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The Dramatic Triangle and The Role We Play in It

Why are some relationships harmonious and happy and others seem like a struggle? Why does a personal or professional relationship that seemed good suddenly become difficult? The explanation can be found in the dramatic triangle and in the role played by each of us, according to the theory of Stephen Karpman, a transactional psychologist.

Let’s look at an example. Suppose that you spend the day criticizing your team-mates for the work they have made. However, when you are with your friends, you get personally involved in their problems to help them, without having been asked, and you end up exhausted from so much effort. At the same time, you live in a relationship that does not make you happy. You complain about your bad luck but do nothing to change it.

If you are in a similar situation, you are living three different roles. At work you play as a persecutor, with your friends you act as an empathic person and in your relationship you feel victimized. And any of the three roles makes you happy.

Most conflicts in our personal and professional relationships arise because we have adopted a role of persecutor, rescuer, or victim. All these attitudes drain up our energy and leave us with unfulfilling emotions. In addition, they are not fixed roles, but we switch from one to another depending on the moment or the situation. If we return to the previous example, you could also be a persecutor of your partner, criticizing all the time what they do, or victim at work. For this reason, it is called dramatic triangle: once we enter the triangle, we jump from one vertex to another. The challenge is to get out of it. Let’s see how.

Recognize that you are in the attitude of a persecutor, rescuer, or victim.

  • Persecutors judge everything around them. They criticize, threaten, or blame how bad life is going or what happens to them.  It is easy to imagine that this attitude is very uncompromising and arouses a lot of anger and frustration.
  • Rescuers worry excessively about the problems of others, even to their disadvantage. They offer help, even if nobody asked for it; they surround themselves with people who need them and assume an exaggerated responsibility for their well-being. They tend to avoid conflicts and don’t feel sufficiently recognized for the effort dedicated.
  • Victims constantly complain and look for others to solve their problems.  They feel helpless, susceptible and unable to get out of difficulties alone. It is a role that generates a lot of dissatisfaction because the person does not feel able to get out of the situation.

Assume responsibility for your own happiness and well-being.  

Stop criticizing others for being the way they are, dedicating yourselves to save their lives, and expecting anyone else to solve your problems.

The persecutor needs to take responsibility for their anger when they don’t control everything around them. They have to accept their own vulnerability and stop pretending to always be right. They should learn how to transform persecution into challenge.

The rescuer needs to take charge of their life, learn to say no, and set their own limits. They are not supposed to help everyone when they have not asked for it (note that the rescuer should also let others help them). The transition would consist overcoming this role with that of a facilitator, who gives support but allows others to be protagonists.

The victim needs to regain their own capacity through learning their skills. They should gain more self-confidence, stop waiting for others to tell them what to do or solve their difficulties. They would need to develop a more proactive attitude, to be able to make their own decisions.

In short, we all live in relationships in which we play an unfortunate role, that of persecutor, rescuer, or victim. As we fall into the dramatic triangle, it is possible that the other person is also in one of these roles. Our challenge is to get out of this undesirable triangle through two keys: recognize our attitude and assume our own responsibility. Only then we can cultivate healthy relationships.

Have you ever found yourself in any of these roles?

For more on healthy relationships have a look at my blog.

15 thoughts on “The Dramatic Triangle and The Role We Play in It

  1. As a rule I like to say, “Give up complaining and give up blaming.” If you can let go of those two things you’re pretty much forced to take responsibility for your life. Easier said than done of course. Great post Cristiana 🙏

  2. I think many of us can relate to finding ourselves in one or more of these roles at some point in our lives. Personally, I have found myself playing the rescuer role in my relationships, often taking on too much responsibility for others’ well-being and neglecting my own needs. It’s a difficult cycle to break, but I think your advice on setting boundaries and learning to say no is helpful.

    So, thankyou for this.

  3. I’d forgotten about this model. I tend to be a rescuer but I’m trying to step back and not trying to fix everyone’s problems for them.

  4. I tried all of these roles one at a time, mostly unknowingly. Looking back later it’s easier to see the roles that we assume in every single situation. Our reactive responses are often engraved so it is harder to see what’s going on to trace the roots of our own reactions. Triggers and trauma are different for different folks, without knowing this we tend to think that if it doesn’t bother me, it doesn’t bother you as well.

    1. Interesting when you say that without knowing this we tend to think that if it doesn’t bother me, it doesn’t bother you as well. I think you are right. Than you for commenting Milena!

  5. I’ve spent a lot of my professional life enouraging people to take responsibility for themselves, and continue to do so now as a member of the human race. Thank you for sharing your thoughts; cultivating this attitude of personal responsibility cannot be repeated often enough.

  6. What an interesting triangle and description of our patterns, Cristiana. I love your conclusion, “Our challenge is to get out of this undesirable triangle through two keys: recognize our attitude and assume our own responsibility. Only then we can cultivate healthy relationships.” Right!

  7. I was unfamiliar with this model, but I can see it at work. Thanks for posting this!

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