This simple diagram describes toxic relationships. It changed my life.

The voice of the wise therapist came through my phone’s inadequate speakers in clipped Skype audio.

It was a mild, clear afternoon in early autumn. The sun had sunk below the nearby trees, illuminating their changing leaves as I sat in my car in the office parking lot that seemed like the safest place to have this conversation.

“It sounds like she’s perping on you from a one-down position,” the therapist observed.

I paused and repeated her words to myself, carefully parsing and trying to infer meaning from phrases I’d never heard before. But I was stumped.

“I’m afraid I don’t understand what that means,” I said. “Will you explain it to me?”

She smiled patiently and introduced me to a model that describes dramatic, high-conflict relationships. It would change my life in more ways than I could imagine at the time.

Karpman’s Drama Triangle

In the late 1960s Dr. Stephen Karpman, then a recent graduate of the Duke University School of Medicine, was doing post-doctoral work under Dr. Eric Berne, the father of transactional analysis. Karpman began using triangles to map high-conflict relationships, including the ways partners switch roles during conflict. Berne encouraged his student to publish what he called “Karpman’s triangle”, and Karpman did so in 1968.

His drama triangle consists of three roles: Persecutor, Rescuer, and Victim. Karpman had an interest in acting and a member of the Screen Actors Guild, and it should be noted that he chose the term “drama triangle” rather than “conflict triangle” because the Victim role in his model is not intended to represent an actual victim, rather someone who feels or acts like a victim:

  1. The Persecutor, who insists, “It’s all your fault.” The Persecutor is controlling, blaming, critical, oppressive, angry, authoritarian, rigid, and superior.
  2. The Rescuer, whose line is “Let me help you.” A classic enabler, the Rescuer feels guilty if they don’t go to the rescue. Yet their rescuing has negative effects: It keeps the Victim dependent and gives the Victim permission to fail. The reward derived from this rescue is that the focus is taken off of the Rescuer. When they focus their energy on someone else, it enables the Rescuer to ignore their own problems.
  3. The Victim, whose stance is “Poor me!” The Victim feels victimized, oppressed, helpless, hopeless, powerless, ashamed, and seems unable to make decisions, solve problems, take pleasure in life, or achieve insight.

Participants in the drama triangle tend to occupy a habitual role learned in their family of origin but can switch roles as the drama unfolds: A Persecutor may switch to the Rescuer, or a Victim or Rescuer may switch to the Persecutor, etc. These role-switches are illustrated by the arrows in the diagram above. Without switches there is no drama, and the greater the frequency of switches, the more intense the drama.

The Victim, if not being persecuted, will seek out a Persecutor and also a Rescuer who will save the day but also perpetuate the Victim’s negative feelings. Understanding this is of vital importance: A habituated Victim requires a Persecutor, and if one is not readily available, emotional reasoning can allow an offense to be synthesized out of thin air and blamed on a nearby target of opportunity, thus kick-starting the drama.

So when my therapist described someone as “perping from a one-down position”, she meant the person was switching from their habitual Victim role (the one-down role) to the Persecutor role (a one-up role) and using the prior Victim status to justify that toxic behavior.

The Drama Triangle and Codependency

A habituated Victim and a habituated Rescuer can exist in a codependent relationship, with each participant receiving a psychological payoff for continuing to play their usual role. The Victim gets their needs met by having the Rescuer take care of them, while the Rescuer feels competent or useful and has incentive to continue enabling the Victim as long as this payoff exists.

Breaking this dynamic can be exceedingly difficult because the status quo requires both parties to remain in denial about the payoffs each is receiving. After years or decades of playing the Victim or the Rescuer, a person’s identity might be so heavily defined by their habituated role that rejecting it is tantamount to self-annihilation.

The Drama Triangle and Organizations

When a person whose worldview is defined by the drama triangle occupies any position of leadership, the entire organization around that person will become unwitting players in the endless drama the leader creates. Whether in a family, a group of friends, a team, a business, a church, or an entire country, everyone in the leader’s orbit will be cast into one of these three roles and find themselves dealing with the emotional fallout of the leader’s role-switching.

Victims who switch to Persecutors often pull no punches when it comes to the target of their wrath, splitting and casting their former Rescuers as all-bad and their desired Rescuers as all-good. The intensity of their emotional swings coupled with the scale afforded by their organizations can make these leaders especially toxic.

Escaping the Drama Triangle

If you find yourself in any kind of relationship that cycles through these roles, what can you do?

  1. Take ownership of your own feelings and actions. It’s imperative that you not see yourself as a victim of this situation and instead take ownership of the part you play in creating and perpetuating it.
  2. Refuse to play any of these roles. Is someone trying to provoke you into playing the Persecutor? Remove yourself from the situation and don’t react. Are you being begged, cajoled, or otherwise manipulated into playing the Rescuer to someone who should be able to take care of themselves? Don’t do it. Is someone trying to make you feel like a Victim so they can rescue you? Don’t fall for it; take ownership instead.
  3. Call out bad behavior when you see it. “Seems like you are trying to hurt someone/being an enabler/playing the victim here, and I don’t think that’s healthy.”
  4. Measure the other person’s reaction and enforce your boundaries as needed. Some people can’t help but to respond defensively when  called out, and this is a massive red flag. They may identify so strongly with the Victim role that they can’t accept having played the Persecutor, even unintentionally. Instead they cast themselves as the “Victim” of your decision to call out their victim-playing, unable to see that they are proving your point by doing so!

I’ve learned that there are some people who spend their entire lives constantly switching themselves and everyone around them between the roles of Persecutor, Rescuer, and Victim, and who are so defensive that they can’t accept they behave this way. The Rescuer in me has tried very hard to “help” some of these people escape this toxic trap, but in the end, it’s a) impossible and b) not my job to do so.

It took a long time for me to learn that this entire drama-triangle game is unwinnable. The only winning move is not to play.

4 thoughts on “This simple diagram describes toxic relationships. It changed my life.

  1. This post was very useful to me. I am having this type of relationship at home and it is exhausting to live this way. I feel like my partner switched from victim to persecutor and everybody at home is under stress. Sometimes I feel like saying f*ck all this and I will go live my own life, but then I think about our kids and think how much I love them and I think to myself I need to be more patient, I need to endure more, so I end up taking two roles the rescuer and victim at the same time and that is killing me softly. When I try to play the rescuer role, even though I don’t want to because that means swallowing pride, that is super hard on me and I am expecting to get some break back but instead I get another hit (physically and emotionally) and I think to myself until how long I would be enduring to this. When is enough enough?

    1. Thanks for reading and for your comment, I’m so sorry that you are stuck in this kind of situation. You’re right, it’s exhausting.

      When is enough enough? That’s a very good question. In general I think that no one should have to tolerate an abusive relationship, and remaining in one sends a very strong message to your children that abuse is “normal”.

      My first step toward getting unstuck was to ask myself: If my daughter’s boyfriend were to treat her this way, what would I tell her to do about it? Realizing that I was modeling the opposite of what I would tell her to do in the same situation was a big part of what compelled me to seek help.

    2. I’m in the same situation as Bob, but have finally said enough is enough and am calling it quits. Our 2 kids, 9 and 17, have said they are ok with us getting a divorce because of the incredible stress in our home. My to-be-ex and I have at least agreed we will shower the kids with love and make sure they know we care for them. They will be ok and the new will be normal in short order. For me, removing myself from my Persecutor is the only way to peace for myself and my family. While there is a road of uncertainty ahead, I see only blue skies and open roads.

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