The Relationship Triangle | Psychology Today

The Relationship Triangle | Psychology Today

The Relationship Triangle | Psychology Today

This is a useful way of looking at relationships, and I use this in all my work with couples—both as a way of seeing where they are, but also where they need to go. It is based on the Drama Triangle, also known as the Karpman Triangle, which was developed by psychiatrist Steven Karpman in the early 1970s. What follows is my interpretation and expansion on Karpman’s original ideas.

Begin by imagining or drawing an upside-down triangle (do it now; it will help). At the top are two letters: P on the left-hand side, and R on the right. At the bottom, the tip of the triangle is the letter V.

The triangle represents the relationship between two people. The P, R, and V represent different roles that the people can play; it is not the people themselves, but a role. The roles interlock and there is always someone on top who seems to have more power, and someone on the bottom. The relationship moves about in a circle as follows.

The person is the R position is the rescuer. The person in that role essentially has “nice guy” control. He hooks into the V or victim. The person in that role feels overwhelmed at times. He feels that problems are falling down on his head. The rescuer steps in and says, “I can help you out. Just do what I say, everything will be fine.” Oftentimes, couples will begin their relationship in some form of this. They psychologically cut a deal: The rescuer says that I will agree to be big, strong, good and nice; the victim says I will agree to be overwhelmed and unable to manage. Everyone is happy. The rescuer feels needed, important and in charge. The victim has someone to take care of him.

And it works fine, except every once in a while one of two things happens. Sometimes the rescuer gets tired of doing it all. He feels like he is shouldering all the responsibilities and that the other is not pulling his weight, not giving anything back, not appreciating what the rescuer is doing. The rescuer gets fed up, angry, resentful. Bam! He shifts over to the P, the persecutor role. He suddenly blows up—usually about something minor, like laundry or who didn’t take out the trash—or acts out, like spending a lot of money, going on a drinking binge, or having an affair. He feels he deserves it (after all, he says to himself, look at what I’ve been putting up with).

The message underneath the behavior and anger that usually does not come out very clearly is: “Why don’t you grow up? Why don’t you take some responsibility? Why do I have to do everything around here? Why don’t you appreciate what I am doing for you? This is unfair!” The feeling of unfair is a strong one.

At that point, the victim gets scared and moves up to the R position, tries to make up and calm the waters. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t realize. I really do appreciate what you do. I’ll do better.” Then the persecutor feels bad about whatever he did or said and goes down to the victim position and gets depressed. Then they both stabilize and go back to their original positions.

The other thing that happens sometimes is the victim gets tired of being the victim. He gets tired of the other one always running the show, always telling him what to do. He gets tired of being looked down on because the rescuer is basically saying, “If it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t make it.” Everyone once in a while, the victim gets fed up and moves to the persecutor role. Like the rescuer, the victim in this role blows up and gets angry—usually about something small—or acts out.

The message underneath that doesn’t get said is this: “Why don’t you get off my back? Leave me alone, stop controlling my life! Back off, I can do things myself!” The rescuer hears this and moves to the victim position. He says to himself, “Poor me, every time I try to help, look what I get.” The persecutor then feels bad about whatever he did or said and goes to the rescuer position and says something like, “I was stressed out, off my meds, tired from the kids. I’m sorry.” And then they make up and go back to where they originally were.

While everyone gets to move among all the roles, often one will fit more comfortably in one role more than another. This has to do with personality, upbringing, and learned ways of coping. The rescuer as a child was often an only child, oldest, or grew up in a chaotic family. He usually did not have many buffers between him and his parents, and learned early on that he could avoid getting in trouble and avoid conflict by being good: “If I can stay on my toes and just do what my parents (and teacher) wants me to do all the time, I won’t get in any hot water.”

This type of person learns to be very sensitive to others as a means of survival. He develops good radar and can pick up the nuances of emotions. He is hyperalert, spends all his energy surveying the environment, stays on his toes, ever ready to do what the parents want. Essentially he takes the position of, “I’m happy if you’re happy, and I need to make sure you are happy.” He gets rewarded for being good and his head is filled with shoulds.

What works for the child, however, doesn’t necessarily work so well for the adult. Now the world is bigger. Rather than just two or three important people to pay attention to, the rescuer adult has many more—the boss, the IRS, the president of the local Rotary Club or VFW. He now feels pulled in a lot of directions, stretched thin, as he scrambles to accommodate what he thinks others want from him. He easily feels like a martyr, he is always at risk of burnout.

