The Bermuda Triangle is legendary for unexplained disappearances. Explanations have sometimes been attributed to extraordinary paranormal or even extra-terrestrial activity. There doesn’t seem to be substantial evidence for this phenomena but there are many who have described some pretty weird scenarios reportedly to have taken place in this geographical triangle.
Sometimes our interactions with people, especially around conflict, bring with it a similar level of confusion and unexplained reasons why people say what they say and do what they do. However, I believe that people act in a way that makes sense to them. So, if a situation is confusing, you probably don’t have all the information you need to understand the reasons behind their actions.
The Drama Triangle is a pattern of that will help you decode at least some of those interactions. In 1968 Karpman published the ‘Karpman Triangle” in order to identify destructive roles people can take on in the midst of conflict. It is more commonly referred to today as, “The Drama or Victim Triangle.” There are three roles in the Drama Triangle; Persecutor, Victim and Rescuer. The persecutor blames, criticizes and diminishes the victim while the victim feels powerless, worthless and ashamed. This creates anxiety and instability in the relationship and invites a rescuer to enter the relationship dynamic. The rescuer is usually someone who wants to help and feels a sense of worth by doing so. Since these are roles rather than actually people, the roles can switch between the individuals involved so that the victim takes on the persecutor role, the rescuer the victim role, and persecutor the rescuer role, for example.
How does this look in a relationship? Consider a wife (persecutor role) who berates her husband (victim role) for not providing enough financial resources through his career to provide for the family in the way she desires. The husband defends his actions saying, “there is nothing he can do.” His situation is due to factors outside of his control. The husband complains to his friend (rescuer role) who in turn responds by saying that he will talk to a friend of his who has a thriving business. This friend may be able to hire him with a higher salary and benefits. This calms the anxiety for both the husband and the wife for a little while. However, in a subsequent conversation about friends of theirs taking a trip, the husband (now persecutor role) berates the wife (now victim role) for being unreasonable for her elevated expectations of lifestyle due to the friends she hangs around. He tells her that if she would stop spending so much money they would be able to save more money and possibly take a nice winter vacation as a family. She defends herself by saying that it isn’t her fault that groceries, clothing and other family household items have gone up in price. While upset, she tells her mom (rescuer role) about the situation. Her mom, who wants only the best for her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren, offers for them to join them on a holiday at her expense so they can all have a well-earned vacation. Again, the stress in the marital relationship subsides for a time while the core issue of finances does not get addressed or resolved.
How does this play out in the workplace? Consider John (victim role) who gets in trouble from his boss (persecutor role) and subsequently tells his co-worker, Matt (rescuer role) that he has been so busy with his new baby that he is tired and just can’t find the time to all of his responsibilities completed at work. Matt, graciously offers to take on a few of John’s responsibilities. Sounds like a nice guy, right? Well, yes he is. However, the result is that while Matt is trying to do his own work as well as the additional responsibilities from John, Matt starts getting some complaints from his wife that he is not spending enough quality time with her and the kids. Matt works at trying to please everyone involved, and then eventually he gets burned-out. In a conversation with his wife that gets heated, Matt fires back at his wife that she is demanding and doesn’t understand what it’s like to be him with all of his responsibilities. Matt has now taken a persecutor role. His wife has a choice. She will either set some clear boundaries with her husband and decide on a solution between the two of them, or she will turn to someone else and complain about Matt and how unhappy she has become in the relationship. This will invite someone into the rescuer role, who will undoubtedly be more than happy to be a sounding board and commiserate with her about how Matt should make the family more of a priority. If the friend has a good level of emotional intelligence, the friend will validate her friend’s feelings and invite her to talk with Matt about some possible solutions that may work for them. This will offer Matt’s wife to step out of the victim role and instead of invoking the complementary roles of the drama triangle, Matt and his wife can work out their challenge together.
The drama triangle can be destructive when people take on the persecutor, victim and rescuer roles. However, you can learn to step out of these roles when you learn assertive communication and healthy boundaries. Two good books on this subject are, “Boundaries” by Cloud and Townsend, and “The Dance of Anger” by Dr. Harriet Lerner. While conflict between two people usually creates anxiety, it’s important to find ways to communicate with each other in such a way as to understand each other’s perspectives, have empathy for the other person’s position and brainstorm solutions to find one that you can try to address the issue you’re facing. Two good books on this subject are, “Boundaries” by Cloud and Townsend, and “The Dance of Anger” by Dr. Harriet Lerner. “Crucial Conversations” by Grenny is a good resource on this subject.
Conflict in relationships can feel like a mystery at times. However, with the right tools, conflict can address sticky situations and even enhance relationships. We can all learn to step out of the Drama Triangle and enjoy collaborative discourse and problem solving. It may be more challenging in the beginning. However, I’m willing to bet that it will also be a whole lot more fulfilling in the long run.