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Karpman Drama Triangle

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The drama triangle is a psychological and social model of interpersonal interaction in transactional analysis (TA) first described by Stephen Karpman, which has become widely used in psychology and psychotherapy. The model posits three habitual psychological roles (or roleplays) which people often take in a situation:

  • The person who is treated as, or accepts the role of, a victim
  • The person who pressures, coerces or persecutes the victim, and
  • The rescuer, who intervenes out of an ostensible wish to help the situation or the underdog.

(Note that the rescuer role is one of a mixed or covert motive, not an honest rescuer in an emergency; see below)

As the drama plays out, people may suddenly switch roles, or change tactics, and others will often switch unconsciously to match this. For example, the victim turns on the rescuer, or the rescuer switches to persecuting.

The covert purpose for each 'player' is to get their unspoken psychological wishes met in a manner they feel justified, without having to acknowledge the broader dysfunction or harm done in the situation as a whole. As such, each player is acting upon their own selfish 'needs', rather than acting in a genuinely adult, responsible or altruistic manner.

The game is similar to the melodrama of hero, villain, and damsel in distress (such as Dudley Do-Right, Snidely Whiplash, and Nell Fenwick).

In TA, the drama triangle is sometimes referred to[1] in the context of mind games such as: – Why Don't You/Yes But; If It Weren't For You; Why does this Always Happen to Me?; See What You Made Me Do; You Got Me Into This; Look How Hard I've Tried; I'm Only Trying to Help You; and Let's You and Him Fight.

Overview and theoryEdit

A "game" in Transactional Analysis is a series of transactions that is complementary (reciprocal), ulterior, and proceeds towards a predictable outcome. Games are often characterized by a switch in roles of players towards the end. The number of 'players' may vary.

Games in this sense, are devices used (often unconsciously) by a person to create a circumstance where they can justifiably feel certain resulting feelings (such as anger or superiority) or justifiably take or avoid taking certain actions where their own inner wishes differ from societal expectation. They are always a substitute for a more genuine and full adult emotion and response which would be a more appropriate response.

Three quantitative variables are often useful to consider for games:

  • Flexibility: The ability of the players to change the currency of the game (that is, the tools they use to play it). In a flexible game, players may shift from words, to money, to parts of the body.
  • Tenacity: The persistence with which people play and stick to their games and their resistance to breaking it.
  • Intensity: Easy games are games played in a relaxed way. Hard games are games played in a tense and aggressive way.

Based on the degree of acceptability and potential harm, games are classified into three categories, representing socially acceptable games, undesirable but not irreversibly damaging games, or games which may result in drastic harm. Their consequences may vary from lots of small paybacks (the girl who keeps meeting nice guys who ditch her) through to payback built up over a long period to a major level (ie court, mortuary, or similar). Each game has a payoff for those playing it. The antithesis of a game (that is, the way to break it) lies in discovering how to deprive the actors of their payoff.

The first such game theorized was Why don't you/Yes, but in which one player (White) would pose a problem as if seeking help, and the other player(s) (Black) would offer solutions. White would point out a flaw in every Black player's solution (the "Yes, but" response), until they all gave up in frustration. The secondary gain for White was that he could claim to have justified his problem as insoluble and thus avoid the hard work of internal change; and for Black, to either feel the frustrated martyr ("I was only trying to help") or a superior being, disrespected ("the patient was uncooperative").

In the Drama Triangle, the 'switch' is then when one of these, having allowed stable roles to become established, suddenly switches role. The victim becomes a persecutor, and throws the previous persecutor into the victim role, or the rescuer suddenly switches to become a persecutor ("You never appreciate me helping you!").

Note that the "game" position of Rescuer is distinct from that of a genuine rescuer in an emergency, such as a firefighter who saves a victim from a burning building or a lifeguard who saves a victim from drowning. When played as a drama role, there is something dishonest or unspoken about the Rescuer's attempts, or at best, a mixed motive or need to be a rescuer or have a victim to help. The rescuer plays the role more because they are driven to be a rescuer than because the victim needs their involvement.

