There is a triangle of relationship roles that is common among adults, especially in dysfunctional and codependent relationships. The drama triangle, also known as the Karpman Triangle, was developed by Stephen Karpman and describes the dynamics of two people in a relationship.
In his 1968 article titled, Fairy Tales and Script Drama Analysis, Karpman described a psychological model of human interaction between adults that include the roles of Rescuer, Abuser, and Victim.
Imagining an upside down triangle will help to describe these three roles in more detail. The two upper points of the triangle represent the Rescuer and Abuser, while the bottom point represents the victim. The two roles of Rescuer and Abuser tend to have the upper hand, or more power, in the relationship and thus are positioned at the top of the triangle. The Victim, on the other hand, is at the bottom and under the control of the other two roles.
Keep in mind that these are roles and not individuals themselves. An individual who assumes one role will end up playing the other two at some point in the relationship. The relationship between two people tend to cycle along these three roles where the victim can just as easily become the abuser or the rescuer and the abuser can quickly revert to being the victim.
Although the two in a relationship might stay in one role for a period of time out of comfort or familiarity, it won’t be long before the roles begin to change. For instance, the rescuer might get tired of shouldering the responsibility of the relationship and doing things that the victim can do on his or her own. It might be a small trigger that will cause the rescuer to turn into the abuser and become emotionally, or sadly, even physically abusive. The rescuer tends to feel that he or she has the power anyway, basically communicating to the other, “If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t make it.”
However, once in awhile the victim gets tired of being powerless. Out of frustration or even rage, he or she switches into the persecutor role, attempting to regain a sense of power in the relationship. In this case, however, the victim doesn’t have the ability to simply say, “I can do things on my own! Leave me alone!”
Personality, conditioning, and learned coping mechanisms will contribute to the relationship role that an individual will tend to feel the most comfortable in. However, all three roles are dysfunctional ones and have their roots in powerlessness, that is, both individuals in the relationship believe that a sense of power is outside of their control.
Powerlessness is a feeling, often an unconscious one, that leads to believing that power is outside of one’s control. In other words, if you did poorly on your chemistry exam and you can admit that you did not study all the concepts covered in class or that you were distracted during your studying, you are exhibiting a sense of personal power and taking responsibility for your grade. However, if you feel that your low grade is because the teacher does not like you or because the concepts are too hard or because you had an argument the morning of the exam, you are handing over a sense of power to external sources.
This is having what is sometimes called an external locus of control. To explain this further, psychologist Julian Rotter introduced and coined the term, locus of control, in the 1950’s. To put it more simply, your locus of control is what you deem to have power over the successes and failures in your life.
A person who feels powerless will often attract someone, or get into a relationship with someone who is an enabler. Enabling is a pattern that often exists in relationships where feelings of powerlessness exist. With this, there is often a belief among both or one of the partners that it would be impossible to make in life without the other person. The belief in being powerless in life leads to a dysfunctional relying on the other person for things that one can and should do on their own. This underlying belief in being powerless seems to attract an enabler who in turn believes that no one else can perform a task as well as they can. Enablers tend to take control of a situation. They tend to be the rescuers, thinking that they are being helpful without seeing that it would be more healthy to allow the other person to do that task on his or her own. Enabling patterns are often the result of co-dependent relationships.
Although these three roles are common, adults can transform them into finding healthier and happier relationships. Recognizing one’s own power is the first step to making this change.
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