He also has a hard time knowing what he wants. Because he spent so much of his energy as a child looking outward and doing what others wanted, he never had the opportunity to sit back and decide what he wanted. Wanting, unlike following shoulds and rules, is a feeling, and he is often not aware of what he is feeling. As an adult, if you ask him, “But what do you want?” he hesitates and gets stuck. He worries about making the right decision, about not offending anyone in his life or the critical voice in his head.

He also has a hard time with anger and conflict (which is why he became good in the first place) and tends to stuff anger down until he gets fed up and begins to gag on it. Then he blows up, and because he is so uncomfortable with and it creates so much drama, he feels like his worst dream has come true. He feels guilty, and shoves it all back down again, only to have it build up again.

The victim, in contrast, was often the youngest in the family, was over-protected as a child by parents, or had older siblings who stepped in and took over all the time when he was stuck with a problem. What he missed in growing up were opportunities to develop the self-confidence that comes from learning to manage problems on your own. Now, as an adult, he easily gets overwhelmed, feels unconfident, anxious. To handle these feelings he looks to the rescuer who takes over and helps him feel better.

The persecutor as a type is the evil twin of the rescuer. Whereas the rescuer controls by being good and nice, and persecutor is angry, critical, and blaming. This is the abuser, and obviously some couples start with this persecutor – victim relationship, playing out childhood models and roles. The persecutor learned early on that when I get scared I get tough. If I can negatively control everything going on around me, no one can sneak up behind me and get me.

Now imagine or draw two As next to each other with a line drawn between them (go ahead and do it; it will help). The A stands for adult. This person is not in a role, is more complete, proactive rather than reactive, self-responsible rather than blaming, and is outside the triangle. Adults are peers; they are on the same level in terms of power. This is where you want to be.

The adult says, “I’m responsible for what I think, do, say. If something bothers me, it is my problem. If you can do something to help me with my problem, I need to tell you, because you can’t read my mind. If you decide not to help me, I’ll need to decide what I’m going to do next to fix my problem. Similarly, if something bothers you, it is your problem. If there is something I can do to help you with your problem, you need to tell me. And if I decide not to help you with your problem, you can work it out. You may not handle it the way I might, but you can do it. I don’t need to take over.”

Two of the problems the rescuer and victim have in their relationship is that they do expect a lot of mind-reading (“You should know what is going on or how to help without my having to say so.”) and then feel frustrated or disappointed or angry when the other does not. They also have distorted sense of responsibility: The rescuer tends to be over-responsible—”Your problems are my problems, I’m happy if you are happy, and it is my job to make sure you are happy.” In the attempt to “make” the victim happy, the victim, over time, begins to feel pressure and control, which sets up the explosion. Similarly, the victim tends to be under-responsible—”My problems are your problems, I expect you to fix them, and I either have to wait or manipulate you into doing so.”

The adults, in contrast, are clear about who has the problem. This is represented by the vertical line running between them. If you feel it, it’s yours. This is a key concept, one invaluable for couples to understand and incorporate. By being aware of who has the problem, the individuals can avoid the defensiveness, anxiety, control, and manipulation of couples caught in the triangle.

They also can be more intimate. The problem the rescuer and victim face in their relationship is that the roles, which is not the people themselves but only parts of them, keep them stuck. The rescuer cannot let down his guard, or get too vulnerable, because he is afraid that the victim will not be able to handle it. Similarly, the victim cannot ever get too strong because the rescuer will feel threatened and out of job. The long line between the victim and rescuer is real. It represents the emotional distance between them.

The adults don’t have this problem. Both can be responsible, strong, and yet honest and vulnerable. They can take risks, are not locked in roles, and hence, can be more open and intimate.

Two people can obviously be in this pattern for a long time—seemingly getting along, suddenly having some acting out or emotional explosion, making up, returning to their roles, and repeating the pattern over and over again. Sometimes, particularly for the rescuer, this will continue until he eventually drops from the weight of it all—he gets a heart attack or has some psychological breakdown, and everyone is surprised and afraid. What can also happen over time, and what often brings the couple into therapy, is that one person is either tired of going around the cycle, or begins to outgrow the role he is in. Like any other pattern, it takes two to play the game and as soon as one person begins to move towards the adult, the other gets scared and tries to pull him back in to keep it going.

