Navigating emotional drama


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by Sheri McGregor, MA

Decades ago, in the psychology of relationships, a model called the “drama triangle” was introduced by Stephen Karpman, M.D. Each point on the triangle identifies one of the shifting roles: the victim, the rescuer, and the persecutor.

Over time, this model, which is used in business, family, and other relationships, has been finessed, further developed, and altered by others. Relationships are complex. Here, I’ve tried to simplify with somewhat blatant examples.

Uh-oh, an emergency

Stan and Leslie’s adult daughter calls needing help. She is short of money, thought she could wait until payday to make her rent, but received a notice to pay up or vacate. She is the “victim.”

Stan tells her to talk to her landlord and explain. He’s angry. It’s about time she learned how to budget, and this is the real world. He’s given enough and she needs to learn responsibility. For purposes of the drama triangle, he is the “persecutor.”

Leslie secretly phones their daughter and says she’ll meet her at the ATM. She is the “rescuer.”

Not so simple

I could give all sorts of scenarios for the daughter’s emergency. Did she waste money on partying? Or did she have a vital medical need she paid out-of-pocket? Notice how your feelings shift with these scenarios. For now, let’s just say she has been irresponsible.

Here, Stan is in a “persecutor” role, but let’s look at his possible motivations. What if he has repeatedly seen their daughter pluck her mother’s heartstrings? This isn’t the first time she has called when she needs something. And then, after she receives Leslie’s help, she always goes silent. He can’t stand to watch Leslie suffer. Here, he sees himself less a persecutor than a loving, protective husband (the “rescuer”) for his wife (the “victim”).

Leslie, on the other hand, is distressed by her husband’s efforts to help their daughter learn life lessons and stand on her own two feet. Her mind fills with worries about their daughter’s safety and feelings. What if their daughter loses her apartment? and How must she feel that her father isn’t there for her? This mom could openly tell Stan that he’s being too hard on their daughter and, once she did, might shift into the role of Stan’s “persecutor.”

In this scenario Leslie secretly became her daughter’s “rescuer.” But Leslie’s worries are complex. If her daughter gets kicked out of her apartment, then what? The thought of their troubled daughter (and all the chaos and drama) moving back in with her and Stan is unbearable. So, she allows Stan to act as her own “rescuer” while secretly fulfilling that role for them both by keeping the daughter out of the house. In this way they are both victims and both rescuers. Stan also remains the persecutor in their daughter’s eyes.

The shifting, multiple roles may or may not be within the individual’s awareness. Here, Stan’s interactions with their daughter may trigger reactions in Leslie that date back into her own history.

It’s also true that Leslie could have been the one to say “no” to their daughter. A father can be in the rescuer role to an adult child just as much as a mother. I’m not attempting to stereotype anyone.

Stepping away from the triangle

Consider which of these roles you may have fallen into, not only with estrangement, but in other relationships as well. Also, don’t get hung up on the labels.

No one wants to be identified as a “persecutor,” but the example here makes clear that the “persecutor” role isn’t necessarily abusive or even harsh—although it may be felt (or portrayed to others) as such by the “victim.” The persecutor’s actions might even trigger some old compulsion or emotional wound in the “rescuer.”

In the scenario above, perhaps the father and mother could have paused and talked things through. Sometimes that’s the best tactic when we’re faced with an “emergency” that a) isn’t specifically ours ; or b) isn’t immediately life or death. Not jumping into a hasty decision or quick reply allows parents more time to form a united front. That’s what I advocate for. Of course, that would require talking about these sorts of things openly and ahead of such critical moments. That way, couples can find more agreeable plans, and avoid falling into old patterns where their roles are at odds.

These sorts of marital discussions aren’t easy. We run the risk of casting blame, causing resentment, or sowing further discord and disagreement about how to proceed. In Done With The Crying, I offer some marital scenarios that you may find helpful. And in the next book (Beyond Done) discussion examples are broadened to include others in the family. Communication is important but even long-term couples can sometimes hit snags. Without awareness and work, estrangement of adult children can destroy good marriages. Don’t be afraid to seek couples counseling, which can often help.

