The Victim Triangle
The Victim Triangle (also known as the Karpman Drama Triangle) is a simple but profoundly useful way of looking at dysfunctional relationships in action. I was introduced to this model by Garth Alley who was my counselor in the late 1990’s.
He used it to describe what was happening between me and my partner. I would get upset with something she said or did and wanted her to change her behavior. I blamed her for something and she tried to turn it around and blame it on me. I didn’t realize it at the time, but blame is at the heart of this model.
Garth drew a triangle on his tiny white board and labeled one point “Victim”, another point “Persecutor” and the third point, “Rescuer”. The victim feels under attack by the persecutor and the rescuer wants to save the victim, or at least that was the simple version. Deeper examination revealed that the persecutor blames the victim for some action and wants to teach the victim a lesson; and the rescuer doesn’t really want to help the victim as much as she wants to conflict to stop because she is not comfortable with conflict. And the insidious aspect of this drama is that it becomes a dance. The persecutor attacks the victim because he feels like a victim himself and the rescuer turns into a persecutor while trying to protect the original victim who may then gang up with the rescuer or turn on the rescuer telling her that “This is none of your fucking business!”. And the dance goes on and on.
As I scanned my life, I could remember a particularly significant event that embodied this dynamic. My father and mother were fighting. I was sitting on the stairs hearing every every shout, slap and scream. Even as a very young child I realized that my father was being mean to my mother.
It wasn’t until many years later that I was able to see what was going on through my father’s eyes: he saw my mother as the persecutor and himself as the victim. And of course, I wanted to be the rescuer so they would stop fighting. I also realized how powerful the victim is. From my mother’s perspective, everything was my father’s fault. Since she was not responsible for the situation, there was nothing she should or even could to to change the situation. And from my father’s perspective, my mother was driving him crazy with her behavior and he felt powerless to stop her, so he tried the only thing he could think of: he hit her, over and over again.
If you want to see how this drama plays out in your life, please read this wonderful article by Lynne Forrest called “The Three Faces of Victim.” She describes this dysfunctional drama in considerable detail and with lots of compelling examples.
My highly non-scientific poll has detected signs of this drama in so many others. In my men’s circles, when a man gets triggered, all I usually have to do is ask him, “Where are you on the triangle right now?”