Many couples that run into problems find themselves on the ‘drama triangle’. This is a model that maps the unhelpful behaviour patterns couples can find themselves in. It was developed by US psychiatrist Stephen Karpman in the 1970s.
The persecutor, rescuer and victim are all roles that people in relationships can play. These roles interact with each other, so there is always someone in a more powerful position and someone with less power.
What are the roles?
A rescuer will often have grown up in a family where the child’s needs were not acknowledged and so he or she grew up looking after others’ needs in order to feel loved. The rescuer was the good, responsible child who avoids confrontation.
The victim got the message from their family that they were not able to handle their own problems and so grew up expecting others to step in and make things okay. They can often feel anxious about things.
The persecutor is the person who criticizes their partner. But it is important to realise that underneath the persecutor is a victim – someone who, as a child, did not have their needs met and often feels powerless. Putting their partner down helps them escape their inner self of low self-worth and makes them feel powerful.
A rescuer can be controlling
Often couples will begin their relationship with one of them in the rescuer role and the other in victim role. The rescuer gives the victim the message: “You need me to help you – just do what I tell you.” While the rescuer seems helpful and nice on the outside, they are actually being quite controlling of their partner.
The person in the victim role often feels their problems are overwhelming and they can’t cope.
The two make an unofficial deal – that the rescuer will get to feel good about themselves and feel that they are in charge, while the victim gets looked after and doesn’t have to take responsibility.
Becoming the persecutor
What can happen is that the rescuer gets fed up with their role, maybe they feel their efforts are not fully appreciated or they just feel tired out. So they then start to criticise their partner, therefore becoming the persecutor.
Another possibility is that the victim gets fed up with being the victim and becomes critical (the persecutor), which makes their partner into the victim.
The way out
The way to help a couple step out of the drama triangle is to, first, get them to see what is going on and how the two of them are usually playing one or other role. With this awareness the members of the couple can be encouraged to take more responsibility for their needs by accessing their inner ‘adult’.
The adult is that part of us that does not take too much responsibility for our partner (the rescuer), neither does it expect our partner to make us feel good (the victim). The adult is able to clearly express what he or she wants, instead of trying to manipulate or intimidate their partner to get what their needs met.