Escaping Conflict and the Karpman Drama Triangle

R. Skip Johnson

Are you experiencing a lot of conflict in your relationship with very little resolution?

Most likely you are stuck in what Stephen Karpman M.D. calls a drama triangle (or Karpman Triangle).  According to psychologist Margalis Fjelstad, PhD, author of Stop Caretaking the Borderline or Narcissist, we can get caught up in a conflict and lock ourselves into rigid and self-satisfying/self-punishing roles that limit our abilities to live our lives in a healthy, happy, and relaxed way.

Karpman Triangles are possible in any relationship, and are particularly common in relationships with partners who are suffering with personality or impulse disorders.

Sound like your life? Want to end the drama? You can escape the high conflict and drama of Karpman's Triangle.  To do this, you will need to change the way you deal with conflict. 

Triangulation - Our Relationships Affect our Well-being

There was a significant advance in psychiatry after World War II.  Therapists observed that many battle-torn veteran patients who had been in treatment overseas regressed after returning to their families. Researchers searching for an explanation began to explore the effect of family relationships on individuals and found that some home environments were extremely beneficial to patient healing and recovery, and that some were extremely detrimental. Prior to this time, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts focused entirely on the patient’s already developed psyche and considered the effect of outside detractors, like relationships, to be insignificant.

In 1966 Murray Bowen, M.D. published Bowen's family systems theory. One of the most critical elements of Bowen's eight part theory was the concept of triangulation in the family. Simply put, when someone finds themself in conflict with another person they will reach out to a third person. The resulting triangle (e.g., three-person exchange) is more comfortable as the tension is shifted around three people instead of just two.

Triangulation is widely recognized as a stabilizing factor in a family, at work, among social groups, etc. We all engage in triangulation because triangles help us cope when we are struggling with another person.

Good Triangulation and Bad Triangulation

While triangulation is an important stabilizing factor, at times triangulation can be a seriously destabilizing factor.  "Bad triangulation" (i.e., pathological triangulation) can cause more turmoil in a relationship, polarizing communications and causing conflict to escalate.

According to Bowen, triangles have at least four possible outcomes, two of which are good and two of which are bad:

  1. a stable pair can become destabilized by a third person;
  1. a stable pair can also be destabilized by the removal of the third person (an example would be a child leaving home and no longer available for triangulation);
  1. an unstable pair can be stabilized by the addition of a third person (an example would be a conflictual marriage becoming more harmonious after the birth of a child); and
  1. an unstable pair being stabilized by the removal of a third person (an example would be conflict is reduced by the removal of a third person who takes sides).

Recognizing the difference between good triangulation and bad triangulation is critical to avoid repeatedly entering into destabilizing conditions in our relationships.

Karpman Drama Triangles - Pathological Conflict

The drama triangle was originally conceived (1968-1972) by Karpman as a way of graphically displaying the complex interaction that occurs between people embroiled in pathological conflict. Dr. Karpman was a young psychiatrist studying under Eric Berne, M.D., the creator of transactional analysis psychology. Transactional analysis is based on the idea that one's behavior and social relationships reflect an interchange between parental (critical and nurturing), adult (rational), and childlike (intuitive and dependent) aspects of personality established early in life.

Karpman observed that in conflict and drama, there is "good guy vs bad guy" thinking. He also observed that the participants become drawn in, even seduced, by the energy that the drama generates. The drama obscures the real issues. Confusion and upset escalates. Solutions are no longer the focus.

Karpman defined three roles in the "transaction"; Persecutor, Rescuer (the one up positions) and Victim (one down position). Karpman placed these three roles on an inverted triangle and described them as being the three aspects, or faces of drama.

  1. karpmen drama triangle

    The Victim The victim  in Karpman's triangle is not an actual victim, but rather someone feeling or acting like a victim. Karpman, who had interests in acting and was a member of the screen actors guild, choose the term "drama triangle" rather the term "conflict triangle" because his victim  is acting. Nonetheless, the victim  sincerely feels victimized, oppressed, helpless, hopeless, powerless, ashamed, and seems unable to make decisions, solve problems, take pleasure in life, or achieve insight. The victim's  stance is "Poor me!"

  1. The Persecutor The persecutor  is controlling, blaming, critical, oppressive, angry, authoritative, rigid, and superior - self righteous. The persecutor  insists, "It's all your fault."
  1. The Rescuer  The rescuer  is a classic enabler. The rescuer feels guilty if he/she doesn't rescue. Yet his/her rescuing has negative effects: it keeps the victim  dependent and gives the victim  permission to fail. It also keeps the rescuer stuck in focusing energy on someone else's problems, not solving his/her own. The rescuer's  line is "Let me help you."

Karpman's triangle is a simple tool for conceptualizing the dynamics of dysfunctional roles in conflict and for mapping the role changes as the conflict grows.

How Karpman Drama Triangles Form

Involvement in an unhealthy drama triangle is not something another person is doing to you.  It's something you are doing with another person or persons. Karpman drama triangles involve at least two people and often three and can grow to even more if multiple linked triangles form. 

