The three roles of the Drama Triangle are the three main positions that unhappy families play as described by transactional therapist, Stephen Karpman in 1968. The three roles are Perpetrator, rescuer and Victim that operate to keep people in the illusion of power. The roles incorporate learned patterns of habit and control mechanisms that bond people together in sick ways. They are symbiotic, destructive behaviors that affect all members of the family.
Karpman drew these roles on an inverted triangle with the Persecutor (whose behavior ranges from the dominant one to the abuser in the family) and the Rescuer at the upper end of the triangle and the Victim at the bottom. The two positions at the top are considered the “one-up” positions where the people feel superior while the Victim is at the “one-down” position feeing looked down on and helplessness. The positions often shift as people change emotions to protect the ego which feels threatened. The Victim may become angry at the injustice of being persecuted, thereby shifting into the Perpetrator role. The Abuser may become tired with his angry barrage then feel guilty and shift into the rescuing role.
These roles are unconscious scripts of how unhealthy family life is played out that keep people disconnected from true intimacy. They manifest in behaviors that people engage in to distance and disconnect from each other. They are the ways people attempt to stay safe, feel important and stroke their own egos. Participating in the drama of the triangle keeps people stuck in lies, blame and shame, unhealthy secrets, “shoulds” and addictions to crisis, chaos and manipulation.
The Drama Triangle positions are largely unconscious in nature and kept in place by denial, arrogance, helplessness and collusion (tacit agreement from all players to keep the status quo.) Unconscious scripts of guilt, shame are programmed into the young child’s psyche. Themes of desperation form around the roles–themes of depression, alcoholism, abuse, incest, scapegoating, manipulation and codependency. These thematic patterns are passed down from one generation to the next. According to one authority, approximately one fourth of all families have some version of having a tyrant member who tells the others what to do.
All roles are perpetuated by the denial of feelings first in the self and then in others. Denial is the defense mechanism that keeps people acting out in unconscious, perverted ways instead of seeing the reality of how they hurt themselves and others. The huge stash of denied feelings continues to build over a life time to perpetuate the misery in the person’s life by alienating him/her from loving connections with a partner or with children.
The children in the family learn all three roles and as adults perpetuate them on to their children. According to their personality type, they choose a primary role but have the other two roles at their disposal to bring up in specific situations. Each family member “moves around the triangle” shifting roles as needed. Each person has a primary role, but can shift to another role to maintain the illusion of power. With others outside the family, different roles are played depending on how much the relationship is valued and what healthy boundaries have been set in place. For example, a man might be dominant and abusive at home, but be subservient to his boss at work.
Psychotherapist, Lynn Forrest described how there is typically a primary position which the person identifies the most with. “Our primary positions are generally set-up in childhood. For instance, if a parent is overly protective, doing everything for a child, then that child may grow up to feel incapable of taking care of themselves. This sets them up for a life-time role of Victim. Or, the opposite; they might come to feel angry and vindictive if others don’t take care of them, thereby adopting a primary Persecutor stance.”
In healthy families, there can be a minor version of these roles which erupt more so when huge stressors hit. Instead of the abusive Perpetrator dynamic, there is a dominant partner with the other partner going along with decisions but little drama as shown in traditional marriages. In healthy families there is honesty and permission to talk about acting out behaviors of others with problem solving instead of abuse, giving in and enabling. You can learn how healthy families interact and break into the negative roles. (See John Gottman’s research on how healthy families communicate with each other.)