Drama Triangles describe a situation in relationships where people take on certain roles; each person reinforcing certain unhelpful behaviours in the other.
They are powerful and often emotionally painful cycle to be caught up in. Recognising that you’re caught up in this and stepping out of it, can greatly improve your relationships.
The Drama Triangle was first developed by Stephen Karpman in the 1960s. If If you've never heard of it you're not alone. Most people haven't - so let me explain.
In a Drama Triangle there are three roles. The Persecutor role, The Victim role and The Rescuer Role.
The following example is taken from the case study about David in my book How Kind People Get Tough. David, his wife, and his son had become caught up in an unhealthy cycle.
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David was an easy going sort of person who loved his wife and his son. However, unfortunately his wife and son didn't always get on.
His son Greg would complain to David about his mother, then she in turn would complain to David about their son. Stuck in the middle David would often find himself in the role of rescuer trying his very best to bring them together. This had been going on for a long time. David was becoming more and more fed up with the situation.
The three of them were caught up in a Drama Triangle. Although this tends to happen in groups of three, it's not always the case. It can happen between two people or even a larger group because it's more about three roles being played out, with people moving back and forth between those roles.
Persecutor, Victim and Rescuer
When David's son complained about his mother he was taking on the role of Persecutor, making her the Victim and expecting his father to be the Rescuer.
When his wife complained about their son she was taking on the role of Persecutor making their son the Victim and again making David the Rescuer.
David feeling overwhelmed by all this was feeling like the Victim. Then, when David became frustrated and snapped back at either one of them, he himself would become the Persecutor. Plus, he told me, at times even though they didn’t get on, they would Rescue each other when he snapped at them.
And so they continued going around and around in these roles, unhappy - nothing ever changing.
The thing to remember is that we all get caught up in Drama Triangles from time to time. It's not about one person being the baddie, and the others being good. It's just a psychological drama that gets played out, each role reinforcing the other.
How To Break Out of a Drama Triangle
There are two parts to breaking out of a Drama Triangle. The first is to recognise you are in one!
You can recognise this by how you are feeling and what is happening in your relationships. If you are often feeling upset, stressed, worried, then it’s time to step back and observe the patterns being played out.
Some common signs can be:
- When you or another person, behaves and responds in ways that are way too intense; rather than responding in a rational way.
- Reacting from high emotions rather than logic.
- Taking on too much responsibility for someone else's happiness.
- Not taking responsibility for your own happiness.
- Your relationship feels unpredictable and chaotic.
- Often becoming defensive.
- Noticing that you’re often apologising.
If this is happening in any of your relationships it's a good idea to step back and consider how these roles may be at play, and how they're being reinforced by your own thoughts and behaviours. Even this simple act of recognition will give you an opportunity to consider how you may behave differently. It is key to helping you break out of the pattern and start changing things for the better.
The next key to stepping outside the Drama Triangle is to understand the roles from a heart-centred perspective.
Take the following heart-centred approach by acknowledging these roles in yourself, and encouraging others.
The Persecutor role- often feels out of control and disempowered by others.
Heart-centred approach – acknowledge the need to control and find more appropriate ways to manage difficult situations. Work on self-confidence so that control becomes less of an issue
The Victim role - feels confused, vulnerable and powerless to make changes.
Heart-centred approach- seek support to help make changes rather than expecting to be rescued by another. Take responsibility for one’s own feelings.
The Rescuer role – really wants to help but confuses rescuing people with supporting them.
Heart-centred approach– consider the difference between rescue (rushing in to protect another) and support (encouraging the person to help themselves and supporting them in that)
The next time you find yourself caught up in familiar unhappy situation in your relationship, step back a little and consider if you are in a Drama Triangle. It's very common!