The Dreaded Drama Triangle
Do you ever feel like you’re stuck in a never ending, Groundhog Day-like cycle of feeling frustrated, hopeless, guilty and resentful in your relationships?
Are you constantly trying to fix the same problems, but never getting anywhere despite your best efforts?
If so, then you may be stuck in what I call the Dreaded Drama Triangle.
In relationships, it is common to experience some tension, conflict or a fluctuation of connectedness – whether this relationship takes place at work, within the family, between friends, or in a romantic partnership. However, it is important to evaluate where they sit on the continuum of healthy, to unhealthy. Many people whose experiences resonate with the first few questions may in fact be stuck in a cycle of behaviour that becomes increasingly draining, with no obvious end in sight.
‘The Dreaded Drama Triangle’ is a simplified explanation of the Karpman Triangle – a social model of interaction, originally created by psychotherapist Stephen Karpman in 1968 to help explain the cyclical nature of destructive, conflict laden relationships and the roles that people play within them.
How do you know the DDT is in play in a relationship?
You feel the sands of sanity shifting under your feet as you go from feeling needed, to powerless, to resentful, over and over. Each cycle reduces your confidence, increases levels of anxiety and creates an almost addictive hold on you. As bad as things get in the relationship, you continually find yourself unable to fully disengage and leave – while also being unable to feel secure or build trust. You may find yourself thinking that “this time I can make it work”or “I can fix them/fix myself and eventually things will change”. Maybe the thought of walking away makes you feel guilty or scared. This creates a deepening sense of dependence, powerlessness and anger with a big dose of guilt thrown in for good measure, as shown in the diagram below.
This cycle is not just experienced in intimate or romantic relationships, but can be the toxic relating style of families and friendships as well. Within the DDT each person has a preferred role of Victim, Rescuer or Persecutor, and the perceived pay off gained from these roles. The big DRAMA is when the individuals switch roles and then the game of uncertainty begins.
Faces of The Dreaded Drama Triangle
The Victim’s subconscious mental stance is what I call ‘PLOMS’ or “Poor Little Old Me’s”. This term may sound harsh, but it is the painfully common position wherein the victim believes they are alone, unloved, oppressed, ashamed, and (most pertinently) powerless. This behaviour is often learnt through past experiences with individuals family of origin, or through traumatic experiences. These emotions feel incredibly real and valid, but they strip people of choices or the ability to grow.
Victims believe they can’t make decisions, or that their decisions are always wrong, and can therefore feel it’s pointless trying to break the cycle. When not being persecuted, the Victim will often seek out a Persecutor, and a Rescuer who will save the day but also perpetuate the Victim’s negative feelings of being unable to help themselves. The victim switches when they either get tired of being told what to do or being rescued and they want everyone to “get off my back”.
The rescuer’s subconscious mental stance is “Let me help you. I can fix this and you need me”. A classic enabler and people pleaser, Rescuers often originate in families with conflict or violence. The individual tries to avoid conflict, keep everyone happy and maintain the family unit . A more subtle variation of The Rescuer is that of a child who lives in the shadow of a dominating parental figure/sibling and learns that their role is to make everyone happy and not cause trouble. The Rescuer feels guilty if he/she doesn’t (or isn’t able to) go to the rescue and constantly needs a victim to play out the role.
The rescuer gains a sense of being needed and loved when they have people to rescue, but this behaviour also keeps the Victim dependent and gives the Victim permission to fail. The rewards derived from this rescue role are that the focus is kept off of the rescuer. By focusing their energy on someone else, it enables them to ignore their own anxiety and issues. This rescue role is also very pivotal because their actual primary interest is really an avoidance of their own problems, disguised as concern for the Victim’s needs. The Rescuer switches when they get resentful that their acts of saving everyone are ignored or taken for granted. This can result in the feeling of “I’m being so used! After all I’ve done for you this is the thanks I get?”.
The Persecutor subconscious mental state insists “It’s all your fault”. The Persecutor can be controlling, blaming, critical, oppressive, angry, and superior – all while feeling justified in their position. The Persecutor will often experience some of the following feelings; ”You should do this”, “I told you not to do XYZ and see what happened, I was right” or “I did it this way and it worked, why can’t you do the same like I told you too?”.
The Persecutor role originates from the observance of critical parental messages, which the individual internalises and unintentionally lives themselves. This is often until they experience the all too familiar realisation of “Oh my God I sound like my Mother/Father, they were so critical and rigid”. Unfortunately our parents have also learnt these behaviours from their own parents, causing the intergenerational hot potato of dysfunctional relationships to be unintentionally passed down, generation after generation.
It can at times seem like a “hot mess” of repetition/flailing between the three roles in the DDT, with the ever increasing spiral of toxic doom for everyone involved – which sounds dramatic, but this is a drama triangle.
Unless someone manages to extract themselves and stop the same old scene from playing over again, the DDT can continue for months, years and even across generations. The first and most powerful change is in gaining knowledge of the DDT’s existence: How you move around it, learning new and healthier tools. You can experiment yourself by drawing up your own triangle and explore the roles, thoughts, feelings and behaviours you find yourself caught in.
Article posted 8 March 2017
Caroline Williams is a counsellor and therapist in Auckland.
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