Narcissistic Abuse & the Drama Triangle
Updated: Aug 18, 2019
(Excerpt adapted from ‘Never Again - moving on from narcissistic abuse and other toxic relationships’ - available from Troubador)
The Drama triangle is a model of destructive social interaction and conflict originally proposed by Stephen Karpman in the late 1960s. It is a model used mostly in transactional analysis to illustrate and map out drama and conflict intense relationship interactions (Karpman, 2014).
This drama triangle is a dynamic often seen with narcissists and is what relentlessly plays out in relationships of narcissistic abuse and other toxic relationships.
The three positions within Karpmans drama triangle are the Victim, the Persecutor and the Rescuer.
The Victim: The ‘victim’ position is the “poor me” stance. The person in this position sees themselves as being victimised, bullied, being hard done by, helpless, hopeless, persecuted or oppressed. Narcissists use being a ‘victim’ to maintain a helpless position and they are therefore unlikely or unmotivated to take any responsibility for their actions or the situation. There are essentially gains to be made by holding a victim position - there is somebody else to blame and there is usually somebody else that is willing to come to the rescue…
The Persecutor: The persecutor is often the bully narcissist on the attack. This is the position of blaming, shaming, controlling, being aggressive, oppressive, judgemental or authoritative, threatening and/or arrogant. A narcissist usually targets an individual or institution to blame or criticise. Typically, there is a distinct lack of taking any personal responsibility here too - to a narcissist, it’s yours, his, hers, everybody else’s fault.
The Rescuer: The rescuer is often the classic codependent, echoist, enabler, people-pleaser, fixer and/or helper. The rescuer tends to respond to the real or portrayed ‘helplessness’ of the victim. The person in the rescue position will assume responsibility on the ‘victims’ behalf. This is an over-responsibility. The rescuer will take on responsibility for situations or issues that are not theirs. Often the rescuer to the narcissist is driven to rescue due to their own anxieties, fears or feelings of guilt. The rescuer, by the very action of rescuing, prevents the victim from ever learning or having to take responsibility for themselves. Rescuing is a key part in maintaining unhealthy and toxic relationship dynamics.
The narcissist shifts quite skilfully between any one of these positions although most commonly is found assuming the role of the persecutor or the victim. They can though, also use the position of rescuer to control and manipulate. Abusive relationships often start by the ‘rescuer’ arriving like a knight in shining armour at a time of another persons difficulty or vulnerability and sweeping them off their feet, taking care of them and their affairs. This can understandably be welcome following a difficult time like a relationship break-up, family issues, a time of grief, move or a change of job, however this can sometimes be the beginnings and a setting the scene for control and creating dependency.
By shifting into any one of the three positions, the narcissist by doing so, then begins the drama triangle dynamic. They then seek to ‘pull’ others into the remaining positions, to join and complete the drama triangle thus creating drama, conflict, dependent, addictive and toxic relationship dynamics and patterns. Once pulled into a drama triangle, people can move between the different roles in varied situations, however the ongoing movement between positions simply maintains the drama, conflict and unhealthy relationships. As an example, the narcissist may start with placing themselves in ‘victim’ role by telling others how badly a certain person or organisation has treated them. They will explain and tell stories about how the person or organisation has treated them unfairly, have been inappropriate, unprofessional, controlling or aggressive and in various ways, paint the ‘other’ out as the terrible and unfair persecutor or bully. In reality, this may or may not have any truth to it. By putting themselves in the victim position and stating all about how others have been so bad to them (usually without acknowledging any part or responsibility of their own in it) they seek then to pull a ‘rescuer’ and sympathiser into the mix to commence the drama triangle. The helplessness or upset of the ‘victim’ can pull on the heart strings or caring nature of the partner and friend who then step in attempt to rescue, fix, appease or care-take.
“My girlfriend would often be talking about fall-outs with people she’s had at work, especially coming into conflict with her bosses. In the first five years of our relationship, she had four different jobs, all coming to an end for the same reasons - serious fall outs and disagreements with her boss and colleagues. One had even ended in a bitter legal dispute. Every time, she had been the person who had been wronged. She had been mistreated and treated unfairly by colleagues. It was someone else’s fault, every time. It was only when I was talking to my therapist about the latest work-related conflict that they pointed out this pattern. I realised that every time, whenever I listened to her complaining about how terrible her colleagues had treated her, she was playing the victim. She never ever looked at her part in the difficulties (much like in our relationship) and instead just blamed everyone else and be like “poor me”. Every time I would empathise with her and feel her upset. I felt awful for her and would try to comfort her or try to find practical solutions to help the situation. Whenever I did though, she would turn on me and start attacking me for not helping in the right way. Nothing I could do or suggest was right or good enough. It was awful. I was constantly pulled into feeling sorry for her, and then immediately attacked and pushed away for it. I strangely feeling responsible for her, like it was my fault or my problem to sort out. I guess nobody likes to see a loved one in pain but the fact this was a repeating pattern made me realise that there was a common denominator in the mix - her! Even so, whenever I tried to help I was made to feel useless. Like I’d made the worse suggestions ever, didn’t understand or was stupid. In the end I didn’t know what to do anymore - nothing was ‘right’. It was only when I started to speak to the counsellor about this, that I started to understand the drama triangle and how she would go from victim to persecutor in a second, whilst I was left anxiously trying to make it all better. The more I started to recognise this, the more I was able to resist getting pulled in. I started to see that this was her problem, and she was a part of it, and so it was her responsibility to do something about it. Not that she would. She would just move on and in the end not speak to me about it any longer. She found other people she could pull into the drama. I was punished and blamed for not being understanding or good enough to be involved. In the end I was pleased about this. I was able to recognise her doing this in her work situation. It was like a light went off in my head and I could see how this is exactly what she did in our relationship. Always making out like things were my fault or my responsibility. We have now recently separated and whilst it is hard in many ways, I actually do feel so much better. I am certainly feeling better about myself and more confident. I feel clearer about what is my responsibility and what is not. I’ve actually realised I am a man who just enjoys a simple, straightforward life. All that drama was exhausting and relentless. I’m glad I’m away from it now. I can relax. I even sleep better now.”
The ongoing drama, conflict or abuse with a narcissist ends when one person - YOU - decide to leave the triangle. And choose to not re-enter the drama.
Recognising this triangle playing out in action can help with your awareness of this as it happens. The more you recognise the signs and characteristics of each position, as well as any pull you notice within you to move into a position, the easier it will be to then resist automatically being drawn in. Mindful awareness and self-care is key.
It also helps to make a commitment to yourself, if you want to end the madness of narcissistic abuse, to work to recognise the drama triangle in action and the various positions. Being aware can create a space in which you see this playing out and at the same time resist being pulled in.