Today’s topic is the drama triangle, also known as the victim triangle. And this triangle was formulated by Stephen Karpman, a well-respected psychiatrist, where he states the victimhood can be defined by the three positions beautifully outlined in the diagram that he developed.
Today’s topic also comes from The SHAIR Facebook private group, where one of our members posted this recently: “I’m reaching out for the first time in here, not because I want to use or drink, I need strength. I have to get through this weekend with my narcissistic ex, and we just had a disagreement. I’m proud I didn’t stoop to his level, and I kept my cool, but now that I’ve removed myself from the room, I’m outside, and I’m bursting into uncontrollable tears, and I’m feeling so alone, and fucking pissed. I feel like I can’t breathe, and my beautiful, sweet boy sat there watching the whole thing, and even though there was no yelling, there was tension. And now, all I see is his face, looking up at me as if to say, ‘Is everything okay, Mommy?’
“I’m sitting here realizing I have to deal with him for a long time to come, and this relationship has proven to be the biggest challenge in my life. He’s the most difficult person I’ve ever known. This disagreement we had makes me realize I won’t always be here to protect my son from his father’s infantile rages. He is a true narcissist. I’m not exaggerating. I spent 10 years thinking I was crazy, and I was, because I was using drugs heavily. But when I got clean, and i really saw who I married, I wondered what happened to the nice guy.
“And then I realized he never was nice. I have compassion for him, but tonight I can’t seem to feel any compassion or forgiveness for him. Not after the things he just said to me. I’m so hurt and frustrated with myself for never being able to see the traps he sets up for me to walk into. I feel just as insane as I did four years ago, when I left him before the fog lifted. I don’t deserve this shit, but this is what I have to deal with. I’m gonna take some deep breaths and hug my dog. Love you all.”
And that’s why today we’re talking about the drama triangle. And this was something that was introduced to me very early on in recovery by my sponsor, where he explained to me about this triangle. And there’s three sections on the diagram where you’re either playing the victim, the aggressor, or the hero. When you’re in a codependent, dysfunctional relationship, you’re playing one of those roles at all times. Each partner in the relationship is playing one of those roles at all times.
Whether we know it or not, most of us react to life as victims. Whenever we refuse to take responsibility for ourselves, we are unconsciously choosing to react as a victim. And I learned very early on from my sponsor that there are no victims, there are only active participants. When we are in the victim role, we inevitably develop feelings such as anger, fear, guilt, or inadequacy, that leave us feeling betrayed or even taken advantage of by others.
Now the biggest problem with playing the victim role is that you get stuck. And the reason you get stuck is because as the victim, you can blame somebody else for what’s going on, or what’s going wrong in the relationship. And when you blame somebody else, that’s you looking out. And it prevents you from looking inward. And the solution lies within. I can only look at my side of any given situation, of any given resentment, of any given problem.
The tough question is: what role do I play in this dysfunctional relationship? What’s my side of the street? So what do you do when you’re trapped in the triangle of drama and codependency? Well first of all, you have to even acknowledge that you’re in it, which is the reason why I decided to bring up the topic. That so many people have no idea what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. And because they can justify their behavior by playing the victim, then any sound judgment or decision-making is completely clouded.
So the first thing we have to do is realize where we’re at, and what roles we play in this relationship. And the next thing we need to do is to make the merry-go-round stop. If we can all agree that there are no victims, and only active participants, then as a participant, you are compelled to stop focusing on the problem and start seeking a solution.
As a matter of fact, there are those of you who are listening right now that are saying, “Holy shit! I’m trapped in the triangle of codependency and drama.” And what I’ll say to you is, “Congratulations for recognizing it.” At this point you are now compelled to take action, because as of this moment you are no longer a victim, aggressor, or hero, you are a willing participant.
In my first year of recovery, I was trying desperately to get my wife back, and I was using all the dysfunctional tactics to try and get her back: stalking her, making her feel guilty, playing the victim role myself, constantly trying to manipulate the situation, putting the blame on her now for breaking up our home and the right thing to do would be to stay together because of our daughter.
What I didn’t realize at the moment is that she had already started setting limits and boundaries for herself. So whenever I would try with one of these dysfunctional tactics to get her back, she would reply with, “You know what, I’m not ready to have this conversation. I’m not ready to deal with this. I’m just not ready.” And this would infuriate me so I would become combative, and defensive, and pick a fight, and try to get her to engage.