With the limited context of the presented scenario, it’s difficult to choose what might have been the best way forward. Perhaps the better answer might have been for the parents to agree together to help but then pay the money directly to the landlord. Perhaps a warning about future emergencies with decided upon specifics is needed and/or a way for the daughter to pay them back. That will be yours to decide, but the point I’m making is to be aware of our own tendencies to slip into these drama triangle roles (or other repeated actions).

Other common scenarios I hear about where these drama triangles may ensue include:

  • Aunts and uncles who step in as “rescuers” to adult children
  • In-law families with cult-like “rescuing” behavior who see the newcomer as a “victim” of a family they disapprove of in some way

These third-parties, whether relatives or in-law families, become “persecutors” of the parents who are being cut off by their adult child. The parents then become the “victims.”

These scenarios are just a sampling among many. They demonstrate the complexity that is often present around estrangement from adult children—and that people untouched by this sort of dysfunction would not imagine.

Eyes wide open

Reflect upon these roles and identify where you might find yourself fitting into one or more. Consider other situations where you might have had knee-jerk responses or ones that involve feelings of compulsion or resentment. A little self-examination can provide helpful insight.

Karpman’s drama triangle is useful in a variety of relational settings beyond the family. Do you end up rescuing co-workers? Are you or have you been the victim of a hard-nosed “persecutor” boss? Or are you the one who is rescued?

By looking at our present and past relational experiences, we may be able to identify not only our tendencies but perhaps their roots. That’s not to say I’m advocating for blaming your parents or anyone else, but our experiences and environments throughout life do affect our innate natures. By recognizing our own unconscious traps, and bringing them into our awareness, we can better understand and empathize with the emotional pitfalls of others and of ourselves.

Self-compassion for sad situations

Let’s add grandchildren to the semi-estranged or fully no-contact scenario. For purposes of illustration, let’s give the adult child a difficult or even diagnosed personality disorder. Rules are imposed that determine whether the grandparent is allowed to spend time with the grandchildren. The grandparent complies but the rules then shift … again … and again.

These loving, supportive grandparents are always uncertain and on edge, forever waiting for the next lecture about what they did “wrong” to justify the adult child withholding the grandchild yet again. If they defend themselves the punishment is longer and worse. Meanwhile, they worry the grandchild his being told lies about why they aren’t coming around. If the grandparents capitulate, they become the victim, with no rescuer in sight. Yet, by sliding into the powerless victim role, and complying, they can be in the grandchild’s life (at least for now)—thus rescuing the grandchild from the distress of believing they’re no longer loved.

While Karpman’s drama model doesn’t contain answers for every scenario, seeing ourselves in this context, however the roles fit (exactly or in shades), provides intellectual distance. This allows space for our logic to kick in and our critical thinking to outshine the emotionally compelled role-playing that can seem the right course or the only way.

The lesser evil?

Thinking about this final scenario, many grandparents spend years believing they cannot step away, yet eventually conclude that their continued involvement causes additional suffering. Ideal scenarios weren’t within their control. The circumstances of maintaining contact, with escalating rules and punishments, became a threat to their own and their grandchildren’s well-being. Stepping away from the drama [triangle] became the lesser of two evils.

By exiting the drama, they retain more energy for their own self-development, health, and resilience—things they have the right to and hope to preserve. Often, this is tied to the hope that their adult children will change or that their grandchildren will one day seek them out alone. Whether either of those things happen, I empathize with those who say “no more” to an adult child’s machinations. They do this not only as heroes (rescuers) but as reasoned, sensible, and loving grandparents.

Knowledge is [the first step to] power

I hope that considering this relational model and the roles you may at times fall into has been helpful. By examining our tendencies in how we interact and respond to others our awareness grows. And with awareness, we can become more self-possessed and -determinative no matter the relationship.

Related reading

Ask Sheri McGregor: Contacting estranged granddaughter

Grandparent alienation

There are no “right” words when. . . .

