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In the Drama Triangle, the rescuer is the quintessential enabler. This role involves overly meeting the needs of the victim at the expense of that person’s sense of autonomy, efficacy, and independence from the family. The rescuer falls into the role as originated by the victim, but gets numerous emotional and psychological needs met through this struggle as well. It is through understanding these needs and their associated fears that this person can learn to break the victim-rescuer cycle.
It is very common for family members of addicted children to fall into the rescuer role for at least some periods of time. An important factor in this is the age of the victim member. The younger that person, the more likely the parent is to take a protective and nurturing role.
When children are growing up, they are 100% dependent on the parents to meet every need. This percentage gradually decreases over the years as the child passes through appropriate stages of emotional maturation. In a way, this transition of power from the parent to the child over the years is a significant grieving process for the parent. This is especially true for parents who defined almost their entire identity as ‘mom’ or ‘dad.’
If you have experienced this yourself, think back to the days in which your child was moving out of the house and possibly going off to college or entering a career. It is common to feel sadness at this transition, as it represents the final stages of grieving for you no longer being as ‘needed’ as you once were.
Parents need to work through this abstract loss or they risk stifling any further maturation of their child in the interest of getting their own needs met. In many ways, a deeper understanding of the drama triangle comes from the awareness of your needs as compared to your family member’s needs. Inaccuracy in this assessment will lead to further conflictual relationships.
One way of looking at patterns in the drama triangle is that of closeness versus distance. The rescuer and the persecutor play opposite sides of this distance dilemma, via being too close or too far, respectively. When the victim in the triangle presents a crisis to a family member, it is very emotionally rewarding (at first) for the rescuer to be supportive and meet the needs of the victim. There is a clear sense of feeling closer together and having a deeper bond. For a brief period, the rescuer gets rewarded through this dynamic and sets some internal groundwork for repeating this behavior in the future. When conflicts return, the rescuer can feel highly confused with paradoxical emotions.
It is important to acknowledge that many people with severe addictive disorders (especially when combined with mental health problems) demonstrate attachment disorders as well. An attachment disorder involves dysfunctional patterns of bonding with other people. This can make the victim-rescuer dynamic even more complex, as the closeness felt by the parties can actually be triggering and uncomfortable for the victim. This leads to more emotional disturbance and acting-out against the closeness.
A good metaphor for this closeness/distance dilemma involves holding a 3 foot-long rope with another person and adjusting the holding points to move closer or further from the other person. The rescuing of the crisis leads to moving the rope closer together, but this becomes too close, leading to rapid distancing away. This distancing also leads to agitation and abandonment fears, furthering another crisis and another rescue attempt.
As you can see (and likely have experienced yourself in your family system), this movement back and forth becomes nerve-wracking and toxic over time. It is very common that people will simply set the rope down because they cannot take the push/pull dance any further.
One way to help improve the push/pull dynamic between you and your family member is to simply draw attention to it. It can be helpful to use the rope metaphor (try it with a real rope!) and then ask your family member what distance has seemed to work for your relationship over the years. There are some families that do quite well with a close attachment style while others are comfortable at a maximum distance (still holding the ends of the rope, though).
It is also necessary to make very small movements on the rope over time if you and your family member intend to gradually change the relationship. Too rapid a movement closer or further apart will lead to anxiety and instability.
One of the consequences of continued enabling and rescuing behaviors within a family is a loss of trust. Even though the rescuer is making a self-proclamation of ‘support,’ the victim gradually learns that the rescuer does not really trust him or her to improve the situation independently. Over time, continued rescuing will build a foundation of lack of efficacy and distrust. As trust goes down by both parties (the rescuer trusts less, the victim feels untrustworthy), closeness also dissipates.
Families often have a very painful time describing their relationship this way. Both the typical victim and rescuer will describe a sense of closeness and trust between each other, but this seems to only be surface-level. This is especially true in parent-child relationships. One of the most discouraging things for a child is to believe that his or her parents don’t actually hold hope for independence and success of that child. This loss of trust leads to shame and self-loathing, spiraling into drinking or drug-use as a way to medicate these painful emotions.
The most effective sports coaches in history believe in their players. They distance somewhat from the outcomes and hand the primary ownership of the team to the collective teammates. This sense of guidance and support, while emphasizing personal autonomy, is the goal for the rescuer in the Drama Triangle.
The metaphor of the professional coach is also applicable in revisiting our concept of met needs. The dominant, authoritarian coach is interested in taking the credit for victory over that of the players. This unconsciously can happen through the rescuer family member who is hoping for validation that the victim needed the rescuer to succeed.
The coach also sees the intrinsic value of the player through growth and mastery. In a way, the coach in a family system is able to distance from the addiction treatment and acknowledge that the primary victor in recovery is the addicted person. There is a selfless quality in the greatest coaches in that they value the arc of each player. They help those players feel pride in themselves, their work ethic, and their teammates.
Another layer to the player-coach metaphor is the choice present in the relationship and the healing from both sides. The healing path of the victim is to mold into more of a ‘seeker of assistance’ via a ‘coach.’ In this way, both sides of the relationship are working to heal to more productive versions.
Validating Fear and the Dark Side of Enabling
For families struggling with opioid addiction, there is always a low-grade fear that their family member may die from this disease. The sad reality is that opioid death is now more common than traffic fatalities in the United States. Finding ways to do something productive about the fear can include understanding the risk of overdose, obtaining naloxone medication (this is especially useful if you have a child living in the home working to recover from opioid addiction), or engaging in family support groups.
It is also important to know that enabling efforts meant to prevent the consequences and pain of an addiction can often lead to death and harm in roundabout ways. While enabling functions as a bandage for the current addiction, it does not support long-term recovery. The longer a person stays in the addiction cycle, the greater the overall chances of them experiencing an overdose or other severe consequence.
Making efforts to lessen enabling for your family system is life-saving work. Goals of commitment to recovery should always be promoted as the longer someone continues to suffer from active addiction, the higher the likelihood that dark fears will come true.