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  • Writer's pictureFiona Oppenheimer

Navigating Relationship Challenges: Understanding the Triangle of Conflict

This is a useful way of looking at relationships, and I use this in all my work with couples—both as a way of seeing where they are, but also where they need to go. It is based on the Drama Triangle or Triangle of Conflict, also known as the Karpman Triangle, which was developed by psychiatrist Steven Karpman in the early 1970s. What follows is my interpretation and expansion on Karpman's original ideas.

Picture an upside-down triangle with the letters P and R at the top corners and the letter V at the bottom tip. The triangle represents the relationship between two people. It's a powerful tool for understanding relationship dynamics, particularly in the context of conflict and power struggles with your partner. Let's delve into this concept and explore how it can shed light on your own relationships.

Decoding the Triangle

The Drama Triangle represents the interplay of roles within a relationship. The letters P, R, and V stand for Persecutor, Rescuer, and Victim. These roles are not fixed identities , it is not the people themselves, but a role that each plays, so it represents positions that individuals may assume during conflicts or challenges in the relationship.

  • Persecutor: The one in control, often exhibiting aggression, blame, and criticism.

  • Rescuer: The helper, stepping in to alleviate the victim's distress or solve the problem.

  • Victim: The one who feels overwhelmed or powerless, seeking support or validation from the rescuer.

Dynamics in Action

The relationship within the triangle is fluid, with individuals moving between roles depending on circumstances and triggers. The roles interlock and there is always someone on top who seems to have more power, and someone on the bottom. The relationship moves about in a circle as follows. For example, a Rescuer may become resentful of being the 'nice guy' and shift into the role of Persecutor when feeling overwhelmed by the burden of responsibility.

It can look this this, the rescuer steps in and says, "I can help you out. Just do what I say, everything will be fine." Often couples will begin their relationship in some form of this. They psychologically make a deal: The rescuer says that I will agree to be big, strong, good and nice; the victim says I will agree to be overwhelmed and unable to manage. Everything seems to go well. The rescuer feels needed, important and in charge. The victim has someone to take care of him.

And it works fine, except every once in a while one of two things happens. Sometimes the rescuer gets tired of doing it all. He feels like he is shouldering all the responsibilities and that the other is not pulling his weight, not giving anything back, not appreciating what the rescuer is doing. The rescuer gets fed up, angry, resentful. Then Bam! He shifts over to the P, the persecutor role. He suddenly blows up—usually about something minor, like laundry or who didn't take out the rubbish—or acts out, like spending a lot of money, going on a drinking binge, or having an affair. He feels he deserves it (after all, he says to himself, look at what I've been putting up with).

The message underneath the behaviour and anger that usually does not come out very clearly is: "Why don't you grow up? Why don't you take some responsibility? Why do I have to do everything around here? Why don't you appreciate what I am doing for you? This is unfair!" The feeling of unfair can be a strong one.

At that point, the victim gets scared and moves up to the R position, tries to make up and calm the waters. "I'm sorry," he says. "I didn't realise. I really do appreciate what you do. I'll do better." Then the persecutor feels bad about whatever he did or said and goes down to the victim position and gets into a low-mood. Then they both stabilise and go back to their original positions or roles.

Conversely, a Victim may grow tired of feeling powerless and transition into the Persecutor role, expressing anger or frustration towards their partner. He gets tired of the other one always organising him, always telling him what to do. He gets tired of being looked down on because the rescuer is basically saying, "If it wasn't for me, you wouldn't know what to do." Once in a while, the victim gets fed up and moves to the persecutor role. Like the rescuer, the victim in this role blows up and gets angry—usually about something small—or acts out.

The message underneath that doesn't get said is this: "Why don't you get off my back? Leave me alone, stop controlling my life! Step back, I can do things myself!" The rescuer hears this and moves to the victim position. He says to himself, "Poor me, every time I try to help, look what I get." The persecutor then feels bad about whatever he did or said and goes to the rescuer position and says something like, "I was stressed out, off my meds, tired from the kids. I'm sorry." And then they make up and go back to where they originally were.

Patterns and Repercussions

While most of us move through all the roles, often we will fit more comfortably in one role more than another. This has to do with personality, upbringing, and learned ways of coping. The rescuer as a child was often an only child, oldest, or grew up in a chaotic family. This type of person learns to be very sensitive to others as a means of survival. He develops good radar and can pick up the nuances of emotions. Essentially he takes the position of, "I'm happy if you're happy, and I need to make sure you are happy." What works for the child, however, doesn't necessarily work so well for the adult. He easily feels like a martyr, he is always at risk of burnout.

He also has a hard time knowing what he wants. Because he spent so much of his energy as a child looking outward and doing what others wanted, he never had the opportunity to sit back and decide what he wanted. He worries about making the right decision, about not offending anyone in his life or the critical voice in his head.

The victim, in contrast, was often the youngest in the family, was over-protected as a child by parents, or had older siblings who stepped in and took over all the time when he was stuck with a problem. What he missed in growing up were opportunities to develop the self-confidence that comes from learning to manage problems on your own. Now, as an adult, he easily gets overwhelmed, feels unconfident, anxious. To handle these feelings he looks to the rescuer who takes over and helps him feel better.

The persecutor as a type is the evil twin of the rescuer. Whereas the rescuer controls by being good and nice, the persecutor is angry, critical, and blaming. This is the abuser, and obviously some couples start with this persecutor - victim relationship, playing out childhood models and roles. The persecutor learned early on that when I get scared I get tough. If I can negatively control everything going on around me, no one can sneak up behind me and get me.