Drama triangles form when participants who are predispositioned to adopt the roles of a drama triangle come together over an issue. There are motivations, often subconscious, for each participant in the triangle. The reason the triangle endures is that each participant gets some psychological needs met and they feel justified in their role - often not realizing the broader dysfunction and harm that is occurring. In short, each participant is acting upon self-satisfying but unhealthy roles, rather than acting in a genuinely responsible or altruistic manner.

The victim  starts or catalyzes the formation of the drama triangle. The victim, if not being "persecuted", will seek out a persecutor  and also a rescuer  who will "save" the day but also perpetuate the victim 's  negative feelings. According to Karpman, any time that we don’t take responsibility for our feelings and make ourselves out to be a victim, we are setting the stage for a drama triangle to form, and failure.

The actions of the rescuer are often pivotal and tend to drive the conflict intensity level by how aggressively they respond. The motivations of the rescuer  are the least obvious...In the terms of the drama triangle, the rescuer  is someone who has a mixed motive and is actually benefiting in some way for being "the one who rescues". The rescuer  has a surface motive of resolving the problem, and appears to make great efforts to solve it, but often has a hidden motive to not succeed, or to succeed in a way that they benefit. For example, they may feel a sense of self-esteem or status as a rescuer, or enjoy having someone dependent on or trusting of them - and act in a way that ostensibly seems to be trying to help, but at a deeper level plays upon the victim in order to continue getting a payoff.

According to Lynne Forrest, a motivational speaker and former social worker who has conducted workshops about the Karpman Triangle for thirty years, participants tend to have a pri­mary or habitual role (victim, rescuer, persecutor ) they adopt when a drama triangle begins to form. Participants learn their habitual role in their fam­ily of ori­gin. The idea is that when there is dysfunctional conflict, we often find ourselves playing out these drama roles with others. While these habitual roles are natural and often familiar, they are very limiting and make us prone to enter into drama triangles.

How Karpman Drama Triangles Escalate Drama

The efforts to control and maneuver others in the triangle takes on a life of its own and obscures real issues and practical solutions.

The actions of the participants in this type of conflict start off polarized and become increasingly polarized as counter actions are taken. This causes the roles of the victim, rescuer, persecutor  to shift and increase the polarization and conflict. 

The victim, for example, may retaliate and punish the persecutor who, in turn, feels like a victim. The rescuer may be attacked for doing too much or too little for the victim or to the persecutor, respectively, and feel like a victim. The new victim may seek out their own rescuer and now a partiatally overlapping triangle with a fourth person forms.

No matter where we may start on the triangle, we generally spend some time as the victim, and this fuels the polarization and conflict.

Who Wins in a Karpman Drama Triangle

Typically no one. 

If we’re in a drama tri­an­gle, what we’re getting is drama. The price we pay is not getting what we truly want or need.

Escaping the Karpman Drama Triangle

If you find yourself embroiled in a Karpman Drama Triangle, resist the temptation to play the exaggerated role of the victim, rescuer  or persecutor  in which you have been cast (or have cast yourself), and counter with an action that causes your opponent to see their extreme position (without you telling them).

Move to the center. Stop participating as a victim, rescuer or persecutor. Instead, find and hold a center position. The center of the drama triangle contains elements of each corner - it is a combination of sensitivity, compassion, and responsibility - with a solutions focus, even if the solution is retreat.

Refuse to accept your opponent's force. Do not struggle with the other participants in the triangle, or yield to them. Instead, make a counter move with one opponent that allows them to fully take an awkward, indefensible, or unreasonable position. If you have successfully taken the center, your opponent will back off, rather than unmasking themselves and their exaggerated role.

In the style of Eastern Philosophy, we don't want to cast a loved one as an adversary in our mind. Rather, we want to understand their bad habits and unskillful means and counter with awareness and enlightened skills. 

Avoiding a Life of Karpman Drama Triangles

According to psychologist Margalis Fjelstad, PhD, in order to stay out of drama triangles, we need to stop taking on the roles of victim, rescuer  or persecutor.

Sounds easy enough? It may not be. If we are predispositioned to get into drama triangles from our upbringing, we will most likely have some well-ingrained thinking patterns that will need to be replaced with healthier ones.

Refuse to be Superior or Inferior All of these roles requires one person to be superior, right, good, and better than the other person, while the other person has to be inferior, wrong, bad and worse. This one-up/one-down game has to be stopped in order for you to stop having a drama filled relationship.

Fjelstad says you have to be willing to stop playing the superior/inferior game to stay out of drama triangles.

Almost all conflict interactions with a person with Borderline Personality Disorder traits (BPD) or Narcissistic Personality Disorder traits (NPD) are based on who is better than/worse than, right/wrong, deserving of blame/deserving of defense, who gets more/gets less, who does more/does less, etc.

To break the dynamic of superior/inferior requires us to learn to accept differences and similarities between ourselves and others as neither good nor bad.

