The Terrible Triangle

triangleI enjoy this blog tremendously, not so much because I get to post each week, but because the comments make me think. Last week, Kassia’s comment about nursing prodded me to mention the Triangle of Abuse. I forget where I came across this, but it’s a simple graphic of a triangle, with Victim, Persecutor, and Rescuer at its vertices.

We’ve all been in, or witnessed, an abusive relationship. If we’re the Victim, we use up much of our energy simply enduring bad treatment, and thus have few resources left over to bring about any change. If we’re the Persecutor (assuming we’re not the psychopathic variety), we’re at the end of our rope, bellowing and blowing a gasket because nothing else seems to get anybody’s attention. If we’re the Rescuer, we’re so upset by what’s going, we jump in to try to help, because clearly, the other parties need help badly.

kids parents fightingThis triangle has two interesting aspects. First, everybody on that triangle can be trying to use their strengths: The Victim has endurance, patience, forgiveness, and maybe even hope going for him. The Persecutor is passionately attached to certain goals, can’t be pushed around, and doesn’t sit on her backside, waiting for solutions to come to her. The Rescuer has an ability to spot a problem and a willingness to help.

kids-fighting-over-toyAnd yet, they’re all acting from weakness. The Victim is passive, the Persecutor is aggressive, the Rescuer can be either, or is often simply meddling in other people’s problems to distract himself from his own.

The other interesting aspect of an abusive triangle is that the positions can flip around, or at least feel like they’re flipping around. The Victim can turn into a bellowing, ranting, sulking, histrionic, manipulative virago. The Persecutor can feel so invisible, so uncared for and demonized, that her emotional landscape resembles that of a Victim. The Rescuer can start lecturing everybody about what they should, ought, must, always, never… blah, blah, and when those Judgments–I Mean, Insights–from Starfleet aren’t greeted with applause and instant compliance, the Rescuer feels ignored and taken advantage of.

These unhappy and unhealthy roles can ricochet around for years, binding families, work environments, neighbors, or church groups in an ongoing drama of misery. Sometimes the whole business is a sideshow, distracting everybody from a larger problem, but sometimes, all that’s needed to shatter the triangle is a source of empowerment. Empowerment is about managing your own needs, not manipulating others into meeting them. Honesty is a big help in this undertaking, as is courage, resilience, creativity, and clear communication.

empowermentI’ve seen situations where an unhealthy group dynamic started to turn around just because somebody consistently modeled those positive qualities. In books, the hero and heroine often empower each other rather than solve each others’ problems.

This triangle is a fascinating dynamic. The part of that jumped out at me most is how the rescuer can turn into a bully, or at least develop a controlling agenda, and then feel victimized when efforts to help seem wasted. Don’t suppose any of you have ever brushed up against this infernal triangle?

To one commenter, I’ll send a $25 Amazon gift certificate.

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15 comments on “The Terrible Triangle

  1. 1
    Mary T says:

    I’m old, so I think I’ve been in all three of those positions at one time or another. I certainly know I’ve been the rescuer who turned into a self-righteous, judgmental controller. Or I guess I should say, I’ve tried to control.

    I come from a family that is rife with addition. The hardest lesson for me to learn was acceptance of others and the realization that I cannot change their behavior. I didn’t pick up on that until I was in my late 30s.

    There is a fine line between helping and enabling.

  2. 2
    Susan Gorman says:

    This article reminded me of my daughter and her friendships in junior high and high school. She had several friends in two separate groups that were very controlling. The controller- victim drama is awful to watch and to deal with from a parents perspective.
    As she matured, my daughter learned more about people and “what they wanted ” from her. It was a hard task to be a parent, not a friend , and to sit back and let things play out. I am the mother with rules and I stuck to them, each and every time I was tested. Friends and being cool are more important to teenagers, than their parents.
    The good that emerged from the drama is communication, honest communication and my daughter has learned to be her own person and be confident in HER choices.

  3. 3
    Jennifer says:

    How about being all three at once? I find that seems to be the case a lot of times when I stop and take a hard look at a frustrating situation I’m in. If I’m telling myself that I’m right and I’m not the one to blame and I have good intentions and am trying to get other people on the same page — what I need to be telling myself instead is STOP and be honest with myself. Yes, other people’s behaviors can be a problem and a bad influence over my situation, but what am I contributing to it as well? And how can I change my behavior to deal with the situation more productively?

    This has been particularly true of work situations, and while I don’t think I’ve ever come out of one smelling completely like roses, once I can be honest with myself about my own motivations and reactions, I can usually act in a way that gives me more ease. If I remember that I can control my own actions but I can’t control other people’s reactions, it helps me let go of the frustration and do the best I possibly can.

    I think you’re right, honesty is critical to empowerment. And that’s why it can be so darn hard. Who ever really wants to take that clear-eyed and critical look at one’s self and one’s actions? But wow, the eventual rewards…!

