Escaping the Drama Triangle

Last week’s blog focused on the frustrating dynamic of Karpman’s Drama Triangle - the dance between the victim, persecutor, and rescuer. It’s a dance we may be all too familiar with and one that can happen subtly. But once we recognize it, how do we step out of it?

Like I mentioned previously, each of the three roles needs someone to fulfill one of the other roles in order for the dance to continue. So a huge part of stepping out of the drama is to become aware of which roles you play. These roles are often learned early on in our families but can become fluid in relationships. For example, if you notice you have a tendency to rescue, intentionally work toward expanding awareness of how, when, and where you tend to rescue others.

Once you have cultivated some awareness of your role, the next step is to stick to your side of the fence. Sticking to your side of the fence means using I-statements like “I’m feeling ____” or “I’m noticing ____.” At the core, all of the roles focus on the other person rather than yourself, essentially blame shifting and giving power away in three unique manifestations. By choosing to stick to your feelings, experiences & responsibilities only, you are practicing being accountable for your feelings and actions and allowing others to do the same.

Finally, expect the drama to continue for a little while. When you step out of the drama, the other person will likely still play their role for a bit, but abstaining from your role cuts off the fuel to the fire. Relationships are like baby mobiles, changing up one role disrupts the whole system, and often the system is eager to get back to the familiar status quo. It will take practice over time to notice the role, learn to step out of it, and allow your relationships to adjust accordingly. Like practicing any new skill, this often doesn’t happen seamlessly at first. Over time, I hope you will find more peace and clarity in yourself.

The Drama Triangle

Ever reflect back on an argument with a loved one and wonder what the heck you were actually arguing about? Somewhere the conversation must have derailed. In any conversation there are two important elements at play -- the actual content of the conversation and the emotional subtext below the content of the conversation. When arguments derail, it’s often because we are getting stuck in the content without paying attention to the emotional process underneath. This leads to feeling frustrated, misunderstood, and feeling unresolved.

The Drama Triangle is a helpful way to recognize when your conversation has jumped on the crazy train. The Drama Triangle (or Karpman Triangle) was developed by Stephen Karpman as a way to understand the social dynamics and roles played out in dysfunction. He describes the following 3 roles:

The Victim is characterized by learned helplessness (“woe is me!”), feeling ashamed & powerless, difficulty making decisions, and negative view of self. Victim behaviors are often intended to prompt the other person to either affirm their helplessness or rescue them, reinforcing the victim’s neediness.

The Persecutor takes an aggressive, prosecutorial, blaming approach. This role is characterized by a superior “I’m better than you” attitude that belittles and criticizes the other person.

The Rescuer is just as it sounds, the role of taking power over another person by rescuing them, being in charge, and being morally or emotionally superior to others. This is a classic fixer or helper role that can enable helpless behavior of the victim to continue and can aid the rescuer in avoiding their own issues by focusing on helping others.

Each of these three roles needs someone to fulfill another aspect of the drama triangle to continue - i.e. the rescuer needs a victim, the victim needs a persecutor or rescuer, and the persecutor needs a victim. It’s not uncommon to shift roles within the span of a conflict, for example the rescuer being tired of fixing and becoming the persecutor, or the victim and persecutor flip flopping roles. And the drama continues.

In dysfunctional conflict we tend to favor one role over the others. What role do you resonate with? In a future blog we’ll talk about how to step out of the drama triangle and into healthy interactions.

Secondary Gains


Ever feel stuck and frustrated in a situation you want to change, but nothing seems to work? Sometimes this happens when we know the things we are “supposed” to do for self-care, mental health, or to find healing, but repeatedly find ourselves not doing those things. We suffer with the status quo, yet do nothing to change it. Other times this may happen in relationships, feeling the crazy making cycles repeating over and over, like a merry go round we want to get off of but can’t seem to find the exit.

When you feel stuck & frustrated, it’s a good opportunity to reflect on possible secondary gains. A secondary gain is a backdoor benefit that you receive from keeping the status quo. For example, a child that repeatedly gets in trouble may feel frustrated about constantly being punished, but not do anything to change her behavior. There may be an unconscious benefit of attention, even negative attention, that she receives from acting out. Perhaps a part of her is worried that if she stops acting out, she’ll stop getting attention. Sometimes the same happens in order to preserve relational dynamics. A child may act out in the family so the parents have to join together, unconsciously the child is preserving the marriage connection by providing a problem for the parents to solve.

