Staying out of the ‘Drama Triangle’

By Jim Hagerty
Staff Writer

All relationships experience problems at times. However, for some, drama never seems to subside. In fact, some aren’t comfortable if there isn’t a crisis they feel victimized by or persecuted for.

The need to be rescued has people clawing for support and ways out of desperate situations from which they see no escape. According to family counseling professionals, living a life of personal drama is often a familiar way to exist, and can be the downfall of marriages, friendships and other interpersonal relationships. Stress and excess drama can also lead to serious physical health problems.

Even as millions understand that drama is an endless trap, many cannot stay out of its fire. However, a simple explanation as to why scores are entrenched is found in what Dr. Stephen Karpman began calling the Drama Triangle in the 1960s.

The Drama Triangle consists of three distinct roles: Victim, Rescuer and Persecutor. Each is represented, Karpman claims, by a sense of self-righteousness.

The Victim is marked by one who feels wronged, often to the point of anger and helplessness. Victims feel as though they “can’t believe this is happening to them.” Out of desperation and, at times, rage, Victims search for Rescuers to save them.

The Rescuer will come to the aid of the Victim at all costs. He’s afraid to put his own needs first. He is most afraid of the Persecutor, so he caters to the Victim’s every need. The typical Rescuer knows no boundaries, and must pull Victims out of the sludge.

However, at times, when a Victim is unable to recruit a Rescuer, the Victim becomes the Persecutor and takes on the resentful attitude of, “After all I’ve done for you, you won’t rescue me?”

When the three points of the Drama Triangle are reached, the viciousness of its never-ending cycle is repeated, often throughout the lives of those who simply don’t know how to move outside of its paralyzing sides.


There is good news about the Drama Triangle: We don’t have to stay there. According to social worker and family counselor Julie Logan, engaging in conflict at the wrong time can result in a bout inside the triangle where resolutions are rare.

“We want problems solved now—immediate gratification,” Logan explained. “Sometimes it’s not always the right time to jump into a conflict. We talk about H.A.L.T.—Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. When we feel any of those emotions, it’s not the best time to deal with drama. When we feel these emotions, it’s difficult to communicate as an adult.”

The solution, Logan said, is to set up personal boundaries to prevent us from being dragged into the triangle. A boundary does not have to be complex, scientific or rehearsed. For example, a friend calls and is frantic about a repair on his car he cannot afford. He, the Victim, rants about how he needs a Rescuer. A simple boundary may be: “You are in a tight spot. Unfortunately, there is nothing I can do for you financially.”

When boundaries are set, it is common for others to resist them. Because human beings do not traditionally like boundaries, more than one may be in order. The frantic, financially-strapped friend may reply with: “I’m your friend. I’d help you in a second! I wouldn’t turn my back on you!” Another boundary is called for: “When I hear you say those things to me, I feel manipulated and used. I need you to not speak to me like that. I am tired. Could we talk when I am more rested?”

More information about the Karpman Drama Triangle is at Julie Logan can be reached at (815) 316-2621.

From the Aug. 18-24, 2010 issue

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