And one day we got into an argument, the shouting escalated, and our daughter, who wasn’t even a year old, just started screaming uncontrollably, but like a hysterical screaming that made us both stop. And she looked at me, and she said, “That’s the last argument you and I are ever going to have in front of her.” So of course I want to blame her and say, “Well, if you just would give our marriage a chance, if you’d just see things my way and give us another opportunity, then we wouldn’t have to fight.” Now because neither one of us has the coping skills to properly compartmentalize everything that’s going on in this situation, then the most logical thing to do is what we did, which was just abandon the situation.
I left the house and called my sponsor right away, ’cause I wanted to vent about this bullshit that was completely unacceptable, and that she was tearing our family apart. As I was heading over to my sponsor’s, though, the one thought that I couldn’t get out of my head was my daughter screaming at the top of her lungs. That image I can still see 14 years later, and it’s haunting, and crippling, because in that image, in the sounds that she was making at only a few months old, the energy level was so toxic that my only explanation to what happened was that she reacted to it in the only way that she would, in a blood-curdling scream.
So when I got to my sponsor, and I explained to him the situation, he looked at me and he goes, “Are you out of your mind?” And that’s when he explained to me about this triangle, and where my role was in this situation. And it was a white light experience, an a-ha moment I’ll never forget, it was an absolute game-changer, and I realized in that moment that what I was doing was creating another dysfunctional pattern in my daughter, and I had to break it. And I made a vow and a promise to myself that I would never argue with my daughter’s mother ever again in front of her.
And as a matter of fact, what happened was, because of that, we never argued again after that. There was never an opportunity. My daughter was so young, she was always with her mother, so where was my opportunity to engage? And once I understood what role I was playing in the relationship, I was compelled to take action.
And so my sponsor was like, “For this year that you are in sobriety, your first year, here’s what’s gonna happen. You’re gonna go. You’re gonna pick up your daughter. You’ve got a 15-minute window to engage with your ex, and then you’re in and you’re out. You spend time with your daughter. You drop her off. You’ve got another 15-minute window max. You’re out. No texting. No e-mails. No phone calls. No engaging. You sit down with her. You have this conversation. You let her know, ‘For the next year, while I’m working my shit out, and getting well, and working my program, that these are the limits and boundaries I’m gonna have to set.'”
I know everyone listening is gonna be surprised. But she was very agreeable to it. This is gonna be a tough situation for many of you, because when you’re in this role, when you’ve been in this type of a relationship for so long, the codependency is so ingrained that when the chaos and the toxicity is gone, you’ll start to miss it, and you’ll want to re-engage with that toxic, dysfunctional individual because, just like the drugs, you start to remember when things were good, when they were sweet, when they were nice, when they were engaging, when they were attractive. And because some time has passed, maybe they’ve changed, and then you re-engage and everyone’s cordial, everyone’s pleasant for a minute, and then once the comfort sets in, the clock starts ticking. And it’s just a matter of time before you each take your roles in this triangle of dysfunction and codependency, and it starts all over again.
So what’s the solution?
- You have to recognize and be aware of the fact that you are currently living, and an active participant, in a codependent drama triangle.
- You have to do a little research about this triangle on the Internet, as well as talk to your sponsor. And if you don’t have a sponsor, to get a sponsor. Or you might feel that this is too delicate of a topic to discuss with your sponsor and you’d feel more comfortable with a life coach, or an accountability partner. What’s important is that you pick somebody that you can trust, and can show you how to create healthy boundaries in your relationships. Just like getting clean and sober, we cannot do this alone.
- Is you’re gonna have to set clear limits and boundaries with this other person. Whether it’s your husband or your wife, whether it’s your boyfriend or your girlfriend, whether it’s the person that you live with, or if it’s your ex that you share a child with, there has to be specific limits and boundaries, not just in time spent together, but in behavior. The tone and the topics of your conversations have to have boundaries. No yelling. No screaming. No controlling. No manipulation. No guilting. No blaming. No accusing.
Once you recognize the different roles, the tone of the conversation dictates what role that is. And it’s very easy to recognize when it’s going off course.