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.
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