We all play roles in our own dramas every day at work and at home. Some dramas are gentle stories with simple story lines and others are complex, with twists and turns and unexpected plot changes.
Many good stories have a victim, villain, and hero as part of the plot. This dynamic is often at play in our day to day lives and it is why we resonate with the hundreds of dramas produced by the television and film industry.
Not all problems or conflicts are difficult to resolve, and we all learn skills to manage them without escalation. Many workplaces provide training in conflict resolution as it is recognised as an important skill.
Conflict or situations can become toxic when others get involved. Sadly, this often happens in relationship breakdown and divorce.
Dr Stephen Karpman proposed his drama triangle theory in 1968. He used triangles to illustrate conflicted or dramatic relationship transactions.
There are 3 roles in the triangle: Victim, Persecutor, and Rescuer.
The victim represents someone who “feels” like they are a victim. That may not be the reality of their situation, but it is how they perceive it.
They may display some of these character traits:
- Held back,
- Unable to solve problems,
- Unable to take pleasure in life,
- Unable to achieve insight.
If the victim is not with a persecutor; they will set up someone external in that role. They also seek out help and look for one or more rescuers to solve their problems for them.
The victim plays the role: “I need help. It is not fair, and it is not my fault.”
The persecutor can display some of these character traits towards the victim:
The Persecutor plays the role: “You are useless, and it is all your fault.”
The rescuer can display some of these traits:
- Feels guilty if they cannot help.
- Helping makes them feel good and they like to feel needed.
- They are enablers and reinforce the victim’s negative behaviours.
- They try to rescue others to avoid feeling or confronting their own problems.
The Rescuer plays the role: “I know what to do, let me help you.”
How are we cast in the different roles?
Members of the triangle lean towards a habitual role (victim, rescuer, persecutor). Their habitual role is often learnt in their upbringing as children and young adults. Even though members of the triangle each have a role with which they most identify, once on the triangle, participants can rotate through all three roles.
- If the persecutor is blamed for the conflict, then they may switch roles and take on the role of the victim.
- The victim may feel guilty about the situation and take on the role of the rescuer, to try to smooth things over.
Do you recognise yourself in any of the roles?
There may be other factors at play in the conflict or situation, which you may not have considered.
Divorce can be a high conflict situation. You may have had well defined roles within your marriage, and it may be a contributing reason for the divorce. You and your Ex may have taken on one if not all three roles in the drama triangle. These roles can continue to play out as you start the process of divorce.
Your Ex may be a persecutor, or a rescuer and they may be reluctant to change their role. They may exhibit behaviour which has reinforced your role as the victim. The converse of this scenario could also be true.
No audition needed
It is possible to take on a role in a drama triangle unwittingly. It is very tempting to share every detail of your divorce with friends and family. There will be well meaning rescuers waiting to swoop in and rush to help you. They will be quick to cast you as a victim but as we have seen they may not be helping you.
If you have initiated your divorce, then you may have been cast as the persecutor by your Ex or his family and friends. If your Ex has narcissistic personality traits, then everything will be your fault and they may play the victim to save face. Be aware that they will change role whenever it suits them. I have written about coping with difficult personalities here and here.
If you are feeling like the victim and you have surrounded yourself with rescuers, it may be hard to influence or change your role. The rescuer may be enabling you to continue to experience negative feelings, which prevent you from moving forwards. They may reinforce your feelings of helplessness and you may not be able to see yourself as anything other than a victim.
As you can see there are multiple scenarios that can play out in individual situations. If you remain on the drama triangle it is difficult to stop the cycle unless one of you decides to change how you behave. That change will DISRUPT the dynamic and you will be able to move on.
What can you do if you want to change role?
You can CHOOSE how you behave, and this will change how the other people in the triangle respond to you.
The Empowerment Dynamic (TED) was proposed by David Emerald in his book “The power of TED.” He proposed that:
The Victim changes into the Creator and takes the initiative to identify and seek solutions to their problems.
The Persecutor changes into the Challenger and provides honest, supportive challenge for the creator to reflect upon and evolve. They do not judge or bully but enable the creator to face tough situations.
The Rescuer changes into the Coach and facilitates growth through asking appropriate questions. They allow the creator to grow in confidence, find solutions to their problems, and encourage independence.
You may feel that you are stuck in the role of victim and your friends/family are constantly trying to rescue you. They may be enabling your feelings of helplessness and lack of control, by trying to solve your problems for you.
If you take on the role of creator you will take the initiative and decide on the outcome that you want, then your friends/family will be able to act as your supporters (coach) and help you to enact positive change.
You will be able to stand up to and recognise what the persecutor is doing. When you stop acting like a victim, they will stop treating you like one. When you produce constructive solutions to problems, it is more difficult for the persecutor to maintain that “you are useless and it’s all your fault.”
If you find yourself in the persecutor role, then by shifting your mindset to challenge rather than criticise the victim, you may be able to work towards a compromise.
Karpman gave an update on his drama triangles in 2007 in this lecture, which has some fascinating insights into variations and common scenarios held within drama triangles.
In summary it is easy to enter a drama triangle when faced with highly conflicted relationships or situations. To move forward try the following:
- RECOGNISE your habitual role – do you usually act as Victim, Persecutor or Rescuer?
- CHOOSE – Remember that you can choose how you behave
- DISRUPT – If you move away from your habitual role, then this will disrupt the dynamic on the triangle.
- EMPOWER – Think of ways that you can become a Creator, Challenger, or Coach.
- APPLY – This works for drama triangles in all areas of your life.