Drama, Drama, Drama: How it works and what to do about it

By Kyle Shiver, MA

Drama is exhausting. It saps us of the energy we need to maintain our own well-being and stability. If you find yourself caught in continuous cycles of drama with a friend, coworker, family member, or partner, there is a useful and practical tool – the drama triangle — to help us garner insight into how drama works, how it’s maintained, and what to do to diffuse it so we can focus on what really matters to us and enjoy healthy relationships.

Created by psychotherapist Steven Karpman in the 1970s, the drama triangle can be imagined as an upside-down triangle, the three points of which representing the three major roles two people tend to cycle through in a circular fashion throughout dramatic conflict. At the bottom point of the triangle is the letter ‘V’ representing the role of the victim. On the upper right corner is the letter ‘R’, representing the rescuer. And on the upper left corner of the triangle is the letter ‘P’ for perpetrator. These roles are fluid and changing within any relationship in conflict, meaning that at some point, both individuals in a dyadic relationship cycle through each role in a continuous circular dance, subconsciously maintaining dysfunction between them.

Individually, we tend to prefer a particular role, and the cyclical movement of the drama triangle results from us using our power to assert ourselves back into the role in which we are most comfortable. It’s likely that our preferred role is informed by our unique personalities and through behaviors and coping learned in our formative years – so there’s no room for shame here, just awareness. Take a closer look at the three roles. Can you identify which role you gravitate toward when drama ensues in your own life?

If you play the rescuer, you may feel like the ‘good guy’ or the fixer. While both perpetrator and rescuer hook into the victim, you likely do so out of wanting everyone to be content and pleased. You might suppress your own feelings so that you can remain in good standing with the victim and avoid confrontation. Suppression has its limits, though, as you might find yourself growing resentful in your placating and exhausted from assuming too much responsibility, until you eventually you lash out toward the victim. You might say, “I do everything for you, and you are selfish and ungrateful!”. When this happens, you become threatening to the victim, and to them, you become the perpetrator. Startled by your outburst, they may shift to be the temporary rescuer and apologize to make things right so both of you can assume your original roles of rescuer and victim. You may be ashamed of your outburst and re-commit to be a strong, compassionate friend, partner, family member, or coworker.

Rescuers may have grown up as compassionate and sensitive children, picking up on subtle emotional experiences of others and uncomfortable with others’ pain because they may have a difficult time not taking on others’ energy. As they grow older, and their social circle widens, the suppression and caretaking become exhausting, and the behavior becomes maladaptive and runs out of its original use.

If you play the victim, you sustain yourself on the rescuer’s interventions. You may allow them to take charge of many of your household duties or finances and rely on them for your own emotional stability or affirmation of your worth. Sometimes, you may become tired of feeling pitied, feel talked down to, or grow weary of feeling overly-controlled, so you might direct anger toward the rescuer. At this point, you might attempt to distance yourself from your rescuer with new boundaries or rules for the relationship. But your rescuer hates to be perceived as the ‘bad guy’, so after a bit of time they may rush in with justifications or apologize to bring the natural balance back to the relationship. Everything feels stable again until the cycle repeats, and eventually you find yourselves trapped in an endless feedback loop.

Victims may have grown up as children who were sheltered or overly-parented, or most likely to be the youngest child, with older family members intervening or controlling. The victim may not have had the chance to form confidence in themselves as a child, so as an adult they may find themselves unable to solve their own problems because of being easily overwhelmed. They are naturally magnetized toward rescuers, and rescuers feel needed by victims.

People who naturally gravitate toward the perpetrator role use anger, blame, or aggressive criticism to assert their dominance over another. Natural perpetrators may have urges toward verbally or physically abusive behaviors, many of them perhaps have been abused as children, themselves. The perpetrator learns how to manage the victim by testing and violating boundaries to the degree that they can control the space between themselves and their victim. This may be a defense mechanism keeping people at bay to protect themselves from further abuse, and the behavior may be a reenactment of their formative relationships with their childhood abusers. At the core of the perpetrator is often a past victim who has not healed.

To break the cycle, one of the individuals needs to be the adult by refraining from playing any of the roles. The adult refuses to be a martyr-like rescuer, a helpless wounded victim, or the aggressive self-protective perpetrator. Doing so requires patience as the adult must respond non-defensively, non-aggressively, and refrain from attempting to fix the situation. The adult disengages via receptive responses such as, “oh”, or “okay”, as the individual playing their own drama role slowly runs out of things to say. This will naturally be unsettling and may initially lead to disruption in the balance of the relationship as you challenge old patterns. It may lead to the individuals – especially if they are a couple – to seek a couples therapist to help them create a new way of being, and perhaps their own individual therapists to help them find the confidence and inner strength to be independent yet vulnerable with their partners.

It is important to first assess for your own safety if you find yourself stuck in a feedback loop with an abusive person. In this case, it may be best to seek help before enacting change in the relationship dynamic. If you do feel safe however, and you find yourself trapped in the cycle of the drama triangle, see what happens if you become the adult, and understand that there are mental health professionals who can help you examine yourself, your relationships, and support you in your efforts to achieve harmony and leave the drama behind.