A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

The Incredible Truth About The Drama Triangle

How many times would I end up walking out of that room, dizzy with confusion at what just happened, or didn’t happen, feeling like I am always the problem, always the one who needs to work harder and do better? I had gone in, like so many other times, wanting to address a small issue with him, and walked out, having apologized and beaten myself up, my head swimming in blame. What happened? What was wrong with me? How could I have believed that he had done anything wrong? How could I not see that it was all really me, my fault, my problem, as always?

Master manipulators do that really well. No matter how obvious it is that they have done something needing apology, they always know just how to wriggle out of it. They have a big bag of tricks to help them out with that too. They keep the drama moving along, never ending, and that keeps you feeling completely crazy and continually confused and guilty.

In the 1960’s, Dr. Stephen Karpman introduced what is now known as the “Drama Triangle”. It’s an interlocking of 3 roles: The Victim, The Rescuer and The Attacker (persecutor). The Victim passively receives the actions of the rescuer and the attacker. The attacker attacks the victim and the rescuer takes care of the victim and enables them to stay in the victim role. Each of these roles keeps the others involved in the triangle. The goal of the victim is not to be blamed. The goal of the attacker is power. The goal of the rescuer is to enable the victim by helping them not have to take responsibility, by intervening so they don’t have to face the attacker.

One person can take on all of these roles in a relationship, or they can share them with others in the relationship, purposefully or inadvertently, but always with the purpose of keeping the drama going and the blame in the air, never landing on their shoulders.

When an abuser is caught in their abuse, they can play each of these roles really well. Their intention is to make sure it lands on anyone else and they will use you to do just that:

The abuser in a victim role: “Why did you make me do that?”

The abuser in a Rescuer role (empathizing with themselves): “I have every right to do that. Look at everything I have to put up with.”

The abuser in the attacker role: “You are the problem.”

Sometimes, if they perceive you as attacking them, they will elicit you to be the rescuer by bringing to light their issues while they simply sit back and play the victim.

Example:

You: “Can we talk about spending more time together? I feel like your work is taking priority over me and the kids at the moment. “(you are now the attacker in his eyes)

Abuser: “How could you accuse me of something like that? Do you know how hard I work for this family?” (he places himself in the victim role)

You: “No, you are a good provider and we are grateful for what you do for us.” (Bam—you are now the rescuer)

Abuser: “You are so ungrateful!” (switching to attacker)

You: “No, I’m not. I’m sorry!” (you are now the victim)

Abuser: “I’m going to make you sorry…” (attacker)

….and so it goes, round and round again. The triangle doesn’t seem to end until and unless the abuser wants it to. In fact, he makes you believe that you can’t get off the ride yourself. He has control.

There is one way to stop the cycle. Refuse to rescue. If that happens, the victim must face the attacker. The attacker is then left to either take responsibility for their actions, or find someone else to draw into the triangle with them, to allow them to continue with their blame-avoiding roles.

What I should have done in all those soul-crushing attempts to walk into the lion’s den, was just to stop rescuing him. Stop apologizing for his issues and stop covering for him with other people. I rescued him more times than I can count, and I genuinely believed I was his attacker and that I could make up for that, by rescuing him. He sat and played victim, over and over and over again and I truly thought he was. Ultimately though, I finally did stop. I left. I broke that triangle, and so can you.

Read more about the Karpman Drama Triangle here.

 

26 Comments

  1. I well remember when I learned about this dynamic with my mother. She had the ability to take on one role and play this out for months, even years at a time, then switch at an eyeblink when it looked like someone was getting wise. Generally one of her players would walk away and refuse to play. She’d pick a new scenario and start all over.

    The ex was more tornado than hurricane. He swapped back and forth the way you describe, sometimes in the same sentence. Crazy-making for sure and with mom going at the same time, it was a recipe for the funny farm.

    The only thing that stopped this in our case was no-contact and, even then, he tried. He would tell people, “She won’t talk to me. If I could just talk to her, everything would be okay.” You think? He had supreme confidence in his ability to control me through his words. Still makes my skin crawl.

