The Incredible Truth About The Drama Triangle
How many times would I end up walking out of that room, dizzy with confusion at what just happened, or didn’t happen, feeling like I am always the problem, always the one who needs to work harder and do better? I had gone in, like so many other times, wanting to address a small issue with him, and walked out, having apologized and beaten myself up, my head swimming in blame. What happened? What was wrong with me? How could I have believed that he had done anything wrong? How could I not see that it was all really me, my fault, my problem, as always?
Master manipulators do that really well. No matter how obvious it is that they have done something needing apology, they always know just how to wriggle out of it. They have a big bag of tricks to help them out with that too. They keep the drama moving along, never ending, and that keeps you feeling completely crazy and continually confused and guilty.
In the 1960’s, Dr. Stephen Karpman introduced what is now known as the “Drama Triangle”. It’s an interlocking of 3 roles: The Victim, The Rescuer and The Attacker (persecutor). The Victim passively receives the actions of the rescuer and the attacker. The attacker attacks the victim and the rescuer takes care of the victim and enables them to stay in the victim role. Each of these roles keeps the others involved in the triangle. The goal of the victim is not to be blamed. The goal of the attacker is power. The goal of the rescuer is to enable the victim by helping them not have to take responsibility, by intervening so they don’t have to face the attacker.
One person can take on all of these roles in a relationship, or they can share them with others in the relationship, purposefully or inadvertently, but always with the purpose of keeping the drama going and the blame in the air, never landing on their shoulders.
When an abuser is caught in their abuse, they can play each of these roles really well. Their intention is to make sure it lands on anyone else and they will use you to do just that:
The abuser in a victim role: “Why did you make me do that?”
The abuser in a Rescuer role (empathizing with themselves): “I have every right to do that. Look at everything I have to put up with.”
The abuser in the attacker role: “You are the problem.”
Sometimes, if they perceive you as attacking them, they will elicit you to be the rescuer by bringing to light their issues while they simply sit back and play the victim.
You: “Can we talk about spending more time together? I feel like your work is taking priority over me and the kids at the moment. “(you are now the attacker in his eyes)
Abuser: “How could you accuse me of something like that? Do you know how hard I work for this family?” (he places himself in the victim role)
You: “No, you are a good provider and we are grateful for what you do for us.” (Bam—you are now the rescuer)
Abuser: “You are so ungrateful!” (switching to attacker)
You: “No, I’m not. I’m sorry!” (you are now the victim)
Abuser: “I’m going to make you sorry…” (attacker)
….and so it goes, round and round again. The triangle doesn’t seem to end until and unless the abuser wants it to. In fact, he makes you believe that you can’t get off the ride yourself. He has control.
There is one way to stop the cycle. Refuse to rescue. If that happens, the victim must face the attacker. The attacker is then left to either take responsibility for their actions, or find someone else to draw into the triangle with them, to allow them to continue with their blame-avoiding roles.
What I should have done in all those soul-crushing attempts to walk into the lion’s den, was just to stop rescuing him. Stop apologizing for his issues and stop covering for him with other people. I rescued him more times than I can count, and I genuinely believed I was his attacker and that I could make up for that, by rescuing him. He sat and played victim, over and over and over again and I truly thought he was. Ultimately though, I finally did stop. I left. I broke that triangle, and so can you.
Read more about the Karpman Drama Triangle [Internet Archive link] here.