The Drama Triangle

The other day I heard Sheryl Crow’s Strong Enough on the radio:

When I’ve shown you that I just don’t care
When I’m throwing punches in the air
When I’m broken down and I can’t stand
Would you be man enough to be my man?


It’s a plea and a challenge. She appears vulnerable and in need of a rescuer, but there’s an aggressive edge: refusal is not an option because refusal means admitting he’s not a real man.

As a young man in the 1990s this song appealed to me (and it doesn’t hurt that Sheryl Crow is a beautiful woman). But today as a middle age man it repels me.

It’s not just Crow’s manipulative stance. She’s playing the victim, and a victim says in effect, “I have no responsibility to change my situation.” Playing the rescuer accepts this narrative. But taking responsibility for someone else its own type of manipulation. The hidden agenda is control.

Stephen Karpman first described the drama triangle in the late 1960s. He identifies three roles: the persecutor, the victim, and the rescuer. But the catch is that these roles are not static. Instead, people often change roles. And more role changes within shorter timeframes equals greater drama.

For example, someone might use their victim status as justification to seek retribution against the alleged persecutor. This alleged persecutor then becomes the new victim, and the old victim is now the persecutor. Or, a rescuer may assume responsibility for resolving the situation, but the rescuer is then blamed for any consequences stemming from the rescue attempt. Now the rescuer is the new persecutor. This shifting of roles, and the fact that not all involved agree on who’s the real victim and who’s the real persecutor, keeps things going in a mad circle.

drama triangle2

Men are taught to be rescuers, the proverbial white knights. But men are rarely permitted to play the victim without someone questioning their manhood, except in specific circumstances such as membership in another disadvantaged group, in which case they are victims not as men but as members of racial, ethnic, economic, or sexual groups. And the myth that women are rarely persecutors is widely accepted and promoted, which enables abusive women to be believed when they claim to be the real victims.

One reason why women like the one in the Sheryl Crow song have difficulty finding a “good man” is because self-respecting men don’t get involved with women like this.

Instead of allowing himself to be manipulated by the question, “would you be man enough to be my man?” he will ignore the question, knowing he has nothing to prove to her. Rather than rescuing or enabling her, he puts the onus back on her: “How can you change your situation to get the outcome you want?”

Thus, he won’t control her. And if she’s not up to the challenge, he’s willing to walk away rather than get sucked into her psychodrama.

But what of the man who does try to rescue an emotionally unhealthy woman? The couple eventually faces a unique problem, which is the lack of a third wheel. In the beginning the man may be the rescuer, and the persecutor may be the woman’s ex or perhaps just men in general. But after the honeymoon the rescue is a fait accompli, and her refusal to take responsibility for herself leads her to target him as the new persecutor. He can become the rescuer again if an outside threat emerges, but this will be temporary. Or she might find a new rescuer and leave him for someone else.

Children also can become the third party. And the children, in time, will end up playing victims, rescuers, and persecutors.

At some point, someone has to break the cycle. This is possible no matter what role you’re playing at the moment:

  • Have good boundaries. You’re not a persecutor if you don’t step on other people’s toes.
  • Take responsibility for yourself, and don’t blame others. Instead of being a victim, ask yourself what you can do to change your situation.
  • Be supportive of others, but don’t take responsibility for them. That is, have good boundaries (per the first point). We all learn through experiencing natural consequences, but rescuing enables people to avoid responsibility.

The drama triangle then becomes the equilibrium triangle:

equilibrium triangle