As adults, we do similar things unconsciously. Perhaps someone stays just unwell enough to get the care and attention from others in their life. Some put up with behaviors in relationships that stand against values because of feeling terrified of being alone. Others fear succeeding for how that may impact relationships or change their life. Coming to terms with potential secondary gains can be difficult, but also provide the freedom to work through dormant fears that may be keeping you back from truly thriving. Identifying secondary gains may open the door to deeper self-awareness and the ability to write a new story.

If you’re feeling stuck, here are some helpful questions to think through. How may I be benefitting from keeping things the same? How would getting better impact my relationships for better or worse? Is there any part of me that is afraid of the change that could occur if I got well/this situation changed? What does that part of me need in order to move forward?

Externalizing the Problem

Our language is important in how we conceptualize our life, our identity, our struggles, and our successes. Often we can join ourselves with our struggles in our language, enveloping those issues into our identity. This happens subtly, like saying “I am depressed” versus “I’m struggling with depression” or “I’m feeling depressed today.” Language can reveal if we are operating in guilt (I did something bad) or shame (I am bad). These subtle shifts in how we narrate our story can help us externalize our problems, thereby highlighting our strengths, resilience, and ability to write a new story.

Beginning to externalize the problem is all about separating ourselves from the issue. Externalizing language asks questions of the problem like, in what context does that _____ usually occur? What types of things happen right before _____ takes over? What does _______ tell you to do? For example, rather than saying “I’m depressed,” you may say “Depression really got me today,” or “I really gave into Depression’s tricks last week.”

Externalizing problems is not about abdicating responsibility, instead it’s about becoming responsible agents of our own narratives. This process of shifting our language helps us move back into the driver’s seat. Instead of things happening to us, we become active agents in our own story, accountable for our responses to events that happen. We can move from a problem-saturated narrative where we feel powerless, to a story that we choose to rewrite, highlighting our ability to resist our problem areas, celebrating our growth, and noticing our competencies.

What does your language indicate about how you conceptualize your struggles? How may it help to externalize issues to get back into the driver’s seat? What struggle can you externalize in your life now? How would you like to rewrite your story?

Celebrating Mini-Milestones

Life traverses various seasons, some joyous and light, others dark and difficult. Regardless of the season you’re in now, it’s human nature to zoom in on the difficulties of a day or week and filter out the positive. It can feel natural to celebrate the big milestones in joyous season, but it takes more discipline to celebrate the little, everyday milestones that go easily unnoticed.

We are often our own worst critics, quick to offer praise to others while beating ourselves up for small mistakes. Taking the time to celebrate growth, big and small, can help reorient your perspective toward gratitude, honor your growth and progress, and help you be on the lookout for good news. This shift in perspective may also reframe the way you engage with or interpret your difficult seasons.

For example, if you’re in a difficult season in your marriage, take time to celebrate the small moments that go well: conversations that felt connecting, using your tools in conflict, a fun date night, handling a parenting situation on the same team, etc. Reinforcing these positive moments helps give encouragement to both you and your partner that you are progressing and working hard and appreciate the effort being put in. If you’re struggling with depression, take time to celebrate when you choose to reach out for support rather than isolate, when you have a good week, when you choose to exercise, etc.

Celebrating these mini-milestones can be simple - a high five, an encouraging note, giving yourself a small treat, scheduling some pamper time with a friend, going out for ice cream or coffee, etc. You may even record these mini-milestones in a journal or diary, intentionally choosing to remember and honor the progress, especially on days you need the reminders or encouragements.

Take some time to reflect on your current season of life - is it one that is primarily light and joyous, or perhaps one that feels draining and hard? How do you feel about celebration? What mini-milestone can you celebrate this week? How may you encourage someone else when you see their milestones?

Communicating to Connect

Ever been in a conversation with someone and walk away feeling frustrated and wondering how you could possibly view the same incident so very differently? I see this often when working with couples and families and in my own life. It is so easy to get tripped up on a word or phrase and completely miss the real message your loved one is trying to share.

