As everyone knows, conflict is an unavoidable part of any relationship. But do you ever feel like drama follows you everywhere you go? It can be frustrating (and tiring) to be trapped in unnecessary, overblown struggles on a regular basis, be it at work or at home.
But frequently having to deal with sagas doesn’t mean you’re cursed. Nor does it mean you’re weak or doomed to have dysfunctional relationships forever. You’re just caught in the Drama Triangle.
The corners of the Drama Triangle
The Drama Triangle is a concept that defines the three roles people typically take on in high-conflict situations. Contrary to its name, the triangle doesn’t have to involve three people; it simply follows how different personalities affect each other during a conflict:
- The Victim – When problems arise, the victim tends to look helplessly inward. They spin a small anxiety (like, say, not answering a boss’s email on the weekend) into an outsized disaster (“I’m definitely getting fired!”). Hello Drama Queen!
- The Rescuer – The rescuer is the classic enabler who swoops in to save the day. He or she can be relied upon to always a put out a fire or show up at the last minute. Well-meaning to a fault, this “fixer” behavior can lead to resentment and burnout. Reluctant Confronters by nature, rescuers don’t speak up even when wronged.
- The Persecutor – We all know the persecutor. The go-to strategies are often controlling, blaming, and criticizing. In arguments, he or she will put you down and try to shame you into forgiveness. The persecutor’s refrain? “It’s all your fault.”
Where the Drama Triangle lives and thrives
Drama Triangles are possible in any relationship, but they are more common in close relationships including those with romantic partners, family, and co-workers. Whether you’re fighting with your significant other over who should take the garbage out or you’re frustrated that you have to fix your annoying co-worker’s mistake — yet again — each of us plays a part in the Drama Triangle dance.
Even though conflict is inevitable, getting stuck in the triangle doesn’t have to be. If you want healthier, happier relationships, then it’s critical to learn how to communicate and solve problems effectively — without mean or harmful behavior.
4 steps to escape the Drama Triangle
Identify your role: In order to change a pattern, you first have to identify it. You escape the Drama Triangle by first gaining awareness of the dysfunctional dynamics at play, then changing what’s in your control: your own behavior.
Ask yourself which of the labels you the identify with the most: Do you sometimes tend to complain or act helpless (victim)? Do you find yourself blaming other people (persecutor)? Are you always the reliable, dependable one that enables a problem behavior to continue (rescuer)? Your role may shift in any given relationship, but try to be aware and take note of your particular patterns.
Do things differently: Once you’re aware of your part, don’t do the same thing you have always done.
- Victims — Don’t outsource your self-esteem by seeking validation from other people. Instead, strengthen your decision-making skills and try acting before you feel ready.
- Rescuers — Pay attention to what drains your energy (i.e., people, specific activities). To curb people-pleasing, develop firm boundaries. Say “no” more than you say “yes.”
- Persecutors — Replace accusatory, sweeping statements like “You always forget to call!” with “I” statements. For example, “When I didn’t hear from you, I felt worried.”
Better yet, aspire to replace the Drama Triangle with compassion, listening, and assertiveness — what’s been called Winner’s Triangle.
Stand your ground: Keep in mind that when you change your behavior, people around you may balk. They may get defensive or feel hurt. That’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, rather it’s a reflection of normal growing pains that will ultimately change your relationship for the better.
Taking new action can feel uncomfortable at first, but it’s essential to shaking up and escaping the very status quo put in place by the Drama Triangle.
Melody Wilding is a coach and licensed social worker who helps ambitious high-achievers manage the emotional aspects of having a successful career. She also teaches Human Behavior at Hunter College in NYC. A popular speaker, Melody has delivered talks for TedX and others.