Understanding the Relationship Drama Cycle

Psychologists offer us insight into the way that relationship dynamics work, especially within a couple or a family, by explaining what they refer to as the “drama cycle” or “drama triangle.” The idea of this drama triangle was originally introduced by psychologists studying human interaction in the area of psychology known as transactional analysis. It has been widely used as model for deconstructing the interaction or interplay in a relationship in order to better understand it. Once this kind of relationship dynamic is understood, then it becomes easier to consciously and intentionally change or adjust it so that it benefits everyone involved in the relationship.

Basically the drama cycle involves three specific roles:

  1. A person who is in the role of the victim.
    The victim is the person who feels they have no power to control what’s going on, and they often feel picked-on or unjustly treated by others. Victims in relationships often say “This is not my fault.”
  2. A person who pressures or persecutes the victim, who might also be understood as the victimizer or aggressor.

    This person usually blames others for not doing things the right way or taking more responsibility. They might be heard saying things like “You just don’t follow the rules,” or “If you didn’t keep making mistakes I would not have to get so upset.”
  3. A person who comes to the rescue of the victim or otherwise attempts to get involved, intervene, and rectify the situation.

The rescuer feels like they have to always have to save the victim from being treated unfairly. They spend a lot of energy helping the underdog and defending that victim against the aggressor or victimizer. But playing this role over and over also makes them resentful because they feel that they are being used and that they always to be the strong and brave one. They resent the victim for not being more assertive and empowered and they resent the aggressor for acting like a bully.

While these are often played by three different people – each with their respective role – it is also common that a person in a relationship will play more than one role, shifting back and forth.

Because these roles conflict with one another, the drama cycle or triangle of interaction works to create lots of finger-pointing as each person – or each role – blames the others. The aggressor, for instance, does not just blame the victim but also blames the rescuer. That’s because the aggressor feels that if the victim stopped getting rescued, maybe they’d get their act together and starting behaving correctly. The victim blames the aggressor but might also blame the rescuer for not doing a better job of saving the day and dealing with the aggressor.

So in any relationship where these kinds of interactions are happening, there will be discord, disagreement, and a lack of solutions to the recurring problems.

The solution can being once each person accepts that they are participating in the problem. Acknowledging their role of responsibility also means that they have the power and influence to help improve the situation and stop the unhealthy dynamic.

Aggressive behavior, for example, may be based on anger or frustration that is not being expressed and communicated in a healthy and positive way that others can understand. Maybe the aggressor feels like the victim or rescuer in the triangle, for example, and needs help – but is afraid to ask for it.

The victim, on the other hand, may need to set better personal boundaries and learn to stand up for themselves and be more assertive. Meanwhile, much of the trouble may be going on because the rescuer keeps facilitating or enabling it, and if they stop playing that role maybe the others will have to face up to the situation and resolve it once and for all.

The idea is to use this understanding of roles to help you stop playing them. Then it is possible to become more of a neutral observer who can understand all of the roles in the relationship and openly communicate about them. This can happen although they still show that they care for and love the other participants – and themselves – just as much. When everyone adopts this point of view, the old patterns of triangle drama can end and the relationship can be unstuck and become more positive and satisfying for everyone involved.

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