In the family triangulation system, the third person can either be used as a substitute for direct communication or can be used as a messenger to carry the communication to the main party. Usually, this communication is an expressed dissatisfaction with the main party. For example, in a dysfunctional family in which there is alcoholism present, the non-drinking parent will go to a child and express dissatisfaction with the drinking parent. This includes the child in the discussion of how to solve the problem of the alcoholic parent. Sometimes the child can engage in the relationship with the parent, filling the role of the third party, and thereby being “triangulated” into the relationship. Alternatively, the child may then go to the alcoholic parent, relaying what they were told. In instances when this occurs, the child may be forced into a role of a “surrogate spouse” The reason that this occurs is that both parties are dysfunctional. Rather than communicating directly with each other, they utilise a third party. Sometimes this is because it is unsafe to go directly to the person and discuss the concerns, particularly if they are alcoholic and/or abusive.
In a triangular family relationship, the two who have aligned risk forming an enmeshed relationship.
Good versus Bad Triangulation
Triangulation can be a constructive and stabilising factor. Triangulation can also be a destructive and destabilising factor. Destabilising or “bad triangulation” can polarise communications and escalate conflict. Understanding the difference between stabilising triangulation and destabilising triangulation is helpful in avoiding destabilising situations. Triangulation may be overt, which is more commonly seen in high-conflict families, or covert.
A 2016 longitudinal study of adolescent relationship skills found that teens who were triangulated into parental conflicts more frequently used positive conflict resolution techniques with their own dating partner, but were also more likely to engage in verbally abusive behaviours.
The Perverse Triangle
The Perverse Triangle was first described in 1977 by Jay Haley as a triangle where two people who are on different hierarchical or generational levels form a coalition against a third person (e.g. “a covert alliance between a parent and a child, who band together to undermine the other parent’s power and authority”). The perverse triangle concept has been widely discussed in professional literature. Bowen called it the pathological triangle, while Minuchin called it the rigid triangle. For example, a parent and child can align against the other parent but not admit to it, to form a cross-generational coalition. These are harmful to children.
In the field of psychology, triangulations are necessary steps in the child’s development. When a two-party relationship is opened up by a third party, a new form of relationship emerges and the child gains new mental abilities. The concept was introduced in 1971 by the Swiss psychiatrist Dr. Ernst L. Abelin, especially as ‘early triangulation’, to describe the transitions in psychoanalytic object relations theory and parent-child relationship in the age of 18 months. In this presentation, the mother is the early caregiver with a nearly “symbiotic” relationship to the child, and the father lures the child away to the outside world, resulting in the father being the third party. Abelin later developed an ‘organiser- and triangulation-model’, in which he based the whole human mental and psychic development on several steps of triangulation.
Some earlier related work, published in a 1951 paper, had been done by the German psychoanalyst Hans Loewald in the area of pre-Oedipal behaviour and dynamics. In a 1978 paper, the child psychoanalyst Dr. Selma Kramer wrote that Loewald postulated the role of the father as a positive supporting force for the pre-Oedipal child against the threat of re-engulfment by the mother which leads to an early identification with the father, preceding that of the classical Oedipus complex. This was also related to the work in Separation-Individuation theory of child development by the psychoanalyst Margaret Mahler.
Destabilising triangulation occurs when a person attempts to control the flow, interpretation, and nuances of communication between two separate actors or groups of actors, thus ensuring communications flow through, and constantly relate back to them. Examples include a parent attempting to control communication between two children, or a relationship partner attempting to control communication between the other partner and the other partner’s friends and family. Another example is to put a third actor between them and someone with whom they are commonly in conflict. Rather than communicating directly with the actor with whom they are in conflict, they will send communication supporting his or her case through a third actor in an attempt to make the communication more credible.
Stephen Karpman used triangles to map conflicted or drama-intense relationship transactions. The Karpman Drama Triangle models the connection between personal responsibility and power in conflicts, and the destructive and shifting roles people play. He defined three roles in the conflict; Persecutor, Rescuer (the one up positions) and Victim (one down position). Karpman placed these three roles on an inverted triangle and referred to them as being the three aspects, or faces of drama.
The Victim in this model is not intended to represent an actual victim, but rather someone feeling or acting like one.
The Victim’s stance is “Poor me!”
The Victim feels victimised, oppressed, helpless, hopeless, powerless, ashamed, and seems unable to make decisions, solve problems, take pleasure in life, or achieve insight.
The Victim, if not being persecuted, will seek out a Persecutor and also a Rescuer who will save the day but also perpetuate the Victim’s negative feelings.
The rescuer’s line is “Let me help you.”
A classic enabler, the Rescuer feels guilty if they do not go to the rescue.
Yet their rescuing has negative effects: It keeps the Victim dependent and does not allow the Victim permission to fail and experience the consequences of their choices.
The rewards derived from this rescue role are that the focus is taken off of the rescuer.
When they focus their energy on someone else, it enables them to ignore their own anxiety and issues.
This rescue role is also pivotal because their actual primary interest is really an avoidance of their own problems disguised as concern for the victim’s needs.
