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The drama triangle

By Norman Araiza

It can be said that life is made up of a series of roles that we take on in various situations. Our choice of roles largely defines the probable outcome. A psychotherapist from San Francisco, Steve Karpman, defined three classic roles that we all play, to our own detriment, and are known as the drama triangle. The triangle consists of three roles which, when adopted, not only place us in serious jeopardy of a conflict with the other two people involved in the triangle, but also define the roles of the other players as well. Either way, whenever we adopt any of the three roles, the chance of a good outcome is negligible.

The drama triangle is entered by taking on the role of Persecutor, and all Persecutors make someone a Victim, and Victims need Rescuers. Any of the three will work or not work depending how you want to look at it.

The Persecutor is critical, sometimes angry, and accusatory. He or she may be laced with guilt, blame or martyrdom and is ostracizing. When someone becomes a Persecutor, he/she defines the other as the Victim. Every victim looks for a Rescuer.

The Victim position may be entered as a response or reaction to another person or institution. Oftentimes it is a life-long role that requires someone to rescue them. Those who play this role have a difficult life. They see themselves as being helpless to avoid Persecutors and destined to receive intervention from Rescuers, usually friends or family. Victims send the message that they are being persecuted and in need of rescuing. Do-gooders usually come to the rescue, helping this poor person that needs them to figure out what must be done to correct the situation. The problem is the message the Victim gets. That it’s not their fault. It’s the boss, of the horrible wife/husband. They are helpless, unable to think, or act, and are in need of someone to help them. Perhaps that is the underlying reason why Rescuers rescue; they need the feeling of importance they receive from the act of rescuing. When you rescue, you are defining someone else or some institution as Persecutor and someone else as Victim. Inherent but unconscious, these roles are found in almost all dysfunctional families and occasionally in functional families. A common scenario is: Gramma rescues grandson by sending him money so he can continue to be a victim and avoid responsibility by not working. Then, Mom becomes Persecutor of Gramma, who now becomes Victim of Mom.

Of all three roles, the Rescuer role is the most dangerous because roles can change quickly, whereby the Rescuer becomes the Victim. As an example, more injuries occur for police officers in the line of duty during domestic squabbles, than in any line of service. The husband is persecuting his wife: the Victim. The police officer intervenes as the Rescuer, and attempts to restrain the husband. The wife, concerned for her husband, now changes from Victim to Persecutor and hits the policemen over the head with the frying pan. The police officer has switched from Rescuer to Victim, and the husband, who originally was the Persecutor, now is forced to become the Rescuer to save the Policeman.

If you aren’t confused by now, go to the rear of the class. The triangle of roles is classic and are found in nearly every negative conflict and interpersonal difficulty you can have with another person or group. We cannot control others or change what they do but we can control ourselves and the roles we play with them. If we stay out of the triangle, those who are in the triangle are either forced to find others willing to participate by getting into the triangle or are forced to drop the roles altogether.

If you look objectively at the relationships that present problems for you recurrently, you will surely find the roles represented. It takes insight, commitment and a willingness to accept responsibility for the ineffectiveness in our interactions in order to improve them.

Norman Araiza M.A. is an American trained psychotherapist enjoying a limited practice in SMA. He is available for consultation and can be reached at 152-7842 email:


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