Drama (Emotional) Triangle: The role the victim, persecutor, and rescuer plays

Ecclesiastes 4:12b
A threefold cord is not quickly broken.

This verse is often quoted in the context of marriage, acknowledging the need that married couples have for stabilizing their relationship by creating a “triangle” with God as the third leg. One, two, or four legged seats are unstable, but a three legged stool is stable. So it is with one’s physical and emotional life. We were intended by our Creator to be raised in a loving “triangle” with our mother and father, but oftentimes the tendency to form triangles is distorted and becomes unhealthy.

One of the main insights gleaned from research into family systems theory is the role of “triangulation” or “interlocking emotional triangles.” One theorist saw triangles as the basic “molecule” of an emotional system, or the smallest stable relational system. Examples of these emotional triangles abound. An unhappy wife forms a triangle with one or more of her children. An unhappy husband emotionally triangulates with his work, or by having an affair. Much gossip and backbiting is “triangulation” instead of “confrontation.”

Creating triangles does not seem to be optional, but fulfills something stemming from a deep drive for emotional connection in human beings. What is more profitable is to triangulate deliberately and acknowledge God as the third leg whenever possible. Counselors, therapists, and pastoral caregivers learn to help people by teaching them to “detriangulate” and directly confront the individual with whom they have conflict.

A particularly interesting and universal emotional triangle was identified by Stephen Karpman, M.D. in an article he wrote in 1968. He identified a toxic social triangle called the “Drama Triangle,” or what another person called a “blame machine,” involving three interdependent roles: Victim, Persecutor, and Rescuer (each capitalized to distinguish them from real victims, villains, and rescuers). The emphasis in this study is the way the three roles work together in a dramatic dynamic. The study did not diminish the idea that people are truly victimized (victim), act heroically (rescuer), and sometimes hurt each other (persecutor). The Victim role is different from a true victim, as in a rape case, and refers to an attitude of heart, or habitual way of relating to the world.

In this triangle, the three roles form a dynamic system that generates considerable energy in maintaining itself and trapping the participants, and this energy is not usually harnessed to any constructive end. All that is generated by the triangle is “drama,” or emotional intensity. Sometimes this is exactly what people are looking for in their lives, more so than accomplishment or mutually fulfilling relationships.

The Drama Triangle is very common in dramatic arts and literature. Dramatic tension is created by establishing the villain’s character, and causing the reader or viewer to identify with the victim or victims. To resolve this mounting tension, a Rescuer must be introduced. Snidely Whiplash is the archetypal villain, ousting fair Nelle from her rental home because she couldn’t pay the rent, and tying her to the railroad tracks. Enter Dudley Doright to save the day. And some variation of the theme is involved in virtually all narrative dramatic art. Role reversals also create dramatic interest, when the Victim turns out to be the Rescuer (Gladiator), the Persecutor becomes the Rescuer (Terminator 2), or the Rescuer becomes the Persecutor (any police corruption story).

The Drama Triangle is centered on the role of the Victim, which Karpman depicted by placing that role as the bottom point of the triangle.

Because the triangle is anchored by the Victim, blame and guilt emitted by the person in that role fuel the engine and keep the process moving around and around. Karpman viewed interrupting the Victim role as the key to defusing the system, but he also identified the Persecutor role as the exit point. If one is trapped in a system like the Drama Triangle, only when he or she is willing to be perceived as the Bad Guy can one remove himself or herself. Learning to be comfortable and non-anxious even when labeled a Persecutor or a Bad Guy is necessary to break the power of the Triangle.

The Victim position is the one the others revolve around. To liken Victims to a weather system, they are like a low-pressure area that drives a lot of bad weather. Extreme low-pressure areas drive hurricanes and tornados by sucking the surrounding air into their void. Victims take insufficient responsibility for their actions or feelings, and blame everyone but themselves for the way their lives have turned out. The Victim is one who sees himself as life’s fall guys. Catastrophic language (“everyone,” “you,” “my mother,” “the government”) is used to describe their reality that they perceive that others are “doing things to them.”

Victims can be angry or pathetic. The Pathetic Victim seeks pity and sympathy, whereas the Angry Victim postures himself as powerful by using phrases such as “You are not going to do it to me again” or “You’re bad.” Both Victim versions are looking for someone to blame for the emotions they are having and why things are not as they wish. The Victim emits signals, like unhealthy pheromones sent out in search of a mate, to find a Rescuer, who, it is hoped, will take care of them and save the day. A woman with many failed relationships may have come to blame all men and seek that perfect man who will singlehandedly correct her view of the male of the species and make her whole. An addict who self-medicates because of the pain he has experienced sends out a signal that is answered by a woman who thinks she can be the one who can love him enough to break his addiction. And so it goes.

