If you face conflict, you might want to consider the Karpman Drama Triangle in how you manage your response.
The Karpman Drama Triangle is a concept developed by social scientist Stephen Karpman M.D. It defines the three roles people typically take on in high-conflict situations. These three roles are the victim, the persecutor and the rescuer.
These roles tend to manifest themselves during conflict and when we are in times of tension with those closest to us. It is easy to see why these traits reveal themselves in our close relationships – there might also be an evolutionary reason for it too.
According to Karpman’s theory, these roles are broken down as follows:
A victim will see themselves as oppressed, powerless and helpless. They come across super-sensitive and expect to be handled with care among others. A victim will look for a rescuer to save them. Furthermore, if the person they have identified as a rescuer fails to do so, the victim will quickly perceive them instead as a persecutor.
In the Karpman Drama Triangle, victims rarely find much pleasure in life. They also have real difficulties in problem-solving, so when problems arise, they look helplessly inward. Typical words of a victim might be oversized for the situation, such as “I’m definitely getting fired!”
We all know the persecutor. Typical characteristics of a persecutor include saying “I” at every opportunity, to refer to themselves at the centre of every situation. For example: “When I didn’t hear from you, I felt worried.”
In the Karpman Drama Triangle, the persecutor will be the ones blaming and criticising the victim. They do this through angry traits, controlling behaviour and just general unpleasantness.
Because of this element of control, persecutors are often the least flexible. They will not be seen as vulnerable because they fear the risk of being a victim themselves. They are also not great at problem-solving – even if they are good at criticising.
The rescuer’s nature is about helping others and they work hard to take care of people. However, their motive is to help others for the good of themselves, rather the total opposite in some cases.
The downfall of a rescuer, however, that they need victims to help and often can’t allow the victim to succeed or get better. They can also use guilt to keep their victims dependent and feel guilty themselves if they are not rescuing somebody.
What the Triangle reveals about conflicts in relationships
It is possible to see traits of the Drama Triangle many relationships. Usually, the Triangle appears in close relationships that manifest themselves in bickering or fighting. This kind of conflict is inevitable, and to some extent is healthy.
However, be warned about getting stuck in the triangle. The trap is, people are acting out these roles to meet personal, and often unconscious, needs rather than being able to see the picture as a whole. They will then rarely take responsibility for their part in keeping the triangle going.
If you want healthier, happier relationships, then it’s critical to learn how to communicate and solve problems effectively — without any spiteful or harmful behaviour.
If you find there is frequent conflict in your relationship, ask yourself which of the labels you think you identify with the most: Do you sometimes tend to complain or act helpless? You might just find you’re a victim. Do you find yourself blaming other people? You’re probably a persecutor. Are you always the reliable, dependable one that enables a problem behavior to continue? Yep, you’re the rescuer!
It’s worth noting that individual roles may shift in any given relationship, but try to be aware and take note of your particular patterns. If you identify your role, it is possible to escape the Karpman Drama Triangle. Gaining awareness of the behaviour means you can potentially change what’s in your control.
Taking new action can feel uncomfortable at first, but it’s essential. Otherwise, you risk getting caught in the Karpman Drama Triangle – shaking things up will help you to escape the status quo put in place by the Triangle.
Karpman has investigated the Triangle on other levels. He found that it is possible to experience variations, such as the Compassion Triangle. These areas give someone additional perspective to a situation, a way of diffusing it, and a way to remove oneself. So during an argument with a partner, someone might choose to be sympathetic to protect someone they love from feeling worse. This could be despite them disagreeing with a situation.
Karpman also looks at the Family Triangles, which is further supported by Darwinian theory. For example, a parent of children may need to do all three drama corners instantly. This instinct is part of a response mechanism in response to a family threat – in a survival choice between instinct or extinction. The instincts will be to Rescue and protect, and as Victim, to feel the fear of the personal and family threat, and as Persecutor, there must be an instinctual counterattack capability to drive away the threat, or for flight.
But frequently having to deal with conflict in your relationships doesn’t mean you’re cursed. Nor does it mean you’re weak or doomed to have dysfunctional relationships forever. You’re just caught in the Karpman Drama Triangle.
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