These role shifts can perpetuate a cycle of dysfunction within the relationship. Arguments, blame games, and emotional distancing are common outcomes. Partners may feel trapped in their respective roles, unable to break free from the negative patterns.

“The way out of the drama triangle, as many spiritual teachers, therapists and coaches have suggested, is the creative orientation. This is where we exercise full responsibility and accountability. In this, we become artists and activists of our own lives, and focus our attention on the changes that we’d like to bring into being. As we move beyond old habits of blaming, complaining, excuses, and wishful thinking, life begins to open up. This becomes a world of opportunity, power, and freedom.”

— Frank Forencich

Seeking Transformation

Breaking free from the Drama Triangle requires awareness, introspection, and a willingness to change. Imagine now a straight line with the letters A at each end. The A stands for adult. This person is not in a role, is more complete, proactive rather than reactive, self-responsible rather than blaming, and is outside the triangle. Adults are peers; they are on the same level in terms of power. This is where you want to be.

Partners can strive to move towards the "Adult" position, characterized by proactive, self-responsible behaviour. This entails:

  • Clear Communication: Expressing needs and boundaries openly and honestly.

  • Taking Ownership: Recognising individual responsibility for thoughts, feelings, and actions.

  • Building Empathy: Understanding and validating each other's perspectives.

  • Setting Healthy Boundaries: Establishing mutual respect and autonomy within the relationship.

The adult says, "I'm responsible for what I think, do and say. If something bothers me, it is my problem. If you can do something to help me with my problem, I need to tell you, because you can't read my mind. If you decide not to help me, I'll need to decide what I'm going to do next to fix my problem. Similarly, if something bothers you, it is your problem. If there is something I can do to help you with your problem, you need to tell me. And if I decide not to help you with your problem, you can work it out. You may not handle it the way I might, but you can do it. I don't need to take over."

Embracing Growth

Transitioning out of the Drama Triangle is a journey of personal and relational growth. It involves letting go of ingrained patterns, challenging limiting beliefs, and cultivating a deeper understanding of oneself and one's partner.

Two of the problems the rescuer and victim have in their relationship is that they do expect a lot of mind-reading ("You should know what is going on or how to help without my having to say so.") and then feel frustrated or disappointed or angry when the other does not. They also have a distorted sense of responsibility: The rescuer tends to be over-responsible—"Your problems are my problems, I'm happy if you are happy, and it is my job to make sure you are happy." In an attempt to "make" the victim happy, the victim, over time, begins to feel pressured and controlled, which sets up the explosion. Similarly, the victim tends to be under-responsible—"My problems are your problems, I expect you to fix them, and I either have to wait or manipulate you into doing so."

The adults, in contrast, are clear about who has the problem. This is represented by the vertical line running between them. If you feel it is a problem, it's your problem. This is a key concept, one invaluable for couples to understand and incorporate. By being aware of who has the problem, the individuals can avoid the defensiveness, anxiety, control, and manipulation of couples caught in the drama triangle.

They also can be more intimate. The problem the rescuer and victim face in their relationship is that the roles, which are not the people themselves but only parts of them, keep them stuck. The rescuer cannot let down his guard, or get too vulnerable, because he is afraid that the victim will not be able to handle it. Similarly, the victim cannot ever get too strong because the rescuer will feel threatened and out of job. The long line between the victim and rescuer is real. It represents the emotional distance between them.

As adults they don't have this problem. Both can be responsible, strong, and yet honest and vulnerable. They can take risks, are not locked in roles, and hence, can be more open and intimate. While change may be challenging, this way of perceiving each other and engaging as adults opens the door to greater intimacy, trust, and fulfillment within the relationship.

However two people can obviously be in this drama triangle pattern for a long time—seemingly getting along, suddenly having some acting out or emotional explosion, making up, returning to their roles, and repeating the pattern over and over again. There will be a period of transition while these new ways are being created, and the new ways will not, at least for a while, feel as good as the old ways.

The reason the triangle is so strong and works is because the roles are complementary. Each sees in the other what he is unable to see in himself. The rescuer, for example, is not as nice or strong as he thinks, but sees his vulnerability and anger in the victim and persecutor. The victim is not as weak as he thinks, but projects his strength and anger onto the rescuer and persecutor. The persecutor is not as tough as he thinks, but only sees his weakness and goodness in the victim and rescuer.

To be successful, each must learn to recognize and incorporate what has been left out. The rescuer needs to learn to recognize his wants, and take the risk of not being good and over-responsible. He needs to learn how to recognize his anger and then use it for information about what he wants. He needs to experiment with letting go of control, and resist the impulse to fix his own anxiety by taking over when the other is struggling. He needs to learn how to let down his guard, so he can learn to trust and be vulnerable, and nurture in a genuine caring way, rather than out of fear and the need for control.

Conclusion - Mutual Growth

The Drama Triangle offers a valuable framework for understanding and navigating the complexities of relationships. By recognising the roles we play and actively striving to move towards greater authenticity and responsibility, we can break free from negative patterns and foster healthier, more fulfilling and intimate connections. Embrace the journey of self-discovery and transformation, and watch as your relationship evolves towards a place of harmony and mutual growth into true adulthood.

If you need help getting unstuck from a drama triangle relationship, please get in touch.

Fiona Oppenheimer

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