answer without direct relation to the subject of the interaction) It’s always the same. I can’t trust you and I have to take care of everything! (Passes to Persecutor, looking for something to blame the partner for, and eventually to Rescuer)
Consequences of the first degree: disagreeable emotions (frustration, anger, rage, sadness, guilt, …)
2. The second degree
Disagreeable emotions and suffering are more intense. Happiness is affected. Some love songs give examples of the role of the Rescuer, the Persecutor or the Victim :
– “All the men that I need”
– “It’s not right, but it’s Okay”
– “Where do broken hearts go”
– “We belong together”
– “Without you”
– “Thank God I found you”.
Many conflicts or problems in the relationships are an expression of the Drama Triangle. Drama is not Love.
Consequences of the second degree: arguments, fights, conflicts, …
3. The third degree
The consequences are harmful to the physical, psychological, emotional or financial integrity of the person. Abusive relationships follow the same pattern with the three roles, except that the consequences are now serious.
The roles are usually unconscious and we play for unconscious reasons. On the other hand, the person who plays consciously and “bamboozles” skilfully with words to obtain benefits at the expense of another person is called a manipulator.
Manipulators can start as Rescuers seducing the manipulated. They tell them what they want to hear, making them believe that both think alike and that their relationship is “special”.
Then, manipulators complain continually about their circumstances (“Poor me” in Victim) so that the manipulated switches to Rescuer, taking responsibility for the manipulator.
Finally, manipulators switch to Persecutor, blaming the manipulated (“It’s because you …. that I …”, “It’s your fault if ….”) and intimidating them. They use retaliation and bad mood to push the manipulated into a Victim role. Since the Victims don’t know how to set any boundaries, they end up without money, isolated from friends and family, being taken advantage of, feeling anxious and confused….
Consequences of the third degree: destructive behaviours, damage to self or others, people ending up in hospital, in a psychiatric ward, in prison or in the morgue.
Fairy tales and movies
Fairy tales and movies are based on the dynamics of the Triangle. Stephen Karpman (creator of the Drama Triangle) uses the example of the Little Red Riding Hood:
The heroine starts as a Rescuer of her sick grandmother when she is going to bring her a basket with food. She also rescues the wolf by giving him indications to find her grandmother’s house. The grandmother and the Little Red Riding Hood become Victims of the Persecuting wolf when the wolf eats both of them. The wolf ends up Victim of the lumberjack when he opens his belly. As well as Persecutor of the wolf, the lumberjack is Little Red Riding Hood and grandma’s Rescuer by setting them free from the wolf’s belly.
Equally the three roles can be found in the professional world, in any office or company.
As a teacher giving private tuition I sometimes used to enter in the Rescuer’s role when I made more efforts than the student. By always preparing more materiel, devoting more time and energy than this particular student, I encouraged unconsciously the student to remain passive and to conform to his or her role as a Victim. When I saw the student’s passivity and lack of motivation, I got inwardly angry and told him or her off becoming a Persecutor.
Can you identify a situation at your workplace that corresponds to the Drama Triangle?
In our minds
We play inside of our heads all the time and every day without even noticing. Our inner dialogue shifts from one role to the other: “Silly me! How stupid of me!” (Persecutor) because we made a mistake, we feel guilty or incompetent (Victim) and we make excuses or discount the consequences (Rescuer) to avoid disagreeable emotions.
The Rescuer, Persecutor or Victim’s roles apply equally to addictions.
Alcoholic people may start as Victims needing alcohol to cope with unsolved problems or traumas. The partners usually play the role of Rescuers by taking responsibility for the other, tidying up, organizing, taking care, controlling or even providing the drinks. After the alcoholic person has been drunk again, making a mess, misbehaving or being violent (acting as a Persecutor), the Rescuers become Victims. Their anger as a result of the Rescuing makes them switch to Persecutors who blame the alcoholic.
The reward or the pay-off for Rescuers is feeling blameless and righteous so that they can feel morally superior (“I am doing everything right, you are to blame”) and receiving recognition from others for putting up with the situation.
The pay-off for Victims is being busy drinking (structuring their time), avoiding the real problem, getting attention and being taken care of.
Moreover, the substance (drug, alcohol, food, …) or the addictive behaviour (sex, shopping, gambling, …) rescue the Victim from their own malaise (boredom, solitude, fear, anxiety, stress, problems, trauma). At the same time the substance or the behaviour persecutes the addicts (by blaming themselves, by feeling shame and guilt, by creating financial and social troubles or health problems).
The inner game with oneself maintains the person in the Triangle. Such a Triangle extends also to the relationships and to the family.
The addicts play at two levels: internally and externally.
What is inside can also be found outside.
Christianity is based on the belief in the original sin.
Believers are born imperfect, sinful and guilty by nature (Victims). They are therefore always dependent on the approval of the Church, who can control them. Believers must confess their sins and repent in order to be forgiven by the Church (Rescuer). Faith will save them from eternal damnation and offers Heaven as a reward.
Jesus (the first Victim) died at the hand of the Romans (Persecutors) to redeem believers of their sins and eventually acting as a Rescuer.
The Church manipulates and persecutes people with the concept of Hell, with the trap of perfection (the impossible task to act like Jesus), blaming people for their sins, having the power to define what sins are and who is worth, judging personal matters (abortion, contraception, sexual preferences, euthanasia), excluding people (heretics, women) and ultimately legitimizing the use of violence, rape, sexual abuse and genocide.
At the same time the Church manipulates and rescues people with the concept of Heaven and salvation, having the power to forgive sins, to define the truth and what is good as well as offering belonging.
The Holy Inquisition
The Holy Inquisition beginning in the 12th century is an example of a giant Drama Triangle.
The tribunal was a tool of repression, an instrument of power (Persecutor) to separate the wheat (Christians – the flock – inside) from the chaff (heretics – a threat to the social order – outside).
On the one hand, the tribunal (Persecutor) punished Christians (Victims) who spontaneously confessed their sins with fines, flagellation or penances. But these could then be redeemed (be rescued).
On the other hand, the tribunal used pressure or torture to extract confession (Persecutor) to find heretics. These were then excommunicated, imprisoned or sentenced to death (Victims).
The situations where we can act in the Drama Triangle are plentiful.
Once we are aware of the roles, we often try to step out by adopting another role.
If I always have been a Rescuer, I will stop rescuing. I will most likely adopt another role, the one of Persecutor, and I will continue playing because changing roles is not getting out of the Triangle.
So, what shall we do to stop playing?
In part 3 you will find tools to put into practice in everyday life so that you can step out of the roles of Rescuer, Persecutor and Victim.
- Tools to step out of the Triangle