    Excellent article, Deborah–

  2. Anonymous

    Many years ago when I attempted to confront emotionally abusive situations I was often ignored. As I have been educated on abuse and also recognize the times that I have fallen into saying abusive statements – I am somewhat confused. My spouse now accuses me of being abusive when I have been desiring to discuss where this ‘messy relationship’ is headed? I have been known to say, “I have a right to defend myself.” or “I have a right to be angry. What is happening in our marriage/family is sinful. It’s been going on for too long.” I have been rebuked for using these statements; attacked by “lying lips”.
    The related article, “Over Apologizing of Victims” touched a nerve. The only part I wrestle with is that not all abusers are “brutish” … there is a passive strangling of indifference; a slow death grip.” https://cryingoutforjustice.com/2013/02/05/over-apologizing-of-victims/

    • Marah

      These words:

      “I have been known to say, “I have a right to defend myself.” or “I have a right to be angry. What is happening in our marriage/family is sinful. It’s been going on for too long.” ”

      I really want to remember. My husband has been in EXCELLENT behavior lately, and I’m upset to find that I’m starting to feel sorry for him (missing us), feeling like this (separation) is more than I can do in the long run. I’m having a hard time remembering what is so bad. For some reason what you wrote there struck me. I *never* have a right to defend myself or be angry. I always have to forgive. That is bad.

      • Ellie

        What do you mean by “EXCELLENT behavior” and how long has he been at it? Is he making demands? Seeking acknowledgement? Wanting your help to change? Does he hate sin and forsake it because it displeases God? Or does he “hate to see the children suffer because we can’t work things out?” Repentance is for Christ’s sake, not any other reason. And only God can change a sinner’s heart. This is the time for you to be very careful. If he has any motivation besides pleasing Christ, he’s conning himself and you. If he’s making any demands, complaining at all, breaking any boundary, he’s still looking to control and he’s not surrendered to Christ. Praying for you today. And praying that his true motives will be exposed.

      • Marah

        Excellent post, Ellie, and thank you. It’s almost as though, now that I’ve got other people in my life validating me, I suddenly feel unsure. What’s up with that? I need to go back over the dozens of pages of notes I’ve taken to refresh my memory.

        Part of the problem lately is that I’ve had three rounds of stomach flu so far this year, and I have a stomach flu/vomiting phobia. Knowing I’m helpless to get the kids anywhere, and I’m the only driver, is intensely stressful. I also fear that they’ll come down with it while I’m still sick, and I won’t be able to care for them. That’s aside from my long-term fears of how on earth will I ever support us, when I haven’t worked in over 17 years and was unable to finish my BA because of severe depression my first and fourth years. The need to be cared for is intense.

      • Marah

        Adding: I almost, but not really, wish there had been physical violence, since that’s such an easy thing to identify as WRONG. The covert stuff is much more difficult to keep straight in my mind. And as long as my husband doesn’t feel *too* bad about himself/life/whatever, he is genuinely generous, kind, etc.

        I’ve grown so foggy and off-balance over the decades that I frequently doubt myself.

      • Heather2

        Marah, I’ve said the same thing. Physical proof. But you know he is abusive, deep down, even when your mind is in a fog. To admit it fully takes so much time. To see and understand while we often prefer to remain in denial because of our fears and doubts. That is why it is so evil! It didn’t happen by mistake. Covert abuse is well thought out. He knows exactly what he is doing and why. Once we see we have to make choices. I know there are times when I wish to have remained in a place of blindness because it has been incredibly hard to get out and get healthy. But I know that God wants me healthy. My children want me healthy. And my beloved and understanding new husband wants me healthy and whole for our new life.

      • Cheering you on, Marah, Heather2 and others who are ploughing these fields . . .

  3. Isaiah40:31

    “There is one way to stop the cycle. Refuse to rescue.”

