Understanding unhealthy dynamics in relationships

Why do we behave in a destructive or unhelpful way when we communicate with certain people? We are constantly in contact with others, whether that is at work, with family, or in personal relationships. Sometimes, interactions and behaviours can become toxic without us having a real understanding of why and what we can do to make things different. Understanding our reactions and the behaviours of others can help us to become self-aware, and develop the emotional intelligence to make an informed choice about our behaviours and how we might like to do things differently.


The Karpman drama triangle is a concept taken from psychologist Stephen Karpman which looks at the unhealthy dynamic that can occur within relationships. It’s a useful tool to recognise in individual therapy and is very applicable in the couple relationship dynamic.

Three unhelpful positions to be in during times of conflict

1. The persecutor

The person who takes on the position of being the persecutor is often extremely judgemental, highly critical, and opinionated. They can find it extremely difficult to listen or be impartial and tend to come from the position of misplaced authority.

They often believe that they know best and might railroad you into hearing their perspective, without giving you much space to listen to your thoughts or feelings. It can very difficult to engage in a two way dynamic, and problem-solving or resolving difficulties is extremely challenging, if not impossible.

2. The victim

The victim is usually at the receiving end of the persecutor's criticism and judgement. They tend to feel disempowered, not only by the persecutor but in many other areas of their life. As they perceive themselves to be the victim, they often feel as though they are hard done by and the world has something against them. This leads to not accepting responsibility for their behaviours, as they often blame their circumstances or anything else that moves accountability away from them. They often lack autonomy and believe that they are bystanders in being able to make any conceivable change, leaving them to appear helpless and very stuck.

Being in victim mode can be very self-destructive; when you believe that life simply happens to you and you have no sense of self-agency.

3. The rescuer

The person in the role of the rescuer comes to the rescue of anybody who they believe needs it, which, in most cases, is everybody. They are always ready and willing to put others first and can do no more to help. While it might seem like a noble quality to possess, this can be an unhelpful trait for several reasons. Often, the underlying cause of wanting to help others is the need to be needed. They seek validation in not tending to their needs but from people-pleasing and seeking the approval of others.

When they continually come to the rescue of the perceived victim, it can be disempowering. It enables the victim to continue avoiding being responsible or accountable for their behaviours or actions and feeds into their perception of being a victim. As a result of always being the helper, the rescuer’s own needs tend to go unacknowledged, causing the rescuer to experience underlying feelings of anger and resentment.

This dynamic can be a useful construct to understand the role that you play within certain relationships. Once you are aware of your unhelpful behaviours, you can start to make an active choice to react and behave in a way that is more helpful and fulfilling in your relationships. We can’t always change the behaviour of others, but we can identify the ways we can create healthy change for ourselves to have better relationships.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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