Relationship difficulties: finding new solutions with TA
Something that brings many clients to counselling, and is the cause of a great deal of stress and anxiety, are difficulties that people are having in their relationships. This can be with a current partner, or an ex partner. It can be with children, step children, parents and also work colleagues and bosses. When relationships work they are the things that give our lives tremendous richness and satisfaction. We often think of ourselves in the terms of the relationships that we have. We describe ourselves as mothers, fathers, partners, friends. When they go wrong, it is one of the things that has the greatest power to cause hurt and distress.
When people find themselves increasingly frustrated or in a pattern of constant arguments, a useful tool for understanding what is happening is the Drama Triangle. This is drawn from Transactional Analysis and was popularised by Eric Berne in Games People Play. So how does it work? People take up a starting position on the Drama Triangle. It might be the Rescuer, the Victim or the Persecutor. The Rescuer is often trying to be helpful, and will be keen to sort things out for others. The Persecutor is critical and negative, or overly controlling about what others are doing. The Victim is someone who is weighed down by the problem, and doesn’t see anyway out. People start in one position, and then end up switching to another. Usually when the switch occurs, it makes people feel bad, and reinforces something negative that they believe about themselves.
To give you an example of what this might look like, let’s take an argument which might happen between a couple who are talking about a work problem. Jenny has come home feeling like the victim. She tried to help somebody out at work, but what has happened is that she is late home and tired, because she ended up doing a lot of someone’s work for them. John steps into the Rescuer position and comes up with quite a few suggestions that he thinks would help. She rejects them all, and feels increasingly frustrated with John. She swaps to the Persecutor because he is just useless in coming up with ideas. John also swaps into the Victim because he has really tried to help, and she's not listened to anything he has come up with. So they both end up feeling bad. Jenny feels angry and helpless. Nobody can ever help her with her problems. John is left feeling useless and a bit worthless. Nobody ever listens to him.
It would take too long to go through every kind of argument, but they usually involve this switch of positions on the Drama Triangle. So how can we use this understanding to help better relationships? One important way is to offer attention and empathy rather than solutions. Offering solutions can be frustrating to the auditor, who probably already knows the options that they have. It might have worked better if John had said something like, “that sounds really tough”, “how are you doing”, or “can I do anything”. Other options could have been, “it sounds like you have really got a problem there, do you want to talk about it”, or “have you thought about what you might be able to do”. This would have allowed Jenny to express her feelings, and then to have perhaps started to move towards her own solutions.
Communication really benefits when people stay open, and ask open ended questions such as how, why, what. These encourage longer more thoughtful responses, that give the other person an opportunity to think about their answers. It can also be helpful to include affirmations. “It does sound difficult to talk to your colleague, but I know you can handle it.” This is usually experienced as supportive, whilst being on the receiving end of all the clever, helpful suggestions in the world doesn't. Better communication doesn't solve all Drama Triangle problems, but they go a long way towards it. It involves mutual respect, and a belief that everyone has the power to solve problems, and are able to ask for help clearly if they need it.
Another way in which considering the Drama Triangle can help improve your relationship, is to use it to reflect on your own patterns of behaviour. Identifying your own Drama Triangle positions can be the first step towards identifying changes that you can make. If you are the Rescuer, and are the one that always steps in and does everything for everyone, a useful word that can help you step away from this might be 'no'. This can feel very uncomfortable in the short term, but ultimately can mean that time and energy can be reclaimed, and that people can feel less like they are being stretched too thin. If you notice that you are often left feeling like a victim, then learning to take action that can help you change and improve things is very important, even if it is actually over something very small. Also sometimes solving problems yourself can be really empowering. If you find yourself being very critical or controlling, learning to take a step backwards and allowing more space for people to do things their own way can be crucial. They may not do the job as well as you, but at least they have got the job done. Understanding your own part allows you to decide to do things differently, and respond differently when you find yourself having the same old argument. This has a significant impact whether the other person has understood the need for change or not.
The aim of this is to give individuals a feeling of having more choice. It means that perhaps more peaceful solutions can be worked out, and friends and partners can feel more in harmony. This can lead to people feeling more genuinely connected and more intimate.
For more about the Drama Triangle and other useful Transactional Analysis concepts read Games People Play by Eric Berne or TA Today by Joines and Stewart.
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