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Relationships, communication, difficulties, rolesWhich Role are You most comfortable in?

Are you a rescuer, persecutor or victim in your relationship?

The persecutor, rescuer and victim are all roles that people in relationships can play. These relationship roles interact with each other, so there is always someone in a more powerful position and someone with less power.

Many couples that run into problems find themselves on this ‘drama triangle’. This is a model that maps the unhelpful behaviour patterns couples can find themselves in. It was developed by psychiatrist Stephen Karpman in the 1968.

Relationship Roles

While individuals may shift between the different roles, they usually feel more comfortable in one of the roles, due to their personality and the behaviour patterns in their family growing up.

 

Defining the Roles

A rescuer put others first to feel they are valued, irreplaceable or respected, will often have grown up in a family where the child’s needs were not acknowledged and so he or she grew up looking after others’ needs in order to feel loved. The rescuer was the good, responsible child who avoids confrontation.

The victim feels overwhelmed with helplessness, hopelessness, powerlessness, or shame. They got the message from their family that they were not able to handle their own problems and so grew up expecting others to step in and make things okay. They can often feel anxious about things.

The persecutor is the person who criticizes their partner, acts as the instigator. Makes others feel unworthy or unsure about themselves, and/or blames others for what’s wrong in their life. But it is important to realise that underneath the persecutor is a victim – someone who, as a child, did not have their needs met and often feels powerless. Putting their partner down helps them escape their inner self of low self-worth and makes them feel powerful.

 

Maintaining the Vicious Cycle

The person in the Rescurer role in the relationship is essentially has the “nice guy” control. He hooks into the Victim. The person in that role feels overwhelmed at times. She feels that problems are falling down on her head. The rescuer steps in and says, “I can help you out. Just do what I say, everything will be fine.”

Often times couples will begin their relationship in some form of this. They psychologically cut a deal: The rescuer says that I will agree to be big, strong, good and nice; the victim says I will agree to be overwhelmed and unable
to manage. Everyone is happy. The rescuer feels needed, important and in charge. The victim has someone to take care of him.

And it works fine, except every once in a while one of two things happens. Sometimes the rescuer gets tired of doing it all. He feels like he is shouldering all the responsibilities and that the other is not pulling his weight, not giving anything back, not appreciating what the rescuer is doing. The rescuer gets fed up, angry, resentful. He shifts over to the Persecutor role. He suddenly blows up – usually about something minor – laundry, who didn’t take out the trash – or acts out – go out a spends a lot of money, goes on a drinking binge, has an affair. He feels he deserves it, look, after all, he says to himself, at what I’ve been putting up with. The message underneath the behavior and anger that usually does not come out very clearly is: “Why don’t you grow up! Why don’t you take some responsibility! Why do I have to do everything around here! Why don’t you appreciate what I am doing for you! This is unfair!” The feeling of unfair is a strong one.

At that point the Victim gets scared and moves up to the Rescurer position, tries to make up and calm the waters. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I didn’t realize. I really do appreciate what you do. I’ll do better.” Then the persecutor feels bad about whatever he did or said and goes down to the Victim position and gets depressed. Then they both stabilize and go back to their original positions.

The other thing that happens sometimes is the Victim gets tired of being the victim. She gets tired of the other one always running the show, always telling her what to do. She gets tired of being looked down on because the Rescurer is basically saying, “If it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t make it.” Everyone once in a while the victim gets fed up and moves to the Persecutor role. Like the Rescurer, the victim in this role blows up and gets angry usually about something small, or acts out.

The message underneath that doesn’t get said is Why don’t you get off my back! Leave me alone, stop controlling my life! Back off, I can do things myself! The Rescurer hears this and moves to the Victim position. He says to himself, “Poor me, every time I try to help, look what I get.” The Persecutor then feels bad about whatever he did or said and goes to the Rescurer position and says something like, “I was stressed out, off my meds, tired from the kids. I’m sorry.” And then they make up and go back to where they originally were.

While everyone gets to move among all the roles, often one will fit more comfortably in one role more than another. This has to do with personality, upbringing, and learned ways of coping.

 

Getting off the Cycle

There is no simple solution to getting yourself off the triangle. Continue reading for a  few suggestions to start, but working with a therapist trained in CBT/DBT can help you learn new skills that allow you to step away, be assertive, and learn when it is necessary to leave the situation.

Stopping the cycle is dependent upon:

  • Seeing, accepting, and releasing the underlying needs the drama triangle fills within your family.
  • Changing your role in the dynamic.
    Becoming accountable and own all thoughts, feelings and behaviors that keep you in the drama roles.
  • Your ability to forgive yourself and accept that other’s behavior is not your fault.

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Patricia Thompson

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