The Persecutor insists, “It’s all your fault.”
The Persecutor is controlling, blaming, critical, oppressive, angry, authoritarian, rigid, and superior.
Initially, a drama triangle arises when a person takes on the role of a victim or persecutor. This person then feels the need to enlist other players into the conflict. As often happens, a rescuer is encouraged to enter the situation. These enlisted players take on roles of their own that are not static, and therefore various scenarios can occur. The victim might turn on the rescuer, for example, while the rescuer then switches to persecution.
The reason that the situation persist is that each participant has their (frequently unconscious) psychological wishes/needs met without having to acknowledge the broader dysfunction or harm done in the situation as a whole. Each participant is acting upon their own selfish needs, rather than acting in a genuinely responsible or altruistic manner. Any character might “ordinarily come on like a plaintive victim; it is now clear that the one can switch into the role of Persecutor providing it is ‘accidental’ and the one apologises for it”.
The motivations of the rescuer are the least obvious. In the terms of the triangle, the rescuer has a mixed or covert motive and benefits egoically in some way from being “the one who rescues”. The rescuer has a surface motive of resolving the problem and appears to make great efforts to solve it, but also has a hidden motive to not succeed, or to succeed in a way in which they benefit. They may get a self-esteem boost, for example, or receive respected rescue status, or derive enjoyment by having someone depend on them and trust them and act in a way that ostensibly seems to be trying to help, but at a deeper level plays upon the victim in order to continue getting a payoff.
The relationship between the victim and the rescuer may be one of co-dependency. The rescuer keeps the victim dependent by encouraging their victimhood. The victim gets their needs met by having the rescuer take care of them.
Participants generally tend to have a primary or habitual role (victim, rescuer, persecutor) when they enter into drama triangles. Participants first learn their habitual role in their family of origin. Even though participants each have a role with which they most identify, once on the triangle, participants rotate through all the three positions.
Each triangle has a “payoff” for those playing it. The “antithesis” of a drama triangle lies in discovering how to deprive the actors of their payoff.
Through popular usage and the work of Karpman and others, Karpman’s triangle has been adapted for use in structural analysis and transactional analysis.
Family Therapy Movement
After World War II, therapists observed that while many battle-torn veteran patients readjusted well after returning to their families, some patients did not; some even regressed when they returned to their home environment. Researchers felt that they needed an explanation for this and began to explore the dynamics of family life – and thus began the family therapy movement. Prior to this time, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts focused on the patient’s already-developed psyche and downplayed outside detractors. Intrinsic factors were addressed and extrinsic reactions were considered as emanating from forces within the person.
In the 1950s, Eric Berne developed transactional analysis, a method for studying interactions between individuals. This approach was profoundly different than that of Freud. While Freud relied on asking patients about themselves, Berne felt that a therapist could learn by observing what was communicated (words, body language, facial expressions) in a transaction. So instead of directly asking the patient questions, Berne would frequently observe the patient in a group setting, noting all of the transactions that occurred between the patient and other individuals.
The theory of triangulation was originally published in 1966 by Murray Bowen as one of eight parts of Bowen’s family systems theory. Murray Bowen, a pioneer in family systems theory, began his early work with schizophrenics at the Menninger Clinic, from 1946 to 1954. Triangulation is the “process whereby a two-party relationship that is experiencing tension will naturally involve third parties to reduce tension”. Simply put, when people find themselves in conflict with another person, they will reach out to a third person. The resulting triangle is more comfortable as it can hold much more tension because the tension is being shifted around three people instead of two.
Bowen studied the dyad of the mother and her schizophrenic child while he had them both living in a research unit at the Menninger clinic. Bowen then moved to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), where he resided from 1954 to 1959. At the NIMH Bowen extended his hypothesis to include the father-mother-child triad. Bowen considered differentiation and triangles the crux of his theory, Bowen Family Systems Theory. Bowen intentionally used the word triangle rather than triad. In Bowen Family Systems Theory, the triangle is an essential part of the relationship.
Couples left to their own resources oscillate between closeness and distance. Two people having this imbalance often have difficulty resolving it by themselves. To stabilise the relationship, the couple often seek the aid of a third party to help re-establish closeness. A triangle is the smallest possible relationship system that can restore balance in a time of stress. The third person assumes an outside position. In periods of stress, the outside position is the most comfortable and desired position. The inside position is plagued by anxiety, along with its emotional closeness. The outsider serves to preserve the inside couple’s relationship. Bowen noted that not all triangles are constructive – some are destructive.
In 1968, Nathan Ackerman conceptualised a destructive triangle. Ackerman stated “we observe certain constellations of family interactions which we have epitomised as the pattern of family interdependence, roles those of destroyer or persecutor, the victim of the scapegoating attack, and the family healer or the family doctor. Ackerman also recognise the pattern of attack, defence, and counterattack, as shifting roles.
