The Drama Triangle

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Beware the Drama Triangle, ya’ll! It is the source of all conflict and unconscious torment in our relationships!

And when I say “Beware,” I really mean that. Be aware, if not wary.

What is the Drama Triangle? Well, it has 3 points, and each point stands for a role that we take on in conflict. One point is called the Perpetrator (I like to say, the aggressive-feeling point); one point is called the Victim (let’s not call it that, though; let’s call it the helpless-feeling point); the third point is called the Rescuer (we’ll leave that one as it is).

These are 3 roles that we can take in conflicts. Now, the conflict could be among 3 actual live humans (or more). Say, Mom, me, and sister. Mom yells at me to clean my room (feeling aggressive); I feel aggrieved that she would yell! At ME! (feeling helpless) And my sister feels sorry for one of us, uncomfortable with our conflict and our strong feelings, and so moves to help (make the feelings stop), either me or Mom (rescuer).

Or, this triangle could play out between just 2 people, say, in a marriage. My husband is irritated with me and snaps at me (aggressive feeling); I burst into tears (feeling helpless); and then he feels sorry and moves to rescue me by soothing my feeling. Or I move to rescue his irritated feeling by quickly “fixing” what he is upset about.

Or, this pattern could play out only internally. I make a mistake at work. My internal punisher tells me I’m the worst person in the world! All I ever do is make mistakes! What the hell is wrong with me?! My inner child part feels ashamed and helpless. My inner rescuer briskly steps in to tell me to buck up, stop feeling sad, and move on.

The Drama Triangle is all about feelings. It is thus messy and can get complicated, with quickly-swirling role changes. Because notice: When Mom aggressively snaps at me about my messy room, what’s happening inside her is that SHE is feeling helpless/victimized! “I do everything around here!” “No matter what I say, that kid never pulls her weight!” When I feel helpless to get out from under Mom’s “nagging,” I may also lash out aggressively, feeling justified by my helpless feelings in protecting myself. “Mom doesn’t understand me.” “She doesn’t even care what I’m going through!” What’s really going on isn’t a squabble about cleanliness. It’s about the emotions ruffling the calm of the household. For both Mom and me, the feeling is “She doesn’t see me; she doesn’t want to help me; she may not even care about me!”

Those deeper feelings—of not being seen, loved, cared for, heard, helped—are at the core of conflicts, whether at work, home, among friends, in church, marriage, or with parents and siblings. We can resolve the Drama Triangle by addressing these painful feelings of separation, rather than trying to “fix” the immediate “problem,” as tempting as that may be, especially for us “Rescuers!” “Sarah, if you would just clean your room once a week, then Mom would stop yelling at you.” “Mom, you should make a chore chart that delineates everyone’s responsibilities, and then you could stop yelling, kick back, and enjoy the clean house!” Mm-hm. THAT’s gonna happen.

Recognizing your role in a drama triangle, whether internal or external, DOES NOT MEAN YOU ARE BAD. This is a pattern that we ALL are caught in many times per day. Noticing the pattern is not about judgment of yourself or your fellow Dramatists.

So what can you do, with this knowledge of Drama? Well, you can use these painful moments to make changes in your relationships! And that’s good news!

The Drama Triangle is driven by unconscious feelings, so how can you use it to create change, given that you may not even KNOW you’re triangle-ing?

I would suggest, start with just noticing. Strong feelings are the clue. “Hm, I’m feeling blame-y, and wanting to lash out. I feel aggressive yet helpless. I feel uncomfortable.” NOW, you can take a breath. You can acknowledge your vulnerable feelings, just to yourself “I’m worried that when my wife didn’t want a hug, it meant that she doesn’t love me anymore :(“ Or to the person you’re in conflict with: “I feel really taken for granted when you won’t do your share of the chores. It’s like you don’t really care about me.” See if you can notice your strong desire to change the circumstances quickly (chore chart!)

Take a breath, acknowledge your emotions. Repeat as often as possible, and feel your relationships to yourself and others become more peaceful and loving!