    I listened to the Crippen sermon series almost 2 years ago. I started reading this blog last fall. But it wasn’t until sometime after the first of this year that I was strong enough to try to stop the cycle and refuse to rescue, or even to engage in this kind of drama. But as I withdrew from the triangle, the abuse escalated, causing a dramatic increase in my fear for my safety. Thankfully a friend insisted I make a safety plan, and a second friend helped me pull that safety plan together. Praise God the plan was mostly in place the day I had to call 911, and leave for the safety of myself and my children. I strongly encourage anyone who is waking up to the abuse, or is noticing an increase in the abuse, to have a safety plan in effect.

    I also like what Ida Mae said (above) about no-contact. At the time I called 911, the police advised no-contact, and that really made a difference. He would leave voicemail, and send emails and text messages, but not responding was important in our case also, for breaking that drama cycle. Like Ida Mae, he would tell other people that I wouldn’t talk to him or go to couples counseling, and the like. But since then, most of the people he told those things to have wise up to his tactics.

  4. Sarah

    George Simon had helped me get out of this cycle with saying the phrase that I don’t ever have to engage if he is doing any crazy making. I can keep to the subject or walk away and leave the subject alone. That was so freeing to me. What is so hard now is that the courts don’t like these tools. They say I’m not communicating correctly with him. How did we let courts govern the way we handle parenting? They are in our faces and it is scary

  5. madnessandeuphoria

    Sigh. Me too.

  6. Lisa

    These articles are sometimes difficult for me because my husband is a covert/passive aggressor. He has “Nice Guy Syndrome,” so in his mind he is no “nice” and works his fingers to the bone and is so unappreciated, all the while resisting everything I want passively, even things that he would ultimately enjoy and would benefit our relationship, just so that inside he can have the satisfaction of feeling “not controlled” by me. He doesn’t get angry outwardly or say mean things. He plays dumb, pretends he didn’t hear, falls asleep, doesn’t answer and says he couldn’t find words, etc. I fell for his poor, innocent, sensitive guy routine for several years. When I became so trapped and crazy that I was the one screaming obscenities and trying to provoke him to discuss issues and explain why simple things I ask for were too hard, that’s when I woke up and did just what his article said. I stopped enabling his victim–which was hard because every counselor that we went to wanted me to enable him. They told me that I needed to appreciate the “sensitive man” I married, etc… So I walked away from the counselors and started holding hubby accountable EVERY TIME. It got ugly and I even threw him out twice. But yesterday he was at his own counselor confessing that he had not been taking ownership of his marriage, his life, his family or his future. Things are much changed around my house and are on their way to responsible, functional and better. My Zero Tolerance for BS campaign started last September. It is now May. It has been a hard 8 months. Hard on my body, hard on my kids, hard on my career. But I understand the triangle, and I was stuck in it in a twisted way, and counselors were no help–it is hard for me to read sometimes with my situation being married to a passive/covert aggressor because I was the one doing the yelling and looking like the “abuser”, etc., not him. I know the more typical situation is to have a verbally abusive, narcissist sociopath doing the crazy making and being hurtful, but I wish more was being said to the wife of mr. “nice” guy.

    • Heather2

      I was married to the most wonderful nice guy ever! But he cheated on me, passively dug in his heels, used gas lighting, blamed me, etc. I couldn’t take it after 33 years. The madness had to stop. Oh yes, it often appeared that i was the crazy one, the one with abusive tendencies, the one who had a temper because I was more outspoken. I didn’t hide how I felt, what I believed. I was “out there.” He was quiet, more calculated. But I found that I had to stop covering for his ways, stop making excuses, stop blaming myself. I had to stop being the sacrificial lamb for my own good. No amount of my loving him was going to change anything. It had to stop!
      Only true repentance changes people, changes hearts. His is still the same.

      Passive/ covert aggressors are a dangerous breed! To remain, for me, would have done so much more damage than the gruelling pain of leaving him.

      You are so much more ahead of the game than I was in that you see it now. May The Lord give you wisdom and equip you as you walk each day in this journey before you.

