Defusing Dysfunctional Relationships Using the Karpman Drama Triangle

Addiction and dysfunctional relationships provide a dizzying array of interactions that are sometimes daunting to comprehend, let alone resolve. Each person’s role in the affiliation shifts and changes depending on their habitual means of viewing the world, as well as their entrenched communication styles. Based in part on family-of-origin patterns, in addition to learned behaviors, this dynamic may open the door to verbal and physical aggression, as well as deepening immersion into substance abuse and process addictions. Some people seem to attract, seek and relish intense interactions, much in the same way as they chase an elusive ultimate high.

Why People Engage in Drama

  • It is familiar. For those who grew up in homes in which addiction, abuse and chaos reigned supreme, drama might seem normal. They may even believe that every family lives that way. It might feel unnatural to be in a relationship that varied from that.
  • The emotional release is gratifying. Anger is a core emotion that fuels the drama-mobile.
  • It is a way of seeking attention, even if it is negative.
  • It is a means of deflecting one’s own issues
  • It is a way of reacting impulsively, rather than responding mindfully.
  • It is sometimes in an effort to be right and have the last word in an argument.
  • It provides an opportunity to engage in “savior behavior” that feels empowering to the one attempting to fix, save, heal or cure another. Even with all good intention, it disempowers the person on the receiving end.

Enter the Karpman Drama Triangle

Stephen B. Karpman, MD, created a helpful tool to understand the puzzling paradigm of the dance of relationship. His work was influenced by transactional analysis founded by Eric Berne, MD, called the Karpman Drama Triangle. It explains the three roles people take on in relationships:

  1. The persecutor: The persecutor is all about blame, shame, finger-pointing and criticism. He or she uses the weaponry of aggression and repression to control others. Although there is an air of superiority, the sense of insecurity likely fuels the engine. What a persecutor says is that everything that goes wrong in the relationship is someone else’s fault.
  2. The victim: The victim is persecuted by the one with the power. The victim’s litany is “poor me!” This feeds the belief that he or she is at the mercy of the persecutor. Hopeless, helpless and disempowered, there is a sense that nothing will change for the better.
  3. The rescuer: The rescuer’s role is helper and enabler. What they might say is “Let me help you.” This may occur even if the one in the victim role doesn’t ask for support. This can lead to emotional crippling of the victim such that he or she never learns to stand up for him or herself. Secondary gain comes from this role as it takes the focus off of their own problems as it shines the light on the victim.

From the perspective of relationship coaches Juna and Justin Milano, who trained at the Hendricks Institute founded by Gay Hendricks, PhD, and Kathlyn Hendricks, PhD, the Karpman Drama Triangle empowers couples to move through conflict in conscious and mindful ways. They say that the Hendricks identify the roles in a different way, instead calling them “victim, villain and hero.” Juna expressed that it is important to “locate where you are on the triangle in the moment and then recognize that you have a choice as you notice, “Oh, I am in one of those positions and I don’t have to stay here.” Along with that insight comes the reminder that “awareness equals choice.” The fight-or-flight response, Justin says, is an automatic reaction that keeps people in the rotating roles on the triangle. He thinks of himself as the hero who comes to the rescue of others, but has discovered that when he does so, he disempowers them. In their relationship, the couple finds that when they empathetically listen and allow for each to safely express what they are feeling, they are far better able to avoid the pitfalls and steer clear of unnecessary drama. Justin made the connection between drama and addiction: “What underlies drama is adrenalin, which is the most addictive substance on the planet.”

Recognize When You Are in Any of the Roles and Step Off the Triangle

  • Be aware that many of the dynamics are unconscious, ingrained and impulsive.
  • In a relationship in which trust and safety are core components, allow your partner to remind you that you are getting caught up in the self-perpetuating cycle.
  • Once you are cognizant, step back and observe as if you were watching a reality television show. What are the characters doing to remain on the wild emotional ride? What is it you would tell them if you had the power to help them change?
  • Be willing to delve into the source of the role in which you find yourself. For the persecutor, it may have stemmed from childhood exploitation that had them declaring that they would never be so vulnerable again. For the rescuer, it is important to recognize that they, too, matter, and need not receive validation by protecting another or fixing their problems. For the victim, it is necessary to take responsibility for their choices, rather than allowing themselves to be at the mercy of another’s actions.
  • Remind yourself that although you may feel accustomed to one role in particular, it is easy to move from one to another in short order.
  • Know that a common theme emerges if someone chooses to move away from the triangle, which can be likened to someone going into recovery. Their decision to get off the merry go round will cause disequilibrium in the system and have the others involved attempt to pull them back on to maintain the status quo.

By Edie Weinstein, LSW Follow Edie on Twitter at @EdieWeinstein1 Sources: Everyday Relationship Tools

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