Communicating to connect takes some intentional relearning of our speaking & listening skills. Rather than communicating to defend or prove your point as the end goal, imagine how powerful conversations could be if you listened with connection as the ultimate success? Connecting communication fosters healthy attachment, intimacy, trust, and builds stronger relationships. Here are a few guidelines that can move you toward connecting communication:

For the Speaker: Use I-messages. Speak from your experience, feelings, and thoughts. Share “I feel (feeling word) because (event).” rather than “you always…”. Make sure to use feeling words (sad, excited, disrespected, hurt, happy, mad, etc.) to describe your experience. Sometimes we say “I feel that you are…” which is using the I statement format but ultimately is not sharing your experience or feelings. Try to speak concisely so the listener can follow and reflect well.

For the Listener: Your job is a tough one, so get centered, calm, and prepared to listen. If you start to feel anything that gets in the way of listening well, call a time-out until you can listen fully. Mirror and reflect what your loved one is saying, like “You are feeling disappointed that I haven’t listened to you. You are frustrated that I missed what you are saying and you are feeling unheard.” Use lead in phrases like “What I hear you saying is..”. Check in to make sure you are getting the message right after reflecting with a simple phrase like, “Did I get that right?” Once you know you are hearing the message correctly, offer validation and empathy. Empathy & validation looks like “It makes sense to me that you feel that way because ____.” You can offer empathy & validation whether or not you agree with their perspective. Remember connecting communication is about hearing & seeing one another, not about proving why your perspective is superior.

Communicating to connect is hard work and can yield great results. Start practicing as a listener and notice how your conversations change!

Disclosure After Infidelity

There is often a mixed reaction when we talk about a full disclosure - some couples want to race into it, others are scared to face it. Sometimes one party wants it, and the other doesn't. Research shows, however, that 94% of couples that go through the full disclosure process find it to be healing, helpful, and are glad they did it.

Full disclosure is essentially the acting out partner giving a complete account to their spouse/partner of all sexual behaviors from the inception of the relationship and forward. Understandably, this is a very challenging day for both partners. Often the disclosing partner fears the information will hurt their partner, and the partner fears they may regret hearing information that they cannot unhear. Despite these potential risks, there are many benefits.

Often partners of sex addicts will experience staggered disclosure, bits and pieces of information gathered over time, either from an addict self-disclosing or being caught. Usually the information is spoken as if it's the full truth, so when more information comes along, it can be all the more traumatizing. This leaves the partners feeling uncertain if there is more information hidden and fearful of trusting again. Yet many partners need to know the full truth in order to move forward in healing the relationship. Therapeutic disclosure helps reduce that fear by creating a safe space to hear all of the acting out behavior in one setting. This is a painful day, yet the structure helps contain the trauma into one setting rather than being re-traumatized with each staggered disclosure. 

Though there may be some trepidation approaching disclosure day, the disclosing partner often reports feeling a sense of relief in having all of the secrets and information clearly out in the open. By bringing the secrets into the light, shame can dissipate and recovery can continue. The full disclosure is an important step that allows the couple to put secrets to rest, share the same information, and work through the pain to move forward.

I carefully walk couples through the disclosure process in three parts: Full Disclosure, Emotional Impact Letter, & Emotional Restitution Letter. In future blogs we'll talk more about what the next steps entail. 

If you think a full disclosure may be helpful in your journey, reach out today to get started!

Antidotes to the Four Horsemen

Last week we discussed Gottman’s Four Horsemen the Apocalypse. Hopefully you are beginning to notice which horsemen you tend to use. As you grow in your self-awareness, you can begin to catch yourself and instead choose to communicate differently. Here is what Gottman has found to be the antidote to each of the four horsemen.

Rather than criticism, complain without blame. Practice using “I-statements” that reflect your thoughts and feelings. Rather than “you are always late!” (criticism), try “I feel unimportant when you show up late without calling.” Stick to communicating your feelings and needs rather than placing blame on your spouse.

Rather than contempt, build a culture of appreciation and respect. Each one of us wants to be loved. Curb contempt by intentionally communicating your love, respect, and appreciation towards your mate. This is built in small moments each day - be specific and genuine. “I really appreciate the way you handled the discipline with our kids today.” or “I’m so proud of the way you tackled that meeting, I know you have been stressed about it.”

Rather than defensiveness, accept responsibility. Rather than deflect blame, diffuse the situation by taking responsibility for whatever is your part in the issue. It takes two to tango. For example, “I can see how I may have contributed to your hurt feelings here. I apologize for not calling you to let you know I was going to be late.”