The essence of the Victim position is manipulating others into doing what they want with blame and guilt instead of openly and directly sharing their feelings of vulnerability and weakness and asking for help without blaming anyone, even themselves. The Victim is on a fishing expedition looking for people to validate their need for being rescued, and the hook is in their view of the Persecutor(s) who is to blame for their plight. When the Persecutor accepts the blame directed at them by the Victim, he or she will often feel guilty and try to remedy the situation, thus becoming the Rescuer. When they fail in that role, they become the Victim of the Victim, who now acts as Persecutor.

True persecutors and villains almost always see themselves as Victims. Hitler saw himself and his country as victims of European Jewry. The Victim role or posture is dangerous because it can so easily lead to the Persecutor role. The Victim becomes the zealous Rescuer of others, and in so doing actually becomes a Persecutor. As these interdependent roles change and interlock, they trap the participants in a kind of “squirrel cage” of frenetic and wasted energy that does not produce real personal growth. True freedom of choice and ownership of one’s feelings, thoughts, and actions is not possible within this Triangle because of the anxiety and reactivity that it generates.

The role of the change agent must be to model non-reactivity and a less anxious presence, particularly with respect to being blamed. One cannot relate to a Victim without being drawn into the vortex of blame that is generated by their Victimhood. The pastoral caregiver must model a way of being that does not respond to being blamed by feeling guilty and or be manipulated into a rescue attempt.

The Rescuer position, or Good Guy, tries to alleviate feelings of guilt and “being bad” by doing “good.” The payoff for the Rescuer is the good feeling that comes from the belief that he is the unselfish one in the situation. Complicating this role is that it is often encouraged and endorsed by one’s church, organization, or family. A danger of this position is that the good feelings associated with being the Rescuer can become addictive, and one can base a sense of self on being “unselfish” or “good,” instead of valuing authentic selfhood and one’s own goals. The Rescuer is highly motivated by avoiding the discomfort of feeling selfish or appearing to be a “bad” or an “uncaring” person. The price of being a Rescuer is ignoring one’s own feelings and thoughts in favor of maintaining an image of “goodness” for self and others.

To replay the weather system analogy, the Rescuer is like a high pressure system that gravitates to the low pressure areas. The Rescuer needs the Victim to play his favored role, and will therefore find people to relate to who are sending out Victim signals. When the Rescuer fails in one project, instead of learning the right lessons, he or she falls into repetitive cycles of disappointing relationships. The “high” of rescuing supersedes the “low” of relating to people who are stuck in Victimhood. Psychotherapist Foust, writing from the perspective of the Drama Triangle about his experience treating patients, says of Rescuers:

“Needing to be needed is substituted for personhood, individuality and love. Rescuers avoid dealing with emotions and the discomfort of facing life honestly. All addictive behavior, even rescuing, is employed to avoid feeling.”

Another element of the unhealthy dynamic between the Rescuer and the Victim is the fact that the Rescuer communicates by his actions that the Victim is incapable of caring for himself or herself. The Rescuer is setting himself up to become a victim of the Victim they sought to rescue, and will often recite the same script: “Look at all I’ve done for you; you owe me.” This illustrates the interdependency of the three roles of the Drama Triangle and how easily one position morphs into the others. Observers of the Triangle over time say that eventually one will be cast in each role if one stays in the system long enough. Though the system is a powerful social engine, each role is intrinsically powerless and without choices because every role is scripted. The only hope for those who are stuck in the Triangle is to be willing to be perceived as the Bad Guy and exit the system at that point. Though the system produces pain in every position, the pain is not redemptive and is not an environment conducive to personal growth, because of the scripting involved. It is preferable to choose the pain associated with being labeled while in pursuit of one’s true self than the pain and resentment that comes from being manipulated and coerced.

The Drama Triangle indicates the value of learning to be non-reactive and ungoverned by emotion. That is not to say that one must be dehumanized and not feel emotion, because emotions must be experienced and acknowledged so that they lose their power to subvert, govern, and control behavior. Furthermore, suppressing emotions has been found to be a primary cause of panic attacks, anxiety, compulsions, depression, and addictive behavior. Pastoral care in family systems must find a balance between creating space for authentic feelings to be shared openly and not allowing the emotionality or reactivity of a family system to exert a controlling influence. Identifying strong feelings and labeling them appropriately helps people own and experience them, and choose to not be controlled by them.

Understanding the Drama Triangle helps us be aware of our own tendencies to be hooked into emotional triangles, especially through the role of Rescuer. We must work to remove ourselves from any Drama Triangle in which we are presently involved. Then we will be in a position to help others see themselves as a squirrel in a cage and help them find the door out. We must recognize that the process will not be easy, because the dramatic plots can be complex and convoluted, and the process is not linear, but systemic and chaotic.

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