      • I am married to a Mr Nice Guy. He works his finger to the bone as well. My kids, our friends and extended family think he is amazing. He is passive in not doing things I ask of him, such as painting inside the house, renovating the bathroom that is gutted out, now for three years….it just doesn’t get done, always excuses.
        At this time I feeling like I am nuts. I feel the pressure of my situation and it is causing me to be reactory. Things I could put aside with friends and family I now am not finding easy. I am speaking out or texting my hurt. I feel my sword is being thrown around in all directions, I’ve lost control of myself almost. I feel like I really am losing the plot. I feel like I’m going crazy.
        After a bad episode a couple of weeks back with my husband punching things and throwing things and a situation that arose last week where one of my children told me I should be admitted to a mental hospital, I’m feeling at the end of the rope. All the pressures of life are getting to me.
        Where is God in all this? I’ve been talking to him, hoping he is hearing me.
        The drama triangle is true of my situation. My husband is the victims 99% of the time, when it comes to our issues. My kids tell me that I act like the victim. When I stand up for myself things get very bad. My husband is Mr Nice Guy but when he is abusive cur me to the bone with personal attacks about me in many areas of life.
        What is Gaslighting? I get blamed all the time but I also get praised for things too…guess that’s crazy making?
        I also wish more was being said to the wide that is married to Mr Nice Guy….these men are not easy to deal with.

      • Ellie

        Loves, if you can listen to Jeff’s sermons, I think it’ll help you to start come out of the fog. It looks to me like he is neglecting his duties to his family by letting the house fall apart and the throwing and punching things is definitely NO OKAY! That is not acceptable. You didn’t cause that. Listening to Jeff’s sermons on abuse was a huge step for me in getting healthy. Praying for you.

      • twbtc

        Loves,
        Oh, the fog that swirls around Mr. Nice Guy abuser is thick! I was also married to a Mr. Nice Guy: hard working, generous, capable of acts of kindness. He prided himself in his work ethic and he also prided himself in that fact that he wasn’t like his father; an overt, verbal, and emotional abuser. But the only thing different between my ex and his father were their tactics of choice. Their mentalities were the same: they both wanted control and power, and felt entitled to it.

        The “Mr. Nice Guy” act is just that: an act. I believe Lundy Bancroft discusses The Nice Guy in his book, “Why does He Do That”. If you haven’t read that book, I would suggest it. Also, we have a tag, gaslighting, that will lead you to other posts that discuss gaslighting. You can use either the side search bar or look under TAGS on the top menu bar.

        I found that I couldn’t convince other people, including my children at times, what my ex was really like, but what I could do was educate myself about abuse in general and covert aggression in particular. The more I learned about what I was experiencing, the more the craziness made a bit more sense.

      • thepersistentwidow

        Loves, Your husband is very controlling. Punching holes in walls is a sure sign of manipulative drama. My daughter’s ex punched holes in walls and also left home improvements unfinished or poorly done. He unexpectedly left her with five small children recently when she set boundaries.

        We have discussed the situation and we think that his lack of interest in completing the home was another control tactic. He was probably thinking that she would be unable to ever get out of the abuse as long as she relied on him to finish the house. Although he seemed charming and thoughtful, it was all an act. He was in reality an emotionally immature man who had no intention of providing for or loving his family. George Simon has given us good insight into examining drama and his posts can be found through the ACFJ search and links to his site are also in the resources tab.

        Identifying the control and manipulation tactics is the first step to making sense of the situation. You are not crazy. Once you understand the dynamics of this drama, you will find that it all makes sense when viewed from the perspective that his actions are evil.

  7. Heather2

    I used to rescue the abuser too… And in the end it did so much damage that I am still, four years after a 33 years marriage ended, trying to regain sanity and wholeness. I will do whatever it takes, however long it takes!

    Each time I read another person’s story I am strengthened as I can relate.

    Thank you so much!