Rather than stonewalling, practice physiological self-soothing. Stonewalling often occurs when one or both partners is feeling emotionally flooded. The only way to re-engage well is to take some time to calm down. Perhaps you can go for a walk, practice breathing exercises, listen to music, journal, or go lie down. This break is truly a break, not a time to rehearse arguments or nurse wounds. It takes at least 20 minutes to physiologically calm down, so any attempts to resume the conversation sooner will not be fruitful. As a reminder, whoever is calling for the break is responsible for setting up another time to pick up the conversation again.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Marital researcher John Gottman has spent years identifying the strengths and downfalls of marriages. With over 40 years of research under his belt, he can predict with more than 90% accuracy whether a couple will stay together or get divorced. One of the predicting factors of divorce is the presence of toxic communication styles that Gottman has coined The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The presence of these alone does not mean that your marriage is doomed. In fact everyone uses some of these horsemen sometimes, even the Gottman's use them! Working to reduce their presence, however, will have a positive impact on your marriage. Let’s take a look briefly at each horsemen:

Criticism reaches far beyond naming a complaint or disappointment and instead attacks the character of your partner. A complaint voices a feeling about a specific behavior or incident; a criticism voices disapproval of your partner. For example, a complaint would be “I was really frustrated that you did not follow through on making that call like you said you would.” Criticism says “I knew I’d have to do this. You are so lazy and selfish!”

Contempt may manifest in a number of ways -- mimicking, mocking, belittling, eye-rolling, sarcasm, etc. The acts of contempt may be subtle or overt and often stem from underlying beliefs of the partner’s flaws. Contempt communicates from a place of superiority over the other partner. Gottman has found this to be the most deadly of the horsemen and the number one predictor of divorce. 

Defensiveness occurs when a partner does not take responsibility for their actions and instead defends him or herself in light of their partner’s complaints (or criticisms) and may even blame shift. Rather than solve the issue, this tends to communicate a lack of ownership or being accountable. Defensiveness is a very common horsemen in many relationships. 

Stonewalling is the idea of shutting out your partner during conflict, imagine a thick castle wall between you and your spouse. This may be demonstrated in tuning out, seeking distractions, turning away, acting busy in other tasks, not listening, and not letting your partner in emotionally. Sometimes stonewalling can occur after negativity from the other horsemen accumulates, and sometime sit can occur as a pattern of habit from childhood or other relationships.

Remember we all use these horsemen sometimes, and we tend to have a few favorites we tend to rely on the most. Take some time this week to notice when these 4 horsemen show up in your relationships. Self-awareness is the first step toward changing any behavior.  

Taking A Healthy Time-Out

All relationships can experience gridlock when talking about a difficult topic. Relationships, whether it be a couple, friendship, parent-child, or family system, tend to have a familiar dance that plays out in communication and conflict. For example, a common dance is the pursue-retreat dynamic: a couple may start a conversation calmly, but over time one person starts to get emotionally overwhelmed and withdraws. The other partner notices the withdrawal and beings to pursue the conversation with more intensity. The withdrawn partner may now start to shut down emotionally or become passive aggressive. And so on and so forth.

We all can fall into a similar dance rhythm in conflict quite easily. It takes much more awareness and intentionality to notice the dance and choose to try something new. A really helpful way to step out of the dance is to take a time out. In the moment, it may feel risky or vulnerable to leave a conservation unresolved. In the long run, taking a time out sets both parties up for success in returning to the conversation when they have calmed down. Time outs work best when both people agree that using a time out could be helpful before a conversation gets heated. That mutual understanding in a calm moment allows for respect for the need in a difficult one.

If you are starting to feel frustrated, angry, more committed to winning than listening, triggered, may react violently from your anger, shut down, or emotionally flooded, you may need a time out. You may request a time out by saying something like, “I notice that I’m feeling really frustrated and having a hard time fully listening to you. Can we take a time out?” or simply, “I can’t talk about this anymore, I need to take a time out.” A time out can be a powerful tool to step out of the toxic dance and into a healthy one. Time outs allow both parties to calm down, notice their feelings, gather their thoughts, identify their needs, think about the other person’s perspective, and come back ready to re-engage.

A time out cannot merely be an avoidance of conflict or pushing off hard conversations indefinitely. If you call for a time out, it is your job to offer another time you can resume the conversation in a reasonable time frame, typically within a week. This allows each person to come emotionally and mentally prepared for the conservation. By following through with another time it also communicates respect and care, that the conversation and relationship is important.

In what relationship might you need to practice time outs for more fruitful conversation and connection?