Are you the kind of person who always seems to be stuck in some kind of drama? Perhaps you notice that drama seems to follow you around; you’re always attracting misfortune and challenging circumstances. Or maybe you attract the kind of people who bring drama into your life? You feel drawn to people who you’re certain you can help, but you end up feeling drained and exhausted while nothing seems to change for them?
If these are patterns you recognise in your life and relationships, then you might be caught in the drama triangle.
What is the drama 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 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.
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?
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.
Often, this dynamic ends in a big blowout when all the pent-up resentment finally explodes.
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 you’ve tried therapy, books, courses… and while your mental health is solid, still nothing 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.
While we all need to learn on our support network for help, being caught in a victim mentality is different: it’s a way of keeping yourself small by not facing up to what’s really going on under the surface.
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 persecutor who they can blame. This shifts the responsibility for the victim’s position onto one of these other roles.
The final role in the drama triangle is the persecutor. 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. When the victim notices this, they start to blame the rescuer instead, and the rescuer becomes the perpetrator.
From here, the perpetrator may themselves switch to the victim role and seek out a rescuer.
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.
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 of these roles 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.
This question comes up a lot. You know where your boundaries are, and you know when someone has crossed them… But how do you tell them that it’s happened without seeming angry? How do you ask them to change their behaviour without causing an argument?
Why is it Hard to Set Boundaries?
I think this is a particularly common challenge for women because, within many western cultures at least, we’ve been socialised to go with the flow rather than rock the boat. Personally, I remember being told that I was ‘bossy’ when I was a kid. I can’t help but wonder what lessons I learned – that I had to be really careful about the ways I expressed my opinions and preferences. That being assertive was not welcome.
Alternatively, perhaps you grew up in a home where there were lots of arguments. Being afraid of conflict at a young age – seeing your parents fighting can be really scary – can lead to fears of conflict as adults too, and you learn to appease and accommodate in all your relationships in order to avoid more arguments.
Whatever the reason, being afraid to assert boundaries can be really damaging. It means avoiding pain in the short term, but by abandoning your needs you’re setting yourself up for exhausting relationships where resentment grows quickly.
So what can you do about this? I want to talk about three possible ways in.
Setting Boundaries Before Breaking Point
Many difficult boundary conversations – you know, the ones that end in tears and emotional responses, feeling that your needs are invalidated because you’re angry and upset – arise because the conversation is simply left too late.
This is the cost of not speaking up as soon as you first notice that something’s up.
And it didn’t really feel like a big deal, did it? It was only a small thing. You tell yourself that maybe it won’t happen again. Maybe you can just ignore it and it’ll go away.
But then it happens again, and again, and every couple of months or so everything builds up into a situation where you can’t stop yourself from speaking up. It’s not a choice any more – you’re at breaking point. The discomfort from That Thing They Keep Doing is greater than the fear of asking for something different.
But the problem is, now you’re upset. You’re angry. You’re emotional. And so the conversation is doomed from the start because you know that your emotional response will lose you credibility. You feel the tears coming and fight them back, out of fear you won’t be taken seriously.
Imagine if you’d have been able to have this conversation right at the start. At the very first inkling. When you weren’t so annoyed. When you could have communicated much more clearly and rationally.
It could have been a very different conversation!
Using Non-Violent Language
First of all, you can look at the language you use. How might you bring up a boundary violation with your partner? How could you ask them to make a change in a way that communicates you’re on the same side, you want the same thing, and that you appreciate their needs too?
Non-violent communication (NVC) has some tools we can use here, and I give one framework in my Ultimate Guide to Setting Boundaries in Relationships post. There are absolutely ways of making clear requests in a non-combative way, which will reduce the chances of triggering defensiveness or aggression in the other person – leading to far more productive negotiations. And don’t be afraid to learn some new skills here. Having difficult conversations is not something most of us were taught in school, but it’s so, so crucial to having healthy relationships.
Exploring Your Relationship with Conflict
The second approach I would suggest is to look at the fear of conflict itself.
Somewhere along the line you learned that conflict wasn’t safe. That it couldn’t co-exist with love and care. Chances are, your desire to avoid conflict points to some areas where you could find some big opportunities for healing some unresolved childhood traumas. And trauma can involve things that felt normal and mundane: growing up in a home where there were lots of arguments, or where you didn’t feel you could express anger without being laughed at or ignored.
This causes problems in adult relationships because disagreement is unavoidable. The only way we can avoid conflict is by ignoring the things we disagree about, and pretending that it’s no big deal. In the long term, this leads to resentment.
So how might it be to be able to experience conflict without feeling fear? Or to experience conflict while still feeling loved? How might your relationships be different if you were able to assert your boundaries, knowing you may risk some conflict, but feeling secure enough in your relationship to be able to handle that?
The first step is to say hello to the fears and emotions that come up for you around conflict. Is there a fear of rejection or abandonment, perhaps? Or something else? It’s important to become more aware of what happens for you in those moments, and gently work with the parts of yourself that feel difficult – rather than trying to suppress or change them.
Journaling and self-reflection can be a great way to start exploring this.
You could try some of these prompts:
“When I disagree with someone I care about, the thing that stops me speaking up is…”
“My earliest memory of conflict happened when…”
“If I start an argument, the thing I am most scared of happening is…”
“Avoiding arguments protects me from…”