Karpman Triangle and Eric Berne
In 1968, Stephen Karpman, who had an interest in acting and was a member of the Screen Actors Guild, chose “drama triangle” rather than “conflict triangle” as, here, the Victim in his model is not intended to represent an actual victim, but rather someone feeling or acting like one. He first published his theory in an article entitled “Fairy Tales and Script Drama Analysis”. His article, in part, examined the fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood” to illustrate its points. Karpman was, at the time, a recent graduate of Duke University School of Medicine and was doing post post-graduate studies under Berne. Berne, who founded the field transactional analysis, encouraged Karpman to publish what Berne referred to as “Karpman’s triangle”. Karpman’s article was published in 1968. In 1972, Karpman received the Eric Berne Memorial Scientific Award for the work.
Eric Berne, a Canadian-born psychiatrist, created the theory of transactional analysis, in the middle of the 20th century, as a way of explaining human behaviour. Berne’s theory of transactional analysis was based on the ideas of Freud but was distinctly different. Freudian psychotherapists focused on talk therapy as a way of gaining insight to their patients’ personalities. Berne believed that insight could be better discovered by analysing patients’ social transactions.
Games in transactional analysis refers to a series of transactions that is complementary (reciprocal), ulterior, and proceeds towards a predictable outcome. In this context, the Karpman Drama Triangle is a “game”.
Games are often characterised by a switch in roles of players towards the end. The number of players may vary. Games in this sense are devices used (often unconsciously) by people to create a circumstance where they can justifiably feel certain resulting feelings (such as anger or superiority) or justifiably take or avoid taking certain actions where their own inner wishes differ from societal expectations. They are always a substitute for a more genuine and full adult emotion and response which would be more appropriate. Three quantitative variables are often useful to consider for games:
“The ability of the players to change the currency of the game (that is, the tools they use to play it).
“Some games…can be played properly with only one kind of currency, while others, such as exhibitionistic games, are more flexible”, so that players may shift from words, to money, to parts of the body.
“Some people give up their games easily, others are more persistent”, referring to the way people stick to their games and their resistance to breaking with them.
“Some people play their games in a relaxed way, others are more tense and aggressive.
Games so played are known as easy and hard games, respectively”, the latter being played in a tense and aggressive way.
The consequences of games may vary from small paybacks to paybacks built up over a long period to a major level. Based on the degree of acceptability and potential harm, games are classified into three categories, representing first degree games, second degree games, and third degree games:
Undesirable but not irreversibly damaging.
May result in drastic harm.
The Karpman triangle was an adaptation of a model that was originally conceived to analyse the play-action pass and the draw play in American football and later adapted as a way to analyse movie scripts. Karpman is reported to have doodled thirty or more diagram types before settling on the triangle. Karpman credits the movie Valley of the Dolls as being a testbed for refining the model into what Berne coined as the Karpman Drama Triangle.
Karpman now has many variables of the Karpman triangle in his fully developed theory, besides role switches. These include space switches (private-public, open-closed, near-far) which precede, cause, or follow role switches, and script velocity (number of role switches in a given unit of time). These include the Question Mark triangle, False Perception triangle, Double Bind triangle, The Indecision triangle, the Vicious Cycle triangle, Trapping triangle, Escape triangle, Triangles of Oppression, and Triangles of Liberation, Switching in the triangle, and the Alcoholic Family triangle.
While transactional analysis is the method for studying interactions between individuals, one researcher postulates that drama-based leaders can instil an organisational culture of drama. Persecutors are more likely to be in leadership positions and a persecutor culture goes hand in hand with cutthroat competition, fear, blaming, manipulation, high turnover and an increased risk of lawsuits. There are also victim cultures which can lead to low morale and low engagement as well as an avoidance of conflict, and rescuer cultures which can be characterised as having a high dependence on the leader, low initiative and low innovation.
The Winner’s Triangle was published by Acey Choy in 1990 as a therapeutic model for showing patients how to alter social transactions when entering a triangle at any of the three entry points. Choy recommends that anyone feeling like a victim think more in terms of being vulnerable and caring, that anyone cast as a persecutor adopt an assertive posture, and anyone recruited to be a rescuer should react by being “caring”.
Vulnerable: A victim should be encouraged to accept their vulnerability, problem solve, and be more self-aware.
Assertive: A persecutor should be encouraged to ask for what they want, be assertive, but not be punishing.
Caring: A rescuer should be encouraged to show concern and be caring, but not over-reach and problem solve for others.
The Power of TED, first published in 2009, recommends that the “victim” adopt the alternative role of creator, view the persecutor as a challenger, and enlist a coach instead of a rescuer.
Victims are encouraged to be outcome-oriented as opposed to problem-oriented and take responsibility for choosing their response to life challenges.
They should focus on resolving “dynamic tension” (the difference between current reality and the envisioned goal or outcome) by taking incremental steps toward the outcomes he or she is trying to achieve.
A victim is encouraged to see a persecutor as a person (or situation) that forces the creator to clarify his or her needs, and focus on their learning and growth.
A rescuer should be encouraged to ask questions that are intended to help the individual to make informed choices.
The key difference between a rescuer and a coach is that the coach sees the creator as capable of making choices and of solving his or her own problems.
A coach asks questions that enable the creator to see the possibilities for positive action, and to focus on what he or she does want instead of what he or she does not want.