Hubbie gets in from work, dinner’s overdone and he lets rip to his wife. She’s ‘always’ burning food, he shouts. She retaliates with a ‘yeah but’ – can’t he see their son’s upset and needing some help with a fall-out with a friend at school? He comes back with something like ‘You’re for ever pandering to that child.’ She bursts into tears and calls him a bully, and he loses it and tells how hard he has to work and yet she can’t even get the dinner on the table right. And so the merry matrimonial dance carries on… A typical example of The Drama Triangle.
This is a pattern of dysfunctional behaviour that psychologist Stephen Karpman came up with in the 1960s that we so predictably display when we get sucked into interpersonal drama. Karpman recognised how entertaining and addictive our relationship conflicts can be – despite being psychologically harmful.
Karpman teaches that there tend to be three roles in a conflict, hence The Drama Triangle:
Victim The first and most familiar role is the victim. Not an actual victim, of course, but just someone who feels as if they are being victimised, or someone who is acting as if they are being persecuted (the wife here). Victims often feel oppressed and helpless. Deep down, they tend to feel shame. They are often self-pitying. They act as though they are powerless, and as such are often our neediest (and most toxic and draining) friends and relatives.
Persecutor Victims typically identify a persecutor, someone who they believe is victimising them. Persecutors are represented as controlling and critical. When we take on the role of persecutor ourselves often we act angry, rigid and superior.
Rescuer Every victim has a rescuer who works diligently to save them from mistreatment. Although it can feel good to play a rescuing role – because attempting to help others can make us feel good – rescuers don’t really help. Although their intentions may be good (they may even get a ‘high’ from helping out), they are the ultimate enablers, keeping victims stuck in their roles as victims.
The power play of The Drama Triangle
All of these roles are tempting because they give us a sense of power (even if it is false power). Victims get to claim innocence, they gain the doting attention of their rescuer, and they avoid taking responsibility for their own lives and their own outcomes. Persecutors get to sit in the power seat, feeling superior.
Rescuers feel righteous anger and empathy, and so they also get to feel superior to both the victim and the persecutor. And while rescuers avoid the negative shadow that hangs over victims and persecutors, the rescuer role is not healthy either, because focusing on someone else’s conflicts is usually an excuse to ignore their own problems. Rescuers usually have a stake in keeping the victim feeling helpless and weak. In the end the rescuer keeps the victim feeling like a victim by giving them permission to avoid changing or taking responsibility for their own lives.
These roles are so ingrained in our daily lives that we don’t even see them; we just seamlessly (and unconsciously) step into them. But they are like junk food, providing only temporary stimulation and a quick shot in the arm of power, leaving us weaker in the long run.
Breaking The Drama Triangle
So what can we do instead of taking on these dysfunctional roles in The Drama Triangle? Most obvious solution is simply not to engage. Getting involved in an interpersonal drama like the one between the husband and wife over dinner is always a choice. One option would be to just to ignore the angry husband’s comments, or assertively ask for help with dinner, or get him to take on the chat with the son.
Having burnt the dinner the wife understandably had a hard time not engaging with the husband’s anger. But in this drama the prevailing belief of the couple is that dad has a right to dinner cooked on time, mum’s chief role is looking after the child (rescuer) and that dad will be critical if that doesn’t happen (persecutor) and mum will feel she has no choice and feel pressured into it (victim).
But, say pychologists, shift the role we play in a conflict and the outcome will be altogether different. Here’s how to you could potentially alter your role from dysfunctional to constructive.
Victims can become creators. Instead of succumbing to the temptation to wallow in the unfairness of it all, we can go from problem-oriented to outcome-oriented. What is it that we want to gain in this situation or relationship? When we take responsibility for the role we play in challenging situations, and for our lives, we trade the false power of victimhood for the real power that comes from creating the life we want.
Persecutors can become, or be seen as, challengers. Persecutors are people (or situations) that force the victim (now a creator) to clarify their needs, and focus on their own learning and personal growth. Challengers always tell the truth, even when it is painful.
Rescuers can become coaches. The key difference between a rescuer and a coach is that the coach sees the creator as capable of making choices and of solving their own problems. A coach asks questions that help the creator to see the possibilities for positive action, and to focus on what they do want instead of what they do not want.
Adapted from mindfulness.org
An effective way of exploring your typical role play in The Drama Triangle is through mindfulness. People who practise mindfulness learn not to engage in the typical games people play, and they seamlessly redefine their own behaviour. For details of our next mindfulness course with Annie Davison click here.