The Lesbian Drama Triangle (Karpman)
In the 1960’s Stephen Karpman developed a framework to understand and change negative behavior patterns in relationships called The Drama Triangle. This is a helpful way to begin examining how you show up in your relationship, which may lead to more harm than good.
The Drama Triangle consists of three roles: the victim, the persecutor, and the rescuer.
Samantha and Alex have been together for two years and are caught in the Drama Triangle. Samantha frequently assumes the role of the victim, expressing feelings of overwhelm due to work and family responsibilities. She often complains to Alex about how unfair her life is, and how she feels disproportionately burdened and wants help.
In the Drama Triangle, Samantha embodies the role of the victim. By assuming the role of the victim, Samantha is seeking attention, sympathy, and support from Alex. However, by consistently framing herself as the victim, Samantha perpetuates a cycle of negativity, hindering her ability to address the underlying issues causing her distress. By portraying herself as a victim, Samantha feels relief from certain responsibilities and accountability for her actions or circumstances. This can temporarily alleviate feelings of guilt or the need to take proactive steps. Samantha needs to recognize her own agency and actively participate in finding solutions rather than remaining in a disempowered state.
The victim is the person who feels powerless and helpless and blames others for their problems.
The victim role arises when someone feels helpless or powerless in a situation or relationship. They may feel like they don’t have the resources or ability to change their circumstances and may blame others for their problems. This can be due to past experiences of trauma, neglect, or abuse that have left the person feeling vulnerable and powerless.
Alex, on the other hand, naturally falls into the role of the rescuer. She tries to fix Samantha’s problems by offering advice and attempting to cheer her up, and often will take on some of Samantha’s responsibilities. As the rescuer, Alex genuinely wants to support Samantha through her challenges. She offers advice and tries to alleviate Samantha’s burden by taking on additional responsibilities. Alex derives a sense of importance and self-worth from helping Samantha, and she feels a sense of purpose and security by being the person Samantha can rely on. She also receives gratitude, appreciation, and validation from Samantha occasionally, and Alex enjoys being seen as a helpful person who makes a positive difference in Samantha’s life.
The rescuer is the person who tries to fix other people’s problems and save them from their difficulties.
The rescuer role arises when a person takes on the problems of others as their own and feels a sense of importance or control by fixing or saving others. This can be due to low self-esteem, a need for validation or attention, or a desire to avoid their problems by focusing on others.
Eventually, however, Alex becomes frustrated when Samantha fails to take her advice or seems unappreciative of her efforts. This frustration can lead to a shift in Alex’s role, transforming her into the persecutor. Instead of understanding Samantha’s feelings, Alex may chastise her for complaining, or Alex may withdraw emotionally. This helps Alex relieve her out-of-control feelings by giving her a sense of power by taking on an authoritative role. Alex sees her critical or aggressive behavior as a boundary, though how she goes about achieving her goals confirms for Samantha that she is being wronged, and that life is not fair. This becomes a negative cycle that develops into a pattern over time.
- The persecutor is the person who blames and criticizes others and often uses aggression or intimidation to get their way.
The persecutor role arises when a person feels threatened or insecure and uses aggression or intimidation to assert control or protect themselves. They may see themselves as the enforcer of rules or justice and use criticism or blame to justify their behavior. This can be due to inadequacy, insecurity, or a need for control.
It’s a Framework, Not an Identity
The Drama Triangle offers a framework for understanding negative patterns of behavior and communication that can lead to dysfunctional relationships. Though criticized for oversimplifying the complexities of human behavior and relationships, the Drama Triangle is easy to understand and provides a starting point for change. The goal is to identify the behaviors (victim, persecutor, or rescuer) you identify with so you can begin to own and address your ineffective behavior. By recognizing when you are assuming a certain role in the Drama Triangle, you can take steps to break free from negative patterns of behavior and communication and develop more positive and empowering responses.
Breaking Free from the Drama Triangle
Identify and Own Your Role
The Drama Triangle perpetuates negative behavior patterns, where individuals get trapped in a cycle of playing one of the three roles. This repetitive cycle can lead to further conflict, resentment, and dissatisfaction.
All three roles in the Drama Triangle tend to avoid taking personal responsibility for their actions. Victims externalize their problems, Persecutors blame others, and Rescuers may neglect their needs while focusing on others. This lack of accountability hampers personal growth and the resolution of conflicts.
The Drama Triangle often creates an imbalance of power within relationships. Persecutors exert control and dominance, while Victims feel disempowered and dependent on others. Rescuers, although well-intentioned, may unknowingly enable the Victim role, reinforcing the power dynamics and preventing individuals from developing healthy coping mechanisms.
Improve Your Communication Skills
The Drama Triangle hampers effective communication. Rather than engaging in open and empathetic dialogue, the focus becomes more on assigning blame, seeking validation, or trying to fix the situation. This can lead to misunderstandings, increased conflict, and decreased relationship trust.
Samantha and Alex must develop new communication and conflict-resolution skills to escape the Drama Triangle. Effective communication, in particular, Wholehearted Communication, is a pathway out of the drama triangle. When Alex and Samantha begin to name and understand their inner experiences accurately, they can show up differently in their relationship. They can eliminate blame and replace it with empathy and understanding.
Effective communication is a skill. It requires self-awareness, emotional regulation, an understanding of your unmet needs, and the capacity to communicate them with one another in ways that can be heard and understood. If you want to improve your communication, join me for my next 6-week online course, The Art of Wholehearted Communication.