The drama triangle: Engaging in the same pattern of destructive behaviours during times of conflict.
Do you find yourself stuck in certain relationships where you continue to have the same negative repetitive behaviours?
You have most likely observed this toxic dynamic within reality television (any pick of the Housewives reality shows, Love Island and Celebrity Big Brother spring to mind). After reading this blog you’ll begin to recognise it within your own relational encounters too.
The Drama Triangle is a self destructive, infuriating and an unhealthy way to resolve conflict.
It keeps you stuck and feeling like you want things to be different, but once you’re in that negative cycle, it can be difficult to see a way out.
The Drama Triangle is a concept by Stephen Karpman, a psychologist in transactional analysis and is also known as the Karpman Drama Triangle.
I often explain this concept during the course of therapy, as it’s very relatable and it can be useful in understanding relational dynamics.
People find it useful to understand the concept in individual therapy and it is also useful when working specifically with couples on relationship issues, as conflict and toxic behaviours are a common concern.
The idea is to understand that when we encounter relational conflict, we all have a role to play.
This influences our behaviour and the behaviour of those with who we are in direct conflict and communication with.
Why do I need to know about the drama triangle?
We are all connected via some sort of relationship.
The relationship that you have with your parents, siblings, family members, romantic relationships or work colleagues.
There are some people who know exactly how to push your buttons and just what to do or say, which can end up with you losing your temper.
You might find yourself reacting in a way that is normally out of character, or in a way that you don’t particularly like.
It makes you feel frustrated, powerless and as though you are caught in a repetitive loop, as no matter what the topic of conversation is, you end up in the same repetitive negative communicative cycle.
There are certain relationships that you simply cannot escape from no matter how much you might want to.
There are just certain people and situations that realistically may be unavoidable.
Dealing with people who you might not necessarily like is a normal part of life, but that doesn’t mean you have to avoid these people completely in order to have a better response to conflict.
Once you are aware of the drama triangle, recognise what your role is within the drama, and the reaction of the person(s), through self-awareness and further insight, you can choose to react differently. Therefore, removing yourself from the ensuing drama and empowering yourself to walk away, let it go, or to just not let it have as much of a negative impact on you as it normally would.
Clients often report how bemusing it is to be aware when the drama triangle is actually ensuing, and being able to respond differently by choosing to no longer take part in the drama.
Once you become aware of this dynamic, you will probably start to recognise the drama ensuing within your own relational dynamics or observe others get stuck in this power imbalance.
There are 3 main positions within the drama triangle.
See if you can recognise what each of the positions look like in your own social encounters, and without judgement, ask yourself if you recognise any aspect of yourself within any of the positions.
Here is a diagram to explain and offer a visual representation of the drama triangle:
This person sits in judgement and is all knowing of all things (we all know somebody like that). They are blaming, finger pointing and are very good at highlighting a persons perceived weakness, short-comings or insecurities.
As well as being judgemental, they can be highly critical and will let you know just how wrong you are and perhaps even why you are better off listening to them, after all, they know best.
They can be accusatory, belittling and very good at making things seem like it is all your fault.
Self-recognition, accountability or the ability to listen to your perspective is incredibly difficult, if not impossible.
They cannot understand or listen to your perspective, as they are too busy giving their own perspective, which in their eyes is deemed as fact.
Characteristics of The Persecutor: Judgemental, Opinionated, Blaming, Overbearing, Authoritative, Self Righteous, Manipulative
The victim is the person who tends to feel victimised and hard done by.
They feel and act powerless and believe that they lack the autonomy to make any meaningful change.
They are unable to take responsibility for themselves, their actions or behaviours.
They tend to feel sorry for themselves, feel harshly judged and do not accept criticism very well, even if this criticism is constructive.
They feel as though the world or the “persecutor” is against them, and no matter what they try and do or say, they always seem to get it wrong.
As a result, they tend to not try out of fear that they will make a mistake, as a result they allow others to take control, as this way there is less risk to them and it feels safer. It also fits with their perception that they are powerless and in need of help or rescue.
Characteristics of the Victim: Disengaged, Disempowered, Scared, Lack of Awareness, Lack of Autonomy, Co-Dependant, Unable to Make Decisions
Just as the victim feels the need to be helped, along comes the rescuer on their white horse to save the day.
The rescuer is the person who comes to the rescue of the person in the role of victim, or anybody else for that matter.
They are very much the fixer or the problem solver.
This could range from offering to help out the person in victim mode and also chastising the person in the persecutory role for the way that they have behaved toward the person who is the “victim”.
What we already know is that the person who is in victim mode is not actually a victim at all.
By the rescuer always feeling the need to swoop in means that they are also influencing the dynamic of both the persecutor and the victim.
The perceived persecutor may not be persecuting at all but may be offering a valid perspective that might be challenging some of the behaviours displayed by the victim.
Becoming the rescuer disempowers the victim by reaffirming that they are a person who is powerless and in need of rescue, unable to problem solve and face challenge without the help of somebody else.
However, the rescuer can also become resentful at always having to fix or solve everybody else’s issues and position themselves as somewhat of a martyr.
Often they spend so much time attending to the needs of others that they rarely recognise their own needs, and neither does anybody else.
Often they are co-dependent within their relationships and the enablers of unhealthy or unacceptable behaviours.
Often the role of being the rescuer comes from the persons own need to feel wanted, helpful or valued and deep down isn’t really about the needs of the victim.
Characteristics of the Rescuer: Co-Dependent, Enabling, Martyr, People Pleaser, Guilty, Low Self Worth, Avoidant of Own Issues, Needs to be Needed
Once you can recognise the dynamics of the drama triangle, you are able to react, respond and behave differently, by removing yourself away from the drama and not allowing yourself to get caught up in the repetitive cycle.
If you become conscious of your own maladaptive behaviours, you can develop the skills to change how you react and respond rationally in times of conflict.
How to Escape the Drama Triangle
An alternative has been described as a further development to counteract the drama triangle, known as The Winners Triangle, by Acey Choy.
The roles change from:
Persecutor to Assertive
Rescuer to Caring
Victim to Vulnerable
You can be assertive in the way that you communicate without being judgemental, allowing yourself to listen to the perspective of others.
Characteristics of Assertion: Positive Communication, Respectful, Healthy Boundaries, Fair, Actively Listens, Asks Clarifying Questions
You can be caring and empathic without the need to rescue or always offer a solution.
Characteristics of Caring: Strong Sense of Self, Listens, Empowers, Values Autonomy, Supportive instead of Fixing, Self Aware.
You can let yourself be vulnerable but also become autonomous and take accountability for your actions and behaviours.
Characteristics of Vulnerable: Looks at Past Achievements, Problem Solves, Independent, Aware of their Impact on Others, Self Sufficient, Courageous, Authentic, Able to Connect to Sad Emotions, Self Aware.
Once we all become aware and accountable for our own behaviours we can all respond rationally and navigate conflict and the dynamics of interpersonal relationships in a healthier way. It’s not always easy finding new ways in behaving or thinking, but it is possible. With time and perseverance you can adapt the way that you behave in relationships. There will be times when the people around you will try to draw you back into the drama triangle and that is where the real work is.
Try positioning yourself in the winners triangle by changing your behaviour and setting consistent healthy boundaries and notice the change within yourself and the people around you.
If this article interests you and you would like to know more about Transactional Analysis, I recommend the following book for further reading.
I’m Lizandra Leigertwood and I’m a counsellor and psychotherapist from my private practice in St Albans and I also work online. I help individuals and couples to improve their relationships through better communication and making effective change. You can find out more about me and how I work here.