What does it look like to live without succumbing to superior and inferior feelings about ourselves and others?  It means we will see ourselves and other people as unique individuals with our own different strengths and abilities, weaknesses and lack of skills without seeing anyone as better or worse than another, completely without the judgment of right or wrong.

Stop The Poor Me Game. Stop Being a Victim. Ignoring our own wants and needs, denying our own opinions, giving in to whatever the other person wants even if it is harmful, taking the blame for everything, giving up who you are and how you want to live, are all ways that we get stuck in the victim  role. Although we may think we are being nice and being helpful, we are merely perpetuating the other person’s rules and the dysfunctions in our family. It is also a way for us to not feel responsible for our own timidity and fearfulness in the interactions between us and the other person. It leads to a sense of passivity and powerlessness that ultimately keeps us from taking the actions that we could take to make our lives different, i.e., happier, healthier and freer.

When we start feeling overwhelmed, unable to cope, depressed and wanting to isolate, we are moving into the victim  role.

In order to stop being a victim, we will have to be willing to accept the actual circumstances of our relationship with the other person. We have to face the fact that if anything is going to change, we will have to be the one to make the changes. We will have to face our fears and take new actions. You will have to learn new skills and make new decisions.

Stop The Blame Game. Don't be a Persecutor. When living in a drama relationship we learn to blame others. Fjelstad says that breaking the habit of blaming others can be challenging because we may not really know how to ask someone to do something different without blaming them or invalidating them. Giving directions and telling others what we want rather than blaming them for doing things wrong or invalidating them, shows them how to be successful and feels a lot better, too. We are also more likely to get more cooperation from others that way.

It also means we will take responsibility for how we act and feel around the other person without taking the attitude that the other person is controlling our feelings or actions. This means if the other person does something we don’t like, we say or do something about it. We acknowledge that we are choosing how we respond, emotionally and behaviorally, without blaming the other person for causing our feelings and actions.

Stop Fixing the other person. Don't be a Rescuer. If we've been a caretaker to a person with personality or impulse disorder for a long time, it might be a hard habit to break. We have felt obligated to do it. We have felt guilty for not doing it. We may have needed to do it with a parent to make our childhood bearable. We may have enjoyed the superior status of being the helper, the good person, etc. It may be very hard to relinquish the false hope that the other person will someday step permanently into the role of a responsible and giving adult, partner, or parent. We have to face our own outdated fantasies, feelings and beliefs and let them go before we can stop fixing, rescuing and caretaking the other person.

We have been the caretaker as a way to keep the peace, keep the delusion, keep the fantasy, keep the family together, keep the other person calm. But perhaps it's time to face the fact that none of our caretaking methods have worked for more than a few minutes or a few days.

Giving up rescuing the other person is an action, not a discussion. It isn’t something to announce to the other person. It isn’t something to negotiate with the other person. It isn’t something to threaten the other person with. It is all action. We stop participating in the merry-go-round interactions, we stop arguing, we stop worrying about what the other person will do next, we stop expecting the other person to fulfill our needs. This does not mean that we have to stop caring about or loving the other person. We change from being a rescuer  in the interaction by making choices and taking actions that work better for us and might even work better for the other person.

Start Using the Caring Triangle / Winning Triangle

In 1990, Acey Choy M.Ed., PTSTA, introduced the Winning Triangle in the Transactional Analysis Journal as the antithesis of the Karpman Triangle. Her work has been heralded by Dr. Karpman as "excellent". Choy contrasts the unhealthy dynamics of each role of the Karpman triangle with healthy dynamics. Fjelstad, in her book, Stop Caretaking the Borderline or Narcissist, offers a similar model.

  1. victim, rescuer, persecutor triangle

    Assert rather than persecute. Instead of the actions of the persecutor,  who blames and punishes - give up trying to force or manipulate others to do what you want. Take on the new behaviors of "doing " and "asserting ". Ask for what you want. Say no for what you don't want. Give constructive feedback. Initiate negotiations. Take positive action.

  1. Be vulnerable, but not a victim. "Victims " often feel overwhelmed, too defeated to solve their problems and emotions. They look to someone else to do it for them. Instead of the victim  role you need to be emotionally mature (vulnerable, not needy), accept the situation you are in and take responsibility to problem solve and function in a more healthy and happy way. Put real thought into what you want and how to get it, and take action to make it happen.
  1. Be caring, but don't overstep. We do not want to let our fears, obligation and guilt to control us or allow us to be manipulated into taking care of another person when it really isn't healthy to do so. Instead of being the rescuer  and doing the thinking, taking the lead, doing more than our share, doing more than is asked of us -  simply be a supportive, empathetic listener and provide reflection, coaching, and assistance if the person asks and is taking the lead themselves. It is important to recognize the other person as an equal (not one-down) and give the other person the respect of letting them take care of themselves, solve their own problems, and deal with their feelings as they choose. Remember, the rescuer  has the most pivotal position on the drama triangle - you are in the strongest position, at least initially, to redirect the dynamic into healthy territory.

Members discuss the Karpman Triangle: here


Last modified: 
January 04, 2021