    • Anonymous

      Lisa and Heather2 – your testimonies of how you are driven to the point of craziness is my story, too. Your desperation in wanting to discuss issues which leads to your voice screaming. I used to be so quiet. I want that back; I know the Lord would desire me to whole again, too. Thanks for sharing.

  8. G. F. Mom

    No. I don’t think I overtly rescue (I look within myself without telling him right away.) Instead I “attack” (I don’t let him play victim.), because he knows I’m still cynical. I am seeing if his three months of fairly humble behavior is a tactic. I told him it’s how he behaves when the going gets tough that counts. I’ll relax a little if he’s been good for two years. I have Lundy’s book now. Right now things are rough financially but it’s a test to see where his mindset is when things get better. So but no, I don’t think I’ve been in a position where he could “attack” me back. I always worked really hard to never be a target. My husband is not a blatant abuser, at least anymore. But since I am emotionally fragiler than most, and have always been, I think it helps cause he knows I used to run away from home and I don’t like to put up with being treated bad so I don’t have many friends. I just don’t trust people.

  9. Once again this blog is an answer to prayer and incredibly timely. It puts a label on my husband’s manipulation and behaviors. I can now see how he alternates between “victim” and “attacker.” I alternate between target and rescuer. I’m going to make a distinction b/w “victim” and target. The victim role is used, very effectively, as a manipulative tactic. I see a very clear distinction between playing the victim manipulatively versus a hurting person with a real need.

    The former is play acting and “milking it for all it’s worth.” The Ted Bundy example is startling…I have been sucked up by this one for more times than I can count. I have a heart for people, have worked in social services and with special ed kids. I think my husband knows that I am moved by hurting people, by “fairness” and by “what is right” because he is using all three points to avoid changing his abusiveness or even admitting it.

    Sadly, some social service providers and programs dealing with DV end up being part of this triangle.

  10. L L

    Wow, that’s scary (and yet oddly reassuring at the same time)! That first paragraph perfectly describes the relationship I had with a fellow elder at church.

  11. Friend of Victim

    A word of caution. I realize Deborah/Mom, the last thing you would ever want to do is blame the victim and I know that was not at all your intent with this article. I just wanted to make you & others reading this aware the Karpman Drama Triangle & it’s web site blames victims. This was immediately noticed by my friend from the linked site.

    For example:
    “Victims can be easily manipulated. Victims can also learn to be manipulative, particularly if they are operating on a “love me no matter what” basis. Being loved no matter what is not something two honest adults should expect from each other. After the age of 18, love me no matter what should be hard to come by. Victims are trying to remain blameless. Remember: an unhappy relationship is always created by two people. Blame may be distributed 60/40 or 70/30, however it always takes two. The more blaming and finger pointing someone does, the more fragile the point of view. Noise simply creates smoke and mirrors, and it is less likely that an honest reality is being addressed. Elegant truth is generally never “I am good/You are bad,” it is usually a more complicated frame of reference. “I did this part and you did this part” etc. Finding the bravery to look at your own part in creating problems can change and transform your life. If you’ve been loving the victim role over many years it is time to face the truth – it is a boring way of life. One key to interupting this pattern would be to relocate your imagination, to find other ways of conducting your life.”

    • thepersistentwidow

      Dear Friend, You are right. The site does lay blame on the victim and we do not agree with that. Although there may codependency in cases of abuse, that is not always the case. From the post it is interesting that abusers pick and chose their roles to facilitate manipulation, but to blame victims for staying with them is flat wrong. Often the church as “rescuer” forces victims to abandon their bondaries because of pressure through unbiblical marriage laws and they themselves become the thrird leg of the abuse drama.
      Thanks for clarifying this, Friend. Your input was very important.

    • Anonymous

      FOV, Thank you for the “word of caution”. I haven’t had a chance to research the Karpman Drama Triangle & it’s website. I am presently working through ‘the crazies’.

    • Friend of Victim

      Thepersistentwidow/Anonymous, You’re welcome. I was glad to do it when my friend pointed it out. Thank you both for your kind comments.

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