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15 thoughts on “Navigating emotional drama

  1. Sarah

    Thank you for this. “The circumstances of maintaining contact, with escalating rules and punishments, became a threat to their own and their grandchildren’s well-being. Stepping away from the drama [triangle] became the lesser of two evils.”

    just wanted to thank you again Sheri. I needed a boost today. A friend of mine happily told me of gifts that she sent to my pregnant estranged daughter. I thanked her for blessing my daughter and her husband and I am thankful that people bless her. I know even some of my own friends, and most of my family, just don’t understand, and that is ok. But it hurts too. So I am here wondering why it hurts so much besides feeling so left out. I know that it is best for me not to be in my soon-to-be-here granddaughter’s life because she doesn’t need to be exposed to the tension. I think the most painful part for me is that I just do not understand why a daughter would not want her mom in her life and celebrations. I know she felt she had to take sides with her narcissistic father who denigrated me. But still. It’s just hitting me hard, and once again your site encouraged me. Thank you.

  2. Bodhi

    Thank you Sheri, for clearly explaining the triangulation that goes on in families. I also feel this. Our daughter has been estranged for almost two years, and my husband has been her rescuer, while he portrays me as the persecutor. Of course, he sees our daughter as the victim. I have had to hold firm to my boundaries, and now, my husband has finally begun to form a stronger bond with me. It’s taken a long time. Yes, there is a toxic boyfriend, who we never met, but he might play a role as well. But our daughter will need to grow up and finally be responsible for her actions. I am now in a much better frame of mind, and content with my choices. Estrangement, leaves a trail of disaster, but it’s how we react that really counts.

  3. Liz P.

    Sheri, your book has helped me so much. Thank you! I was a shaken up mess with my adult daughter (age 42) who was literally ruining the retirement era I had worked my whole life hoping to enjoy. But now? DONE WITH THE CRYING!! I feel like I have gotten my life back and am not about to be yanked back into her crazy drama with any random phone call. I am making my own plans with partner and friends, enjoying my own activities and hobbies. I did my job as a parent (and did it well) and have nothing to apologize for. If she “doesn’t feel seen” etc then that’s on her. I’m DONE. I’m no longer her victim. Enjoying my life and finally free.
    Thank you so so much for DONE WITH THE CRYING. I keep it by the phone with little post-its flagging particular pages, so if she calls and raises a hysterical fuss and I’m caught off guard, I take a deep breath, say, “let me think about that for a moment,” and find a relevant passage in DONE. This has been so incredibly helpful.

    1. rparents Post author

      Thank you, Liz P. I am so glad that you are taking back the joy of your life and not letting her “ruin the retirement era.” Your note made my morning.

      Sheri McGregor

  4. Trish

    Here is some advice for any parent anywhere. Never count on having your children in your life until you pass.

    I come from a large family with many friends, and oh the things I am seeing. I think much of this problem is born of greed and selfishness… I spoiled mine.

    A distant family member just passed, not even in the ground yet. The kids, even the estranged ones are fighting over money and already selling daddy’s stuff. Their mom told me 10 years ago she wished she never had kids. Back then I couldn’t comprehend how she felt, but now I do.

  5. Nancy P

    Interesting triangle of shifting roles. My family is split in half. Ex husband is psychiatrically diagnosed as a narcissist.My ED 46, shows narcissistic traits and is allied with her father .
    .I see them as the persecutors. Both have ghosted my son for 3+ years. Ex husband is on his 6th wife and is quite wealthy. Daughter has ghosted me 3+years.
    In the triad, I view myself as victim of my
    daughter ‘s decision to go No contact. She never gave me any reason for her decision.

    Now that I am getting older, my son is adopting the rescuer role toward me, consoling me when I bring up my daughter and supporting me when I refuse to remain depressed about her absence.
    I also am in a rescuer role with my son
    regarding his issues.
    I am sure my daughter sees herself as a victim.