For example, you may have a rescuer who gets tired of mopping up all the time and starts to pull away and better define boundaries and problems. The classic case of this is the codependent of an alcoholic. The wife, for example, begins to attend Alanon meetings and starts to tell her husband, “Jake, I’m not going to call up your boss for you on Monday morning and tell him you are sick. You can call him yourself. I’m not going to pick you up off the front lawn on Saturday night if you get drunk.” The wife is stepping out of the triangle and if Jake got drunk before, he is going to get rip-roaring drunk to try and hook his wife back in. If that doesn’t work, Jake is likely to switch to one of the other roles: He may shift to the persecutor, get angry, and threaten divorce and custody of the kids or cut off money; he may get nice, tell her how he is going to start going to AA meetings to appease her and bring her back.

Similarly, if the victim moves to the adult position, the rescuer feels threatened. This is often seen in the empty nest stage of marriage. The husband has been more or less been in charge—making most of the big decisions, financially supporting the family—and the kids begin to leave home. The wife starts to say something like “You know, Bill, I’m thinking of maybe going back to school. I never finished my degree because I stayed home with the kids, and now is a good time to do it. Maybe I’ll go back into full-time work. I think I’d like to get my own checking and savings accounts so I can have my own money and be more independent.”

While Bill knows what to do when his wife is in the one-down position, he doesn’t know what to do when she shifts. Generally, the first thing Bill will instinctively do is be nice but try and talk his wife out of the changes: “Why do you want to go back to school now? You’re 45 years old. What are you going to be able to do with a degree? It will cost us 30 grand for tuition, for what? You don’t need to get a full-time job. This is a time to take it easy. We don’t need another checking account. It costs $10 a month in fees that we don’t need to spend.”

The message is “stay put.” If that doesn’t work, Bill may shift to the persecutor role and get angry: “If you want to go to school, you find a way to pay for it. We’re not taking it out of our retirement.” Or Bill will move to the victim position, and get depressed so his wife needs to stay home and take care of him.

Finally, you easily see this dynamic is abusive relationships. If the victim of a persecutor-victim relationship decides to move out of the triangle or out of the relationship and not be a punching bag anymore, the first thing the persecutor will do is more of the same. If he was angry, he is now going to get explosive. He will stalk her, hunt her down, emotionally abuse her or beat her up. If that doesn’t work, he may get nice. He will be calling you up for anger management and ask if you could call up his wife or girlfriend and tell her that he called about therapy, then not follow through. If that doesn’t work, he may get depressed, even threaten to kill himself so she will come back into the relationship.

If all the jockeying around doesn’t work, the person left behind has one of two choices. He may end the relationship and find someone else to play the corresponding role, someone else to control, someone else to take care of them. Or the person left behind can move towards the adult position, too.

The challenges of both partners moving to the adult position are several. The natural feeling of the one left behind is that if you care, you’ll stay in the triangle. If they both move, the partners need to develop new ways of showing that they care for each other. There will be a period of transition while these new ways are being created, and the new ways will not, at least for a while, feel as good as the old ways. There are also the challenges of learning new skills, especially for the one feeling left behind.

The reason the triangle is so strong and works is because the roles are complementary. Each sees in the other what he is unable to see in himself. The rescuer, for example, is not as nice or strong as he thinks, but sees his vulnerability and anger in the victim and persecutor. The victim is not as weak as he thinks, but projects his strength and anger onto the rescuer and persecutor. The persecutor is not as tough as he thinks, but only sees his weakness and goodness in the victim and rescuer.

To be successful, each must learn to recognize and incorporate what has been left out. The rescuer needs to learn to recognize his wants, and take the risk of not being good and over-responsible. He needs to learn how to recognize his anger and then use it for information about what he wants. He needs to experiment with letting go of control, and resist the impulse to fix his own anxiety by taking over when the other is struggling. He needs to learn how to let down his guard, so he can learn to trust and be vulnerable, and nurture in a genuine caring way, rather than out of fear and the need for control.

Similarly, the victim needs to build up his self-confidence—by taking risks and doing things on his own, by using the rescuer not as a rescuer but a support. He needs to learn how to partialize problems so he doesn’t feel so overwhelmed. Like the rescuer he needs to tap into his anger and use it to better define his boundaries and wants.

Finally, the abuser needs to recognize that his anger is a defense. He has to look for the softer emotions that he sees in the victim—the hurt, the sadness, the regret—in himself and beneath the cover of his anger. He also needs to shift his strength to one that is more generous, needs to find ways of being nurturing and allow himself to be nurtured by the other.

The relationship triangle gives you a way of conceptualizing the dynamics of a relationship.

See where you fit.

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