The Drama Triangle – What is It and How You Can Shape Healthy Relationships

You’ve probably experienced and or stepped out of a drama triangle at least once.

This blog will explain the drama triangle and how you can form healthier relationships.

What is a Drama Triangle? The term Drama Triangle is a concept that Psychologist Stephen Karpman introduced in 1968.It is also known as the ‘Victim Triangle’ and demonstrates how people take on dysfunctional roles to address conflict. The behavior stems from a need to be perceived as ‘right’ or ‘approved’ in our minds or that of others. Taking on any of these roles drains energy. It keeps you from taking responsibility for your natural/unconscious feelings and possibly creating a better life for yourself — A co-dependency-free life.

A drama triangle can happen in all aspects of life — at home, work, school, social events, and on a global scale. It requires three roles — The Victim, Prosecutor, and The Rescuer/Hero. Sometimes a person can play 2 of these, or all of them, depending on the dynamics of the relationship.

The Victim — This person takes the stance of ‘poor me,’ or at least has a regular tendency to offer excuses before choosing to find/create a solution. They tend to bend to the demands or requests of the Persecutor and the Rescuer.

The Persecutor — This is an individual who creates strict boundaries. Their commentary typically includes blaming and criticizing either the Victim, the Rescuer/Hero, or both. This person will rarely admit to being wrong. Situations are something for them to leverage to their benefit. They can be bullies.

The Rescuer — This person feels guilty if they don’t step in to help the Victim. They may subconsciously also feel they need to be rewarded or regularly show they ‘did the right thing.’

Below are two fictional examples of the Drama Triangle played out between the above-described roles. The first takes place at school and the second takes place at home.

Family Drama Triangle 1

Sharon, a wife and mother, speaks loudly and most often to ensure that all other family members, including her husband, know she’s in charge. She regularly points out where her husband and or her kids are in the wrong or minimizes any effort made in homework, chores, or related to their social or work success. Her husband Dan retaliates — ‘What’s wrong with you? Can’t you see the positive once in a while?’ and tells the kids — “You’re doing a good job. Don’t listen to your mother.’

Sharon is the Persecutor. Dan is the Persecutor to Sharon, but only in retaliating on behalf of the kids, who he is the Rescuer/Hero. The kids and Dan may take on the Victim mentality in such an environment.

Family Drama Triangle 2

Jon, The Rescuer, and Persecutor, has a son, Sebastian, whom he would often criticize or call ‘stupid’ while taking action on his son’s behalf to make sure he didn’t mess up — school projects, learning a new hobby, etc., and thus disempowering his son in the process. Sebastian came to believe his dad’s assertions about him and often shied away from trying too much or taking any risks unless he had someone’s help.

This situation exemplifies the father as The Rescuer and a bit of the Persecutor, taking on responsibilities for his kid while blaming his ‘stupidity.’ Sebastian takes on the role of The Victim — believing his dad and behaving passively.

Parents and their children alike can break free from the Drama Triangle. We will discuss a 5-step process for disengaging from it below.

1. Acceptance and Willingness

Rewrite how you take part in your relationships. One way is to say these statements aloud until the process becomes second nature.

I am open to examining how I may adopt any of these roles. I want to learn when I’m vulnerable to participating in the triangle. I believe they are damaging to my relationships and overall health. I dedicate myself to bringing about change for my family.

2. Seeing the Patterns

Recall your past interactions. Did your feelings include — rage, loneliness, anger, sadness, confusion, powerlessness, insecurity, or fear? In what ways did they contribute to a Drama Triangle? Which roles did you and others take on? Did anyone withdraw or keep themselves from it entirely? Spend some time with this part of the process. Recognizing where you contributed to the Drama Triangle can be painful or uncomfortable. However, from that perspective, you can begin to establish how you will participate differently in the future.

3. Set Boundaries

Setting boundaries can be challenging on a mental and physical level. When confronted with conflict, we naturally tend to act on the first thought that crosses our minds. Choosing an idea that considers the best long-term outcome is more beneficial than one that satisfies the short-term and can produce a negative result.

Additionally, limiting the time you give to engaging in conflict resolution is essential to establishing good boundaries.

4. Consciously Withdraw

To withdraw gracefully, one can take the role of observer vs. participant or take full leave from the situation.

5. Rewrite Your Role

Rewriting your role is part of the Empowered Dynamic, created by David Emerald. It is an alternative to the Drama Triangle and shows how we can shift to shape better relationships.

• From Victim to Creator –

You can change your thoughts from ‘I can’t do this for myself to ‘I believe that I am capable of taking responsibility for my own experience.’ Write down clear goals. Consider your strengths.

• From Persecutor to Assertive Challenger –

Start with voicing your opinion without blaming others. Practice negotiation to create win-win solutions. Provide constructive criticism and allow others to do the same for you. Apply solid boundaries to situations that do not align with your goals.

• From Rescuer/Hero to Coach –

The first step in shifting from being a Rescuer/Hero to a Guide is acknowledging that you are enabling others’ to remain a Victim instead of providing a person the tools to help themselves. Secondly, Rescuers/Heroes tend to put their own needs after everyone else’s. The transformation from Rescuer/Hero to Guide is in your belief that people can take care of themselves, and where you are a supportive encourager, not a creator of dependency.

Ironically, if you shift from any of these Drama Triangle roles, you are often seen as the Persecutor. You may become the ‘bad guy’ when stepping out of the Drama Triangle. Others in the triangle might say, ‘What do you mean you don’t need my help?’ or, ‘How could you not want to take care of me?’

Now that you clearly understand the Drama Triangle, you may have recognized yourself or other family members represented in each of these roles. If you and your teen child struggle to disengage from a Drama Triangle, the Deschutes Wilderness team can provide solutions for your family’s growth and healing. Learn more about us here, or contact us with any questions.