  4. 4
    Maria says:

    I feel blessed to never have been in an abusive relationship or known someone who has or is. This reminds, me, however, of Leah’s predicament in the Lonely Lords’ book, Nicholas. Also, Sherry Thomas wrote of an abused woman in His at Night.

  5. 5
    Sarah R. says:

    Oh this is very eye opening. About 9 years ago when the twins were being diagnosed and I was pregnant and then had a newborn, I was very much the persecutor at home. My husband’s way of dealing with the twins’ diagnosis was to be away from home as much as possible. He joined a softball team, was super busy with a scouting program at our church and would help out with church things whenever he could. I was left trying to keep it together and that resulted in a lot of anger and a whole lot of yelling and screaming. I can remember yelling at the boys for some of the smallest things and in my head telling myself I shouldn’t be yelling at them because they weren’t who I was mad at. I would keep yelling and then I would go in a different room and cry and berate myself for being such a terrible mother and thinking that I didn’t want my boys to grow up and only have memories of me being angry. When that newborn baby was about three I finally had a breakdown because I could see the effect I was having on him (the twins never seemed to care about my outbursts) and I needed it to stop. I was at developmental pediatrician’s appointment for the twins and in the midst of talking about the twins the doctor looked at me and asked what I was doing for myself. It was a very eye opening moment in my life and I went and sought help for myself. Things were better for a year or two and then baby boy #4 came along and was also dignosed with autism and more opportunities for my husband to be gone came along and instead of lashing out as I had done before I became the victim and merely survived day to day. I had to take care of the boys and make sure they were getting to all their therapy appointments and had the things they needed and that boy #3 wasn’t feeling neglected because of his brothers. Inside I was dying, but outside I was putting on a mask and trying to make everything look fine. And then I landed in the hospital for a week and my health started going south and I was falling deeper into the victim role. I have spent the past year digging myself out this role and things are definitely looking up, thanks in part to some very wonderful people in my life.
    I am not sure if I was ever the rescuer through any of this. I think all my energy was spent on the other two.

  6. 6
    Ann Wilson says:

    My initial reaction was to send this blog to at least five people I know. My second and more thoughtful reaction was the sudden, sharp recognition that I have acted in all three roles at various times in my long life. Finally, I recognized that my initial reaction was that of a knee-jerk rescuer. “if they could only consider, calmly, . . .”

  7. 7
    Michelle K says:

    Yeah, there’s a triangle in my family, which is so hard to watch or not get dragged into! Tough on everyone

  8. 8
    bn100 says:

    Have read about it, but not encountered it

  9. 9
    Barbara Elness says:

    I been in situations of substance abuse, and tried to be a “rescuer,” which never really works. I know when someone tells me what to do it doesn’t go over very well, so I don’t know why I ever thought trying to tell someone else what to do would work. After I learned to offer help, but don’t insist on it, letting the person know it’s there if they want it, it has been much less frustrating for me and everyone else. :D

  10. 10
    Molly R. Moody says:

    I’ve never been in abusive relationship but am close to someone who was, back in the early ’70′s when there was no such thing as a women’s shelter. I told my late husband that there were only two things I wouldn’t tolerate, abuse and cheating. I never had to worry about it for the 18 months we were married.

  11. 11
    Anne Egger says:

    Hmm… interesting, I like empowerment, managing my own needs.

  12. 12
    Denise says:

    It’s called the Drama Triangle and it was introduced by Stephen Karpman in 1968 in his article, “Fairy Tales and Script Drama Analysis.” I heard Karpman speak at a conference in San Francisco a few years ago. One of his points was that when you feel yourself in one of these roles, you can recognize you’re in the drama triangle and step off the thing rather than continue the drama. However, when you try to step away, the others involved will try to pull you back in by shifting roles–people can rocket around the roles on the triangle at amazing speed, from victim to persecutor to rescuer to victim, all in service of finding the hook that keeps you in the drama with them. You have to recognize your own willingness to stay in the drama so you can let go of it and step off the triangle into freedom.

  13. 13
    may says:

    I can’t say that I have fortunately. It’s tough to be in a situation like that and I am VERY grateful that I am not… But I do agree that things work the best when the person herself is motivated to solve her own problems rather than relying on others.

  14. 14
    catslady says:

    I always thought other people’s families were “normal” but I’m not sure the majority are what I always thought as normal. It’s a cycle that’s hard to get out of because it’s what you are use to and it’s easy to fall into the same patterns even if you aren’t consciously repeating them. Maybe that’s part of the allure of romance books with HEA. It’s nice to think it’s happening somewhere.

  15. 15
    Catherine says:

    I believe we often surround ourselves with ‘people like us’ so that we feel more ‘normal’– so I spent years around dysfunctional codependents! Burgeoning self-awareness and some great therapy has helped me heal the relationships that meant the most, eliminate the truly toxic and endure ever more wisely the ones I can’t heal nor do I choose to walk away from. Empowerment is a fabulous word! In connotes a personal level of accountability, as opposed to control of others. Thanks for the reminder and food for thought!