Family dramas - understanding relationship dynamics
Ever wondered why you always end up in the same old arguments, playing the same old familiar roles as you always did, when you get together with family? Perhaps this also happens with friendship groups or with your partner?
If you keep finding yourself stuck playing a part that you no longer enjoy, or never asked for in the first place, it can be very helpful to take a step back and try to see what relationship dynamics are at play. More importantly, if you can see what part you are playing, you can choose to step out of the game.
The drama triangle
In transactional analysis thinking, every interaction between people is being played out on a conscious level and also on an ulterior level at the same time. This is particularly true with those who are closest to us. So a simple exchange between a brother and sister about who will drive the car to a family party might have underlying messages around the brother feeling he always has to be in charge, and the sister feeling that she has to always do what she is told. My clients have found it useful to keep in mind Karpman’s 'drama triangle' (1968) as a means of checking out how they are reacting to others and to help them to choose how they might respond instead.
The drama triangle has three positions - rescuer, persecutor, and victim.
- The rescuer is the role where you are always seeking to look after others, and you gain recognition from doing so. While this might seem helpful, it can mean that you are taking on responsibility where you shouldn’t, and are also keeping others in a position where they aren’t able to take care of themselves.
- The persecutor sees others as inferior to them, perhaps just in a certain moment, but they control or belittle them for being so. Sometimes it is right to let people know if they are doing something wrong, but often to be over-critical just leaves others feeling inadequate.
- The victim role is where you discount your power and allow others to take control. You believe that you will get it wrong if you try to do things for yourself, and can become very stuck in being passive and waiting for others to fix things for you.
Dynamics in action
The most interesting thing about each of these positions is that we all move between each of them, often during one exchange. Perhaps we start off wanting to fix things for another person because we pity them for always having problems or getting things wrong (rescuer). After a while, we start to resent them for not getting better or making improvements, and we become critical of them for not helping themselves (persecutor). Finally, we start to moan to other people about how we are always trying to help people and no-one ever helps us, falling into self-pity (victim).
So what do we do when we realise we are playing out these roles? Often, it is only with hindsight that you will realise what has happened. However, the more you seek to become aware of these dynamics, that more you can recognise the signals earlier, and potentially choose to stop yourself from falling into the old habits. Perhaps you always put your hands on your hips when you are about to go into persecutor mode? Or you know that you will feel a familiar emotion when you experience a drive to jump in and be a rescuer.
Ultimately, the more self-awareness you can harness, the more you can choose how you react and how you want to be concerning others. You can start to think of different ways to act, and different ways to be. You might ask yourself what do I get from acting in this way? What am I hoping to achieve? How does it usually end, and is there a way I can change how I am to change what happens?
Rescuers may need to learn ways of caring for others by empowering them to help themselves. Persecutors may want to understand why they need to be in control or to be seen as superior to others. Victims may need to access their responsibility to themselves or to build up their self-esteem by trying new things regardless of whether they fail.
Finally, the good news is that once one person in the triangle chooses differently, the whole interaction can change. It can be very uncomfortable if you settle into your usual argument and find that the other person is not responding in the usual way, so those around you may find that tricky at first. Eventually, though, it can lead to a new spirit of adult interaction, choosing how you respond to the drama triangle.