Using the drama triangle to understand relationship conflict
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Oliver Bettany - Humanistic Psychological Counsellor (PG Dip, MBACP)
14th May, 20160 Comments
No matter how much we love, appreciate and respect our partners, family, friends and colleagues, when things go wrong in our relationships as they inevitably do from time to time, it can feel like we're suddenly strangers in a strange land, speaking a foreign language to one another. Something between us changes: the hidden, dynamic forces which govern how we relate to one another (forces which generally keep our relationships in a state of easy or uneasy equilibrium) shift in some subtle but profound way, and instead of communicating clearly and reasonably to resolve the issue, we feel like we're stuck going round and round in circles.
The theory of the drama triangle, developed by Stephen Karpman in 1968, suggests that at times like these we may be, quite literally, going round in circles - or rather, round in a triangle! Karpman was a student of Eric Berne, the creator of the form of therapy called Transactional Analysis (or TA for short). Berne's genius was to take a great many complicated theories and ideas about human psychology and reinvent them in a way which made them much easier to understand. In his famous book Games People Play, he described a whole range of mind games which we all play with one another, completely out of our awareness. We play these games when we fall back into old patterns of behaviour which as children helped us to get our needs met, but as adults are no longer very useful because they often get in the way of dealing with the challenges of life in an adult way.
Karpman came up with a general set of rules about how we can end up relating to one another when we fall back into these old patterns and start playing these games. Quite unconsciously we “enter the drama triangle”. He identified three different positions which we might adopt when this happens: persecutor, victim and rescuer. If we enter the drama triangle by adopting the persecutor position (perhaps because we're having a bad day and want to blame someone, a bit like a child's tantrum) then we can easily force our partner (or family member, friend or colleague) into the victim position: “Why are you persecuting me? It's not fair!” If we enter the triangle by assuming the victim position (perhaps because we're feeling sorry for ourselves and want some attention) then we may be inviting our partner to assume the rescuer position: “You're so helpless! I can save you!” This might be our favourite position in the drama triangle. We may spend a lot of our time and energy looking for people to rescue and so we might be drawn to relationships with people who's favourite position is victim because their unconscious plea is, “Rescue me!”
While we all have a favourite starting point in the triangle, what invariably happens is that we end up switching positions, sometimes repeatedly, meaning that our drama triangle ways of relating to one another can end up becoming a vicious cycle. When someone is so stuck in their victim story that they refuse to allow themselves to be rescued, we may end up losing patience and suddenly switching from the rescuer to the persecutor position: “To hell with you then if you won't accept my help!” Such a shift in the dynamics of the triangle can end up turning things completely on their head. Suddenly the victim flips into persecutor: “To hell with me? You selfish person! How dare you!” Not knowing quite how we got there because only a moment ago we were feeling good and powerful in our rescuer identity, we find that we've become a victim: “It's not fair! I was only trying to help!” In response to this sudden sign of weakness and helplessness, the person we're stuck in the drama triangle with may assume the role of rescuer themselves... and so it goes on.
It's important to remember that there are times when our anger is justified, we really are struggling and in need of support, or our reason for reaching out and helping someone is coming from a place of genuine care and concern rather than as a way to feel good about ourselves. Sometimes it can be very difficult to know the difference, but the drama triangle is ultimately about using our relationships with others to re-experience comfortable and familiar (and therefore safe) feelings from our childhood. The experience of living in the here and now often does not feel safe and familiar, it is full of challenge and uncertainty, particularly when conflict arises. The drama triangle provides us with a way of escaping from the here and now into the past. It's not surprising then, that when we're in the drama triangle we feel like we're going round in circles, because we're responding to a situation in the here and now from a position of being stuck in the past.
In my next article I will talk about practical ways we can break out of these old patterns of relating to others and make a conscious, adult choice to stop playing games, step out of the drama triangle and back into the here and now.
About the author
I am a humanistic counsellor and ecotherapist working in Brighton, Eastbourne and the Sussex countryside. I use transactional analysis with all my clients as a way to to support their journey towards self understanding. For more information about TA take a look at my profile and website.
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