  6. Mary S.

    My husband and I are new to total estrangement. Going on seven months now. I read the part in this piece about the in laws treating your son or daughter as a victim. Of us! Our daughter and son in law have been married 15 years. Two sons age 11 and 7.
    It’s always been tense with them both. Our daughter was like this with the previous boyfriend years ago. Distant etc. I have found out the son in law told her sister that he was alright with never seeing us again.
    There was always this drip drip of negative comments about my husband, her father from her FIL. We ignored it to maintain a relationship. Of course not seeing our grandsons is the difficult part.
    There was drama at the end of our family vacation last summer and my husband told the SIL how we felt about him spending lots of time with their old friends. BOOM!
    Now our question is how long do we wait to cut them out of our trust? My husband says several years. I believe this is forever..
    Yes we have reached out to make amends etc. Thoughts anyone

  7. Maria S.

    Great article, Sheri! I’ve been using this concept of drama triangle in my practice for years, it’s been always so helpful for the patients to understand their roles in a complex relationship.
    Thank you for the excellent explanation!

  8. Diane H.

    So I read this article yesterday and gave it some thought, then tonight my son, who has been estranged for 5 years, rung me. It’s a wee bit of a blur because I really wasn’t expecting it, but I’m relieved to report that although he hasn’t changed his tune at all, I had the sense to step away from my expected role of rescuer. Sure enough, he wanted rescuing without even pretending to be ashamed or apologetic for past damning behaviour, and was his usual belligerent self. It’s as if time had stood still and the past 5 years never happened. Well, he is stuck in his behaviour and his mother chose to hung up, had a glass of port and reflected on how far she had come. Lol

  9. Trish J.

    This is how estrangement feels for me:
    I feel like a pathetic second-class citizen sneaking up to their door with presents for the grandkid.
    I feel shame for being rejected and don’t want anyone to know.
    I don’t want any new family members entering my life because this probably would happen again.
    I feel unlovable.
    I can never visit anyone without bringing money or gifts because just myself will never be acceptable.
    I want to get off this train but don’t know how.
    The only love I feel is from God and I wonder what he is going to do about this situation.
    I feel grateful to have found this group.
    I have a million tears, but I shall keep them inside forever.
    I must work on a project every day, or I shall fall into depression.
    I feel like a user venting on this website.
    I am angry about what has been done to these other parents when I read their stories.

    1. Liz P

      Trish J, hang in there. It is only this past week that I have finally been able to detach from my adult daughter and stop feeling exactly those terrible feelings of shame and sadness you describe! It took me a long time to realize that I did My parenting job; it is now OVER; I don’t have anything to be ashamed about.

      You can get through it to the other side! You can get your own happiness back and your own good life back, independent of them and any strings they pull to make you feel bad. (Sheri’s book helped me a lot.)

      Good luck and every sympathy—-you can do it!
      Wishing you all the best.

  10. Kathy K.

    I too as a grandparent have had to pull away for my own sanity. My parents were both heroin addicts and I was the oldest so I started my journey of rescue with my younger sister. After helping her numerous times she told me that I only help her for the accolades?? From whom might I have received accolades? We were the only family left, my parents had both OD’d by this time. Then I had kids I cherished who became drug addicts and I tried to help for years but it didn’t help. Then came grandkids who only saw me as a person to take advantage of. Not when they were babies of course but as they got older. So to say I am a rescuer who finally wised up is such a relief. My rescuing was at the cost of my own mental health. I was so grateful when I happened upon this family of other parents thanks to Sheri!

  11. Meg

    Thank you, a significant moment of clarity here for me Sheri reading this article on the drama triangle.

    ‘Aunts and uncles who step in as “rescuers” to adult children
    In-law families with cult-like “rescuing” behavior who see the newcomer as a “victim” of a family they disapprove of in some way’

    This, along with punishment of withholding a grandchild I have never met, is exactly the same situation I find/found myself in.

    I’ve exited the drama, as hard as that is. Focus for me is on my recovery and wellbeing.

    Reading your articles has helped me take the more peaceful and sane path, Thank you Sheri x


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