‘The Drama Triangle’ is a model of toxic relationships that has stood the test of time… it’s been around for 40 or so years and is still helpful. There’s a good video that introduces it here, but essentially it suggests that we play one of three roles in any relationship:
- Victim (‘poor me’) – who feels oppressed, helpless, powerless or ashamed, and looks to others to rescue them from their troubles.
- Rescuer (‘let me help you’) – who works hard to make it better for others, otherwise they feel guilty (but they feel trapped and angry underneath).
- Persecutor (‘it’s all your fault’) – who is often blaming, bullying and rigid, but who’s feelings of anger and criticism often hide a sense of inadequacy.
Each role is co-dependent on the others, that is, they are all necessary to keep this game going. Ultimately, regardless of how others see us, we will identify as Victim and as long as we are prepared to be victimised, the Drama Triangle will stay locked in place.
It’s perhaps not ironic that the language of this model evokes a sense of shame (these are pretty judgemental labels). Dysfunctional relationships where this model is played out often arise from painful life experiences where we are left with deep feelings of shame… so much so that it is woven into our identity (role).
Get out of role
There are two ways out of this toxic framework:
- Stop playing the role assigned to you
- Stop playing roles at all
A change in any one of these positions means the other two have to change as well. It might go something like this:
“if I stop playing the Hero, then the Victim has a chance to stand up for themselves against the Villain (who, in turn, can learn to take responsibility for their actions)”
“if I choose not to see myself as a Powerless, the Aggressor is no longer all-powerful, but I also don’t give my strength over to the Protector”
“if I step down from playing your Villain, you can’t stay stuck as Helpless and waiting to be Saved”
The next step would be to give up fixed roles altogether. Yes, there are times when it’s appropriate to help others, or be assertive, or aware that you’re under threat… but these are all contexts where we can choose to use a range of responses rather than playing one fixed character. For instance:
- I can’t rescue you, but I can empathise and offer compassion
- I won’t bully you, but I can assert my needs and it’s up to you how you respond
- I will not play victim, but I will respect and care for myself when I feel vulnerable.
The emphasis here, then, is a move away from a rigid sense of who we are supposed to be to a more fluid and playful expression of our needs (vulnerability, compassion and assertiveness) in any given moment.
If you find yourself stuck in an unhealthy relationship with your partner(s), family, friends, colleagues (or even yourself), this might well be a useful model to consider how to make changes that suit your current needs better.