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  • Deborah Moyer

Are you a Player in the "Drama Triad"?

Ever had relationships where you feel you’re constantly on the defense? Where you’re making 100% of the effort, but it’s just never enough to please the other person?

It may be a person that somehow always manages to turn the tables on truth, consistently acting with deceit, disrespect, or even being abusive, and yet they come out of every situation smelling like a rose.

In any of these cases, there tends to be one common theme. Drama.

The relationship could be with a spouse, a parent, a child, a co-worker, or a friend. Frequently, the closer a relationship is, the harder it is to see their behavior for what it is; which is unhealthy.

But, things start to really stir up when they use others to manipulate or ‘re-frame’ reality to their benefit. This is called the “drama triangle or triad”.

Dr. Claire Jack, author of the Psychology Today article “Are You Stuck in a Narcissist’s Drama Triangle?” says “Imagine a triangle and, at each of its points, there is a “role” that we and others play. These roles are perpetrator, victim, and rescuer”.

The Perpetrator

The perpetrator role is often played by a person with narcissistic personality traits because of their need for control and use of aggressive tactics to get what they want.

Persecuting others allows them to feel in charge and powerful, especially when they get the two-for-one of manipulating both the Victim and the Rescuer to do their bidding.

Dr. Jack goes on to say “…because narcissists derive their sense of validation externally, they will do all they can to draw other people into their drama triangle.”

The Victim

The Victim, on the other hand, is a role where a person feels they have no control over their world, including themselves and their ability to change circumstances around them.

Instead of taking action to change things, they blame others or the world around them for their life’s challenges.

The Rescuer

The Rescuer role seems like it might be heroic, but that isn’t always the case. Rescuers can help for self-serving reasons as well.

For instance, a narcissistic person could be playing a Rescuer role by helping someone out, but they do it to control them or make them feel obligated.

Rescuers may also be helping the Victim because they are looking for acceptance or they just want to look good to others.

But, the people in these roles don’t always stay static in every drama triangle relationship. They can be interchangeable, depending on the dynamics of a situation.

A Perpetrator can take on the Victim role, and vice versa or the Rescuer can suddenly become the Victim.

Most of us have played the part in all three of these roles, in one way or another, in relationships we’ve had throughout our life.

So, now that we have the role descriptions down, let’s see how they interplay by using a story example.

Meet Mary and Jack

Jack and Mary have been married for 45 years. Jack is a narcissistic Perpetrator and has emotionally battered Mary for most of their marriage. He only feels in control and empowered when he is bullying her or their children.

Lately, that bullying has become physical and only getting worse by the day. Her family and friends are getting increasingly concerned for Mary’s well-being.

Mary acts as the Victim because her attempts to change Jack’s behavior have been unsuccessful in the past. She’s tired, empty, and overwhelmed, feeling there’s no way out of the situation. She chooses to give up, allowing him to continue to escalate his harmful behavior.

Mary’s oldest child, Cheryl, has increasingly become agitated and upset about her parent’s dangerous relationship. She has repeatedly tried to step in to protect her mother when she’s witnessed her father’s behavior.

She finally gets to a breaking point and suggests it’s time for her mother to strongly consider divorce. But, she doesn’t expect what comes next.

Instead of appreciating Cheryl's attempt to help and protect, Mary considers this as an attack against her long-time partner. She thinks of Cheryl’s role now as the Perpetrator. Mary suddenly shifts from the Victim role to the Rescuer because she thinks she's being a good wife by standing up for Jack.

She is swift to defend her husband, as head of the household, suddenly emphasizing all the reasons he’s such a “great husband”, despite the obvious reality that he’s not.

Cheryl’s shocked and hurt by her mother’s defense, especially due to the pain and suffering that his actions have caused her family over many years.

She suddenly finds herself in the Victim’s role feeling angry and resentful that her attempts to aid her mother have been rejected by Mary’s preference toward her abusive husband.

Now you know where the “Drama” in “Drama Triad” comes from because there’s plenty of it to go around.

Life in the Triad

Two things you can always count on if you are living life in the “Triad” and that is:

1) You will continue to remain in a state of perpetual chaos and uncertainty if you refuse to acknowledge the effect these roles have on you and those around you.

Just when you feel you have things figured out or think you’ve got it covered is when you’ll find yourself nursing an emotional whiplash when your fellow “players” take a hard turn you weren’t expecting.

Thinking you can outsmart their next move is like a 24/7 game of Whack-a-Mole and it’s exhausting, creates anxiety and you’ll never win.

2) You can never change their behavior. Trying to change someone else’s dysfunctional behavior is a waste of energy and time. Only you can take responsibility for your own actions.

Dr. Jack’s, and other mental health professionals, recommend that, if you’re currently caught in a “Drama Triad” and don’t know what to do, remove yourself from actively taking on any one of the three roles.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you must end that relationship. What it means is that you consciously refuse to be a part of the dialog and level of engagement that a “Triad” requires, especially if that role is Victim.

Without the Victim, the Triad falls apart. There’s no one to control and no one to rescue. Pure genius!

Setting clear boundaries with those that create the most drama in your life can help you feel more empowered and peaceful.

So, my friend, as I always say….stay safe, stay healthy and stay strong!