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Psychotherapy

What is the drama triangle?

Do you ever find yourself trapped in a cycle of conflict and drama with others? Or even within yourself? Something for us to explore together might be ‘The Drama Triangle’. Let’s take a look more closely…

What is the drama triangle?

The drama triangle is a model that was first identified by Dr. Stephen Karpman in 1968 and is still used widely in psychotherapy today. It helps to explain destructive and unresolvable conflicts we can encounter with others by mapping those interactions as a triangle with 3 primary roles. These roles are:

The victim: The passive and persecuted person who is powerless to what’s happening to them. This is similar to the ‘adaptive child’ role in transactional analysis which you can read about here.

The persecutor: The villain who oppresses, criticises and holds power over the victim. This is similar to the ‘critical parent’ role in transactional analysis – more information on that here.

The rescuer: The hero who seeks to solve the conflict and bring peace, often enabling the conflict further and feeling guilt if they do not rescue.

It reads a bit like a fairy tale, right? Cinderella was the poor helpless victim. Her stepmother, the evil persecutor. And the prince was the hero rescuer. It might sound strange, however, these fairy-tale dynamics play out all the time in our lives without us even noticing it.

What makes us different from the classic fairy tale dynamics is that we tend to switch between these three roles, sometimes in seconds. You can go from being the victim to the persecutor in the blink of an eye, and sometimes, you can be positioned that way by others, quite unknowingly.

With drama triangle dynamics, an ongoing, shifting conflict continues and never forms real resolution. Often, people can be completely oblivious to the drama dynamics they are in, and only when we bring these dynamics to the surface can we remove ourselves from them (in transactional analysis, this would be described as moving into our ‘adult’, which you can read more about here.

Here is an example of the drama triangle at work:

Mike has been cheating on Anna with a colleague. Anna discovers the affair and is distraught and cries for hours. The starting position in this dynamic is Mike (and his colleague) as the perpetrator and Anna as the victim.

Mike wants to solve the situation and begs for forgiveness, working tirelessly to fix his actions while Anna continues to be hurt and upset. Mike is now the rescuer while Anna remains the victim.

Anna moves through the grief process into anger. She seeks to viciously hurt Mike emotionally by calling him names, putting him down, and flirting with other men to make him jealous. Anna is now the perpetrator and Mike has become the victim.

Once Mike is suitably downtrodden and depressed, Anna lays off him and apologises for her behaviour, trying to resolve things with Mike again. She is now the rescuer. She decides to blame the other woman for the affair – positioning Mike’s colleague as the perpetrator and relieving Mike of this role. Mike and Anna are now victims to his colleague.

There is no real resolution here, just a cycle of blame and role-shifting that never properly deals with why Mike had the affair.

This is just one way the drama triangle can play out in relationships and it is quite an extreme and obvious example. There are, however, many subtle interactions that happen in everyday life that can follow a similar pattern.

In couples therapy, we would aim to bring Mike and Anna out of this drama triangle and move into an adult, equal dynamic. With my help, Anna and Mike would explore their relationship in detail, without shifting roles or blaming others.

Can you recognise any drama triangle dynamics within your relationship? How about in the workplace or even within yourself? 

Therapy can help bring these dynamics to the surface and help you to safely shift away from destructive patterns and cycles.

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