The Drama Triangle

  Couples and families often find themselves in familiar patterns of relating to one another and can often predict when a fight is about to occur.  "When he starts to criticize me, I get triggered..." While patterns and conflict are normal parts of being in a relationship, there are dynamics that couples and families should look out for and try to avoid.  One of them is the Drama Triangle. In the Drama Triangle, family members take turns playing the Victim, Persecutor and Rescuer.  Typically, the Persecutor initiates the drama triangle by attacking the Victim in some way; Criticism (verbally attacking personality or character, Contempt (attacking sense of self with an intention to insult or psychologically abuse), (see John Gottman's the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse) or even physical abuse.  The Victim then relinquishes to the attack and can hold resentments that can later cause the Victim to become the Persecutor and attack back.  The Rescuer can be played by a third party or by the Victim or Persecutor to end the fight and attempt to make peace in some way.  Sound confusing?  Below is a recent example of how the Drama Triangle was re-told in a recent family therapy session: Mom (persecutor) verbally attacks daughter (victim) for poor performance in school.  Daughter felt attacked and ran to her room, upset and crying.  Daughter then lashed out on Mom later that night calling her names (Perpetrator.)  Dad (Rescuer) steps in to make peace.  This particular family has repeated this drama triangle over and over again in various situations with each taking turns playing the Victim, Persecutor, and Rescuer. Here is another example of a couple playing out the drama triangle in recent couples session: Husband (Perpetrator) continually criticizes Wife (Victim) of not doing her fair share around the house.  Wife, after feeling attacked, attacks back with her own criticisms of Husband (now Victim) spending too much time away from the home in the evenings when she is caring for the household.  Wife (Rescuer) tries to make up for the argument by initiating sex later that night. So, you ask, what is the solution?  The solution to avoiding the Drama Triangle is to not partake in a role when you recognize it happening.  In another words, simply do something different.  Empathy is one of the simplest forms of diffusing a drama triangle.  When attacked, instead of going into a Victim role or Persecutor role, one can show empathy, understanding and seek to understand what is causing the other one to be upset.  For example, when daughter came home with her report card with low grades, Mom could have a conversation with her about how school was going, what was hard, what can she do differently, how can mom help, and above all show empathy, "It must be hard to show me your grades today..."  When Husband was critical of Wife, wife could show empathy, "You work so hard and it must be frustrating to come home to a house and have to do more work... I get it." Doing something different from the norm is hard and takes practice.  But once one person in the Drama Triangle does something different, it automatically causes the others in the triangle to do something different as well.  Kind of cool, right?  Starting with yourself is the best way to make positive changes in your relationships.  Don't wait for others to change when you have the power within.