THE DRAMA TRIANGLE – PART 1
Author: Ann Grandchamp, Mental Health Editor
Relationships can be tough. At home. At work. With friends. With the kids. With your life partner. With your colleagues. There can be some unhealthy patterns running in your relationships without you even realizing because most of our behaviors are unconscious and automatic. Some of these unhealthy relationships may have become more obvious or more exacerbated during lock-down and possibly now during the summer holidays.
Picture this: you’ve got this friend who keeps complaining (victim*). All the time. So you offer your help because hey!, you’re OK and she’s not. You really want to help (rescuer*). But then she keeps finding excuses and feels misunderstood. After awhile you’re so fed up with offering advice and trying to help that you start feeling angry and resentful towards this friend because she’s just not listening and you say something like “if you just listened to me and did what I tell you!” (attacker*). And then you feel really guilty because you didn’t help her resolve her issues (victim).
Feels familiar? In this scenario your friend is behaving like a victim and you’re the rescuer. Until you’re so fed up that you become the attacker.
Now picture this: a Mom is sick a lot of the time. She has a chronic illness. Sometimes she’s well. Other times she isn’t. From a very young age, her son notices these ups and downs and regularly and unconsciously checks in – “how is Mum today?”, “does she need help?”, “do I need to be really quiet today and let her rest?”, “is she well enough to play with me today?”, “will I get told off if I make too much noise?”, “I’ll just do this to help her”, … The Mom is unaware of what is going on in her son’s head and asks him for help, tells him to do chores for her, complains to him a lot. After a few years, when he’s a teenager, her son starts to feel resentful and upset and says, “This is your fault. Just do it yourself!” or “You’re useless – I wish you weren’t my mother”. To which the mother might say “No it’s your fault. If you helped me more I wouldn’t be so tired”. And then her son feels really bad.
What’s happened here is a typical situation of codependency. The mother is the victim and her son is her rescuer. But after a while her son become the attacker. As a result the mother also becomes the attacker and her son becomes the victim. And around and around they go.
“The Karpman drama triangle is a classic model of codependent behaviour. First of all, a codependent will rescue someone. Then, when their ‘brave and charitable’ work hasn’t been acknowledged, they become very angry at the person they have attempted to rescue. And finally, they start to feel like a victim. They feel sorry for themselves and complain how the person they rescued never appreciated them. The important thing to learn here is that if a person wants to change, it’s because they have made a decision to do so.”
― Christopher Dines, The Kindness Habit: Transforming our Relationship to Addictive Behaviours
These two examples are quite extreme. In our day to day life they often play out more subtly.
The mother who does every thing for her children (rescuer) then gets fed up and feels like she’s the only one who does anything in the house (victim) until those feelings become so strong that she lashes out in anger and resentment (attacker).
The boss who is critical and domineering (attacker). The employee who feels oppressed and hopeless (victim) and who seeks help from a friend (rescuer).
The man who feels like he’s the only one bringing money home (victim). His partner who feels misunderstood and unappreciated for everything she does (victim). She complains to her friends (rescuers) but doesn’t really put any of their advice into practice.
The boy who is ignored and emotionally neglected at home (victim). When he goes to school he makes fun of the other kids (victims) to make himself feel better (attacker).
* terms coined by Stephen Karpman, The Drama Triangle
Maybe you’ve recognized yourself in one or several of these scenarios. Most of the time we move from one to the other many times, as the arrows show in the graphic above.
- Maybe you’re more of a victim. “I’m not okay and everybody else is.”
- Maybe you’re more of a rescuer. You’re always helping or rescuing someone. “You need my help”.
- Or maybe you’re mostly an attacker. “This is your fault.” ,”Just do what I tell you.”
The important thing to remember here is that there is no place for self-blame. Self-blame, and blame in general, just sucks the joy out of life. But it’s really helpful to see challenging relationships from this perspective.
The bad news is that there are no winners in the drama triangle.
The good news is that there are ways to break the “vicious triangle” and become a winner.
This is where you start:
- Say STOP!
- Notice which role you’re in.
- Move out of the triangle to a healthy new role. I’ll tell you how in my next article.
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