How To Break Out of a Codependency Triangle

Do you often seem to be stuck in similar patterns of resentment and frustration in your relationships? It might feel as though you attract the kind of people who bring drama into your life, and no matter how hard you try to solve or fix the situation, nothing ever seems to change. This can feel totally exhausting.

Chances are, if you’re reading this, these are patterns you recognise in your life and relationships. If so, you might be caught in a codependency – or drama – triangle. Let me explain more about what that is first of all, and then I’ll talk about how you can start to break out of these patterns so that you can start having the relationships you want to have.

What is a codependency triangle?

The drama triangle is a model that we can use to understand how conflict plays out. It often describes a form of codependency: whichever role we’re playing, we’re encouraging the other to stay stuck in their own patterns so that we feel validated, unconsciously getting our psychological needs met.

Crucially, it’s a pattern that can feel addictive and impossible to break out of, because to do so requires confronting some of our deepest vulnerabilities. While drama may sound unwelcome on the surface, it can also feel safe when we’ve been given a blueprint that relationships alway involve some kind of conflict. This typically happens in early childhood, whether we’ve been involved in these codependent patterns ourselves, or witnessed them in our caregivers. 

The triangle itself is made up of three different roles: the victim, the rescuer, and the villain (sometimes also referred to as the persecutor). It can involve two or more people, with each person playing different roles as the dynamic changes. 

Let’s explore each of these places in more detail.

The Rescuer

Being in your inner rescuer can look like being drawn to people who have lots of drama in their lives. You feel certain that you’re the person who can fix things for them, but nothing you do seems to help in the long term. Perhaps you’re the person everyone comes to for help – but it’s never reciprocated, and instead you often feel drained and exhausted, as though no-one is taking care of your needs.

If you identify with your inner rescuer, you’re likely to attract people who will drain your energy. These are the kind of people who will always be complaining and needing something, while never taking any steps to help themselves. They’re not actually invested in improving their situation, and so nothing you can do will ever be enough. 

But that doesn’t stop you from wanting to help, because you still care about them, and you desperately want their situation to improve. And maybe this time things will be different? Maybe this time they’ll really listen to your advice? You might find yourself telling yourself that your care and love might be the thing they most need.

While taking care of people who need help is generous and kind, rescuing is different: it’s a way of taking the focus away from the rescuer’s own challenges by ‘fixing’ someone else’s. This is a really smart strategy for distracting yourself away from your own anxieties!

And here we can begin to see the vulnerability that being in your rescuer protects you from: feeling needed and wanted feels safe. Often, self-worth becomes so entangled with feeling needed that it can feel impossible to let go of wanting to help, even when it’s at the expense of your own wellbeing. For those who struggle with their own self-worth, feeling needed by another can be a huge boost.

Often, this dynamic ends in a big blowout when all the pent-up resentment that the rescuer feels from abandoning their own needs finally explodes.

The Victim

Being in your inner victim can feel like a feeling of stuckness, that nothing will ever improve or change. The victim is a place of, “poor me!” 

Perhaps your relationships always go the same way, and nothing you do ever seems to help. You’re aware that drama often follows you around, and you may even have been told that you’re high maintenance. You might feel that you don’t have any power or agency in the situations you find yourself in, that you have no options or choices.

It’s true that there are always things we are powerless over. But if you’re occupying the victim position, it becomes a very all-or-nothing mindset: “this is always the way it goes, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

If you identify with your inner victim, you’re likely to often have some kind of drama going on in your life. Maybe it feels like it follows you around – for some reason, you’re just the kind of person to attract misfortune. You likely have lots of people in your life who want to offer their help, but nothing ever seems to really change for you. 

You might even find yourself feeling resentful of the people who care the most, or deeply mistrustful that they really want to help. Perhaps you push them away without even realising why.

It can feel super vulnerable to really accept help if you’re caught in a victim mentality, because that means taking responsibility for where you’re at, and making a change. And this is really understandable: you may never have learned to feel safe in relationships that don’t involve drama. It can feel addictive. 

People in the victim role will unconsciously seek out someone in one of the other roles: either a rescuer who will try to ‘save’ them, or a villain who they can blame. This shifts the responsibility for the victim’s position onto one of these other roles. 

The Villain

The final role in the drama triangle is the villain. This is the position where we blame, judge, and criticise others. In a conflict between two people, this is often the role that either the victim or the rescuer will end up in when the original roles inevitably fail to resolve the situation. 

A common way that this can go is for someone in their victim to trigger a rescuer response in the other person. The rescuer starts to give their time and energy to fixing the victim’s problem, trying everything they can to help. When the rescuer realises that they are giving more than they have the capacity for, they begin to feel resentful and withdraw from the situation – or they might simply put a boundary in place and tell the victim that they don’t want to discuss the problem any further. When the victim notices this, they may start to blame the rescuer instead. They may become judgemental or angry, taking out their frustrations on the rescuer. In this way, the victim steps into the role of the villain.

From here, the rescuer may themselves switch to the victim role (because they now feel hurt by the victim-turned-villain) and seek out a new rescuer. And the dance continues!

How to break the pattern

So what can you do if you notice that you’re stuck in this cycle?

If you recognise that you’ve been playing these roles in your relationships, or you’ve been dragged into others’ drama triangles, the first thing to do is to notice it with compassion.

All of the roles in the triangle appear because there is a deeper need that we’re not having met: for validation, for affection, for safety, for peace. We unconsciously try to get these needs met by acting out drama or seeking codependent dynamics, which may work in the short-term, but over time feel draining and inauthentic.

Bringing awareness to this pattern, and noticing what roles you – and others – are playing is the most important first step.

Crucially, the most important thing to realise is that it’s the rescuer who keeps the whole cycle turning: the rescuer enables the victim’s powerlessness by trying to solve and fix their ‘problem,’ and in this way the victim passes on all responsibility to the rescuer. This allows the victim to keep on blaming, rather than acknowledging their own power and responsibility and making a change. This becomes clear when nothing the rescuer says or does really seems to make a difference, and yet they are unconsciously encouraging the victim to stay in their role by giving space and energy to the victim’s desire to blame the villain.

So while it’s important to be aware of when you step into a rescuing role, wanting to solve and fix another person’s problems to bolster your own self-worth, that’s not to say that there isn’t a place for genuinely helping those who genuinely want your help. One way to think about this is to become a supporter rather than a rescuer. You can support those in your life to make the changes they want to make, when they are clear that they want your support, without stepping into rescuing. One simple way to do this is to start asking more questions the next time someone talks to you about a problem they have – questions such as, “How would you most like to be supported right now?” or even, “Do you want my support in this?” This can encourage the other person to think about what it is they really want from you, and then you can decide whether you are willing to offer that to them.

If you’re more familiar with the victim role, then your task is to recognise the power and agency you do have in your life, even if it only seems small at first, and determine the steps you can take in your life to change your circumstances in ways that would feel better for you. This will likely mean facing some fears, and it might mean having some difficult conversations and reassessing what’s important to you. It may well also mean asking for genuine support from people around you to make specific changes in your life.

Something I’ve learned on my own journey, and in my intimacy coaching work, is that accessing the deeper needs and fears that motivate each role in the triangle is the most powerful way to really make changes.

This can be done in a really gentle and safe way, opening a dialogue with the parts of yourself that really need some attention and care, and starting to meet those needs in a healthier way.

If this is something you’re curious to know more about, click here and let’s see if I could be the right person to support you.

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