The Drama Triangle

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A young psychiatrist, Stephen Karpman MD, developed the drama triangle in 1968. It’s an all-too-common schematic to describe addiction in a family context. This construct is highly useful and also flexible for different family systems. It involves three different roles played out in the family, that of the victim, the rescuer, and the persecutor. Because of its usefulness for families in recovery, we’ll devote four full articles to the drama triangle. We’ll describe the psychological ingredients, expand on emotional reasons for each role, and comment on healing paths for family members.


In the late 1960’s, there were significant changes happening in the world of psychology and therapy. At the time, psychoanalytic concepts pioneered by Freud and Jung dating back 50 years were the basis for most clinical tools. Those concepts emphasized unconscious conflicts and defense mechanisms. Karpman was one of the earlier adopters of transactional analysis. This was a new therapy approach that described people more in terms of the system in which they lived. In other words, your relationships define who you are. This theory looked at patterns between people and evolved into the family therapy models of today.

Drama Itself

Everyone has experienced drama played out in relationships before. When you hear the word, people often think of things like an emotional crisis, acting-out behavior, or manipulation. Drama by pure definition is “an exciting, emotional, or unexpected series of events” as well as “a play for theater, radio, or television.”

An elegant depiction we use in psychology is that drama involves the breakdown of words. Some of this ties into needs for validation, stressful situations, or other relational patterns in which a dramatic trajectory is ‘chosen’ by the family member instead of a more grounded and conversational path. In this way, the person is expressing emotional states and trying to get needs met, but in an emotionally manipulative way.

The word ‘chosen’ in quotations is deliberate. Much of this may actually be driven unconsciously. Psychotherapy is helpful at bringing unconscious patterns into more conscious awareness. When this happens, drama often tends to lessen in favor of a more fruitful dialogue.

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In looking at the drama triangle as originally designed, it is important to acknowledge this as an upside-down triangle with the victim position being at the base. This is because the victim role tends to be the most powerful player in the family dance and the other members tend to be reactionary to the victim.

A person is powerless while in the active cycle of addiction, and those people will fight and claw to obtain power in any way possible. Feeling completely powerless leads to deep fear and intense anxiety. Humans naturally will defend against this powerlessness, even if it doesn’t help much in the long run. Don’t blame your family member for initiating drama if they are sick in their disease. Understanding the patterns will allow you to make better choices when you intervene.

It is also worth noting the bi-directional arrows in the triangle. Family members all have the ability to move within the triangle to different roles over time (and sometimes quite quickly). This all can play out without much awareness, leaving people feeling frustrated, confused, and helpless.

An example of this is where your family member may develop a crisis and take a victim position. You may then respond as a rescuer. Then a family member may attack you later for being ‘controlling’ or ‘not respecting them’ when they reject your help. Now he or she has become a persecutor and you are the victim. All this can seem like complete crazy-making, and it remains that way for families that never really heal. By helping you better understand this schematic, you will become markedly more aware and productive with your family recovery process.

Personality Fits for Each Role

In a family system, often the positioning of different members in roles within the drama triangle connects to character traits of the members. For instance, the rescuer role must be someone relatively attuned to the addictive problem, or else they will be unaware of the crisis in need of rescue. This person often has nurturing qualities and some anxiety about others feeling pain.

This personality type is different for family members who often find themselves as the persecutor. This person is more likely to emphasize strength and tough-love. They may struggle with giving emotional validation and become quite impatient with the slow pace of recovery. This person is more prone to anger and confrontation with the addicted family member.

Of note, any person can find him or herself in each of the drama triangle’s roles. We will also discuss role switching in later articles. The most complex family systems have regular role switching and the members first need to identify what roles they are in at any given time. Inaccuracy in the role designation will make healing quite difficult.

Basic Concepts of Healing

Much of the agenda for healing a family system with these issues is helping the members to identify what role they tend to fall into and then to frame a comparable, but fundamentally different role which will support true healing.

An example for this is setting a goal for the persecutor in the triangle to adopt more of a ‘challenger’ role. This movement will stay true to the family member’s core personality (i.e. the stern father) while molding the role to more empirically supportive for the addicted member. We are helping that father experience more empathy and blend that with being tough.

It is imperative that you understand some about stages of change with addiction and motivational strategy for assisting such change. Without this awareness, it can be more difficult to empathize with your addicted family member. To foster lasting growth and autonomy of your family member, empathy is key!

At CeDAR, our dedicated family program focuses on such patterns as The Drama Triangle. We appreciate that addiction is a family system disease, and embrace the underlying theory of transactional analysis – your relationships define who you are.

Read more CeDAR Education Articles about Family Recovery.

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