Readers may also like to compare this model with Virginia Satir's model of coping patterns which can be found at "Satir's Perspective on Coping Patterns and Communication in Organizations."

Examples Edit

An example would be a welfare caseworker whose official function is to get clients off welfare and to support themselves with jobs. If the caseworker does anything to prolong the dependency relationship, she is not really helping but "Rescuing."

There may be subtle or overt pressure from her agency not to have too many successful clients. Threatening to cut off benefits to obviously lazy or selfish clients would be frowned on -- even if or especially if such tactics resulted in clients suddenly finding gainful employment after years of dependency.

For the drama triangle to come into full flower, one of the players must shift positions. For example, a Victim may become a Persecutor complaining of getting too much help, not enough help, or the wrong kind of help. A Rescuer may become a Persecutor, complaining that the clients don't appreciate her enough.

Officials at the welfare agency may take a role in the game, Rescuing staff and clients as long as they play along quietly but Persecuting any staff who start showing good results.

In conversation Edit

A more familiar example might be this fictitious argument between John and Mary, a married couple. Sometimes the rescuer point seems calm and even reasonable. If the words placate, soothe, calm, explain or justify, it can be considered a Rescuer response--it is an attempt to move the other person from their position.

In order to give a visual of the way the participants move from one point of the triangle to another, the Persecutor position is shown in red, the Rescuer in blue and the Victim in green.

John: I can't believe you burnt dinner! That's the third time this month!
Mary: Well, little Johnny fell and skinned his knee, it burned while I was busy getting him a bandage.
John: You baby that boy too much!
Mary: You wouldn't want him to get an infection, would you? I'd end up having to take care of him while he was sick.
John: He's big enough to get his own bandage.
Mary: I just didn't want him bleeding all over the carpet.
John: You know, that's the problem with these kids! They expect you to do everything!
Mary: That's only natural, honey, they are just young.
John: I work like a dog all day at a job I hate...
Mary: Yes, you do work very hard, dear.
John: And I can't even sit down to a good dinner!
Mary: I can cook something else, it won't take too long.
John: A waste of an expensive steak!
Mary Well maybe if you could have hauled your ass out of your chair for a minute while I was busy, it wouldn't have gotten burned!
John: You didn't say anything! How was I supposed to know?
Mary As if you couldn't hear Johnny crying? You always ignore the kids!
John: I do not, I just need time to sit and relax and unwind after working all day! You don't know what it's like...
Mary Sure, as if taking care of the house and kids isn't WORK!</p>

Anyone reading this article could undoubtedly continue this argument indefinitely.

What is of perhaps more interest is how one can remove oneself from the triangle, which, as the example makes clear, can be exhausting.

The simplest method is the passive response. This works at any point no matter what the role the other person is taking, as it doesn't give a cue as to the next response:

Mary Well maybe if you could have hauled your ass out of your chair for a minute while I was busy, it wouldn't have gotten burned!
John: Yes, that's true.

Although Mary may attempt to restart the cycle by continuing to scold, if John continues in the same vein, Mary will eventually run out of things to say. Unless Mary is actually abusive, in which case care should be used in employing this method, John's calm response invites discussion rather than continued wrangling. She might realize that she didn't ask him for help, and they might well be able to resolve the situation by planning on a course of action should something similar arise in the future.

It works just as well for the victim role:

John: I do not, I just need time to sit and relax and unwind after working all day! You don't know what it's like...
Mary: I'm sorry you're feeling so tired.

This acknowledges any real problem the other person might have without continuing the dance. Again, the other person may attempt to restart the cycle by continuing to complain, but again, with continued passive responses, the other person will run out of things to say.

While the "rescuer" role is seemingly the least problematic of the three points of the triangle, it still is a part of a non-communicative cycle, and thus should be treated in the same manner.

Mary: That's only natural, honey, they are just young.
John: Yes, they are young.

Once again, the cycle is broken, and John has made it clear to Mary that he needs no further placating or assistance. Other examples for passive responses include:

  • "Oh."
  • "I see."
  • "You may be right."

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