After growing up in a highly dysfunctional household, you may find yourself repeatedly engaging in the same relationship patterns later in life without knowing how you got there.
Dr. Stephen Karpman devised a simple way to understand how these kinds of relationships typically work. He calls it the “Drama Triangle.”
The Drama Triangle consists of 3 roles that each relate dysfunctionally to each other:
1. The Perpetrator:
- Believes they have all the power and control
- Bullies and blames to get what they want
- is aggressive/passive-aggressive
- Scapegoats the Victim and ropes the Rescuer into covering for them
2. The Victim:
- Believes they have no control
- Gives up on making their own choices
- Feels worthless and helpless
- Feels powerless against the Perpetrator and dependent on the Rescuer
3. The Rescuer:
- Focuses only on others’ needs
- Ignores their own needs
- Tries to control how others feel
- enables the Victim and makes excuses for the Perpetrator
Different family members will usually gravitate toward one or two of the roles, but over time the roles can start to flip around too. For example, the rescuer in the family may get so burnt out trying to help the family victim, that they start to feel victimized themselves, and begin to view the victim as a perpetrator.
Or the victim may begin to see the rescuer as a perpetrator if the rescuer gets too drained, leaving the victim feeling abandoned. Sometimes the perpetrator may also play the victim role to try to get someone else to rescue them from the consequences of their own actions.
What do all three roles have in common? Everyone on the triangle neglects to take responsibility for their own emotions. The perpetrator blames others, the victim waits to be rescued, and the rescuer focuses on saving others from their emotions instead of acknowledging their own.
Unless someone else is around to consistently model healthy relationship roles, kids born into highly dysfunctional families can grow up to assume all relationships follow this same unhealthy pattern. Then when they encounter similar relationships as an adult, they easily fall back into old familiar roles. It feels normal. When you don’t know what healthy roles look like, it’s also possible to accidentally assume someone is being a perpetrator, victim, or rescuer when they’re actually relating in a healthy way.
In a future post, I’ll talk about what healthy relationship patterns look like in comparison to the Drama Triangle. Stay tuned!
You can check out this quiz if you’re curious to see which role you fall into most: https://cdn.website-editor.net/848c74c539684751972b4649bf55aae7/files/uploaded/Drama%2520triangle%2520quiz.pdf
In light of the horrific events at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX, we at EDT wanted to offer some help to parents navigating the difficulty of explaining these events to their own children.
1) Give yourself some time to process your own feelings about all this. Some things you may feel:
Or any number of other feelings. This is a horrible loss but as a parent, you may catch yourself wondering what if this were my kid? Or how in the world do I explain that to my kid? Or how in the world do I explain to my kid that schools are sometimes really dangerous places while helping them to trust their world and their people?
You may be ready to tell your kid everything or join in family advocacy. What is best to do in times like these?
Spend time journaling, walking outside, gardening or talking to a close friend or a therapist to get your feelings (somewhat) sorted through before you try to talk to your child about all this. It’s ok to process some of your emotions together but it is important to process the rawest of your emotions before you try to help your child process theirs. It’s the old oxygen mask on the airplane situation.
2) Be honest and age appropriate with the information you share with your child or with the info they will overhear.
Be mindful of how you talk about this in front of your children or the media you consume while your children are present. Share with them the facts in developmentally appropriate ways as you are comfortable.
3) Mr. [Fred] Rogers famously said when he was a child and anytime something scary happened on the news, his mother always told him to look for the helpers.
This approach does two things for children: it assures them of safety that even when the scariest things happen there are always kind people who will be there to help. It also teaches kids that when bad things happen if they can find a way to help, they can make things better.
4) Assure your child of their safety in all the ways that you honestly can.
Explain to them all the ways their school is safe. Also let them know that it is ok to feel worried, sad or mad or any number of big feelings and that you have lots of big feelings too. Make a list of all the people who are there to keep them safe and make a list of all the people they can talk to when their big feelings need to come out like:when their big feelings need to come out like:
1. Mom & Dad
2. School Counselor
5. Faith leader
6. Special family member or grown up friend like a grandparent, neighbor or favorite aunt or uncle.
5) Work together to promote social change and/or comfort for the families who lost loved ones:
Maybe you want to attend a family march or write letters to elected officials together for some kind of social reform in light of recent events. Maybe your kids want to hold a lemonade stand to donate to the funeral homes or medical centers in and near Uvalde, TX.
6) Be gentle and practice gratitude.
In the face of injustice and horrific loss it is hard to be gentle with ourselves but it is what we and our children need most. After a day of dropping your kids off at school (a mundane task that is now much scarier for everyone), working, advocating with government or social agencies, come home and stay present.
Even though it is the end of school and the start of summer you may not want to attend every party or even finish every assignment to the A+ level you usually do. You may want to order dinner from your favorite place (because cooking and clean- up feels like too much and that’s fine) and go for a family walk after dinner or plant some new purple flowers in the backyard just because your kindergartener loves that color and that matters so much more now. Or instead of everyone going to their rooms to watch on their own devices, watch a family favorite all cuddled together on the couch.
Maybe the laundry stays on the stairs instead of going up at bedtime. Maybe you carry your big third grader to bed, which you haven’t done in ages.
Researcher and public advocate Brene Brown said that when she meets with people who have endured great loss she asks them, what do you want from the rest of us? Brown said those people say, “I need to know when you look at your children, you are grateful.”
Some filtering questions for those of you who are Givers at heart (and maybe sometimes over-functioning) 🙂
Many of us (we therapists know we’re In this category too!) find ourselves giving beyond our means and in ways that are unsustainable. People sometimes take more than they give back. And there is always a need that arises among the people we care about. We can find ourselves running around trying to meet these needs and we can get so tired and drained! We sometimes don’t stop to think if it’s something we want to do or something we can do.
If you relate to this, here are a few questions to ask yourself that might help you filter through these situations. Sometimes you can give sacrificially to others and sometimes you may need to practice saying no to others and saying yes to yourself and your needs.
Sidenote: We believe the end goal in our relationships is to be generous to others in a sustainable way. We aren’t advocating for you to be self focused, but to tend to your needs so that you have more to give to those around you.
So ask yourself these questions:
- Is the person asking for your help? Sometimes when we hear about something difficult we want to fix it. But sometimes people don’t need anything from you than just to listen.
- Do you have it to give? Do you have the food in the pantry to be able to make someone a meal? Do you have the time to sit and listen to someone without being late something else? Do you have the patience and energy to give to this person without losing patience for those that you know you must give it to (aka your kids or spouse)
- Can you give joyfully? Without resentment or bitterness.
- Can you give without expecting something in return?
This feels like a sucker punch even as a write this, but when I’ve tried to follow my instincts with how much I can realistically give I end up feeling more rested and centered. Try this out and see how your emotional (and financial and mental) reserves seem to change.
“I know I’m supposed to let myself feel what I feel…but whenever I try, I get depressed for days.”
It’s true that processing your emotions means allowing yourself to feel them. But here’s the thing: when you’ve been stuffing down your feelings for so long, there can be so many intense emotions trapped on the inside that feeling them all at once leads to overwhelm.
And that can make you feel stuck. Stuffing your emotions means invalidating them, and that doesn’t feel good, but then feeling your emotions means inviting a flood of them so strong you either spiral downward or shut down entirely. That doesn’t feel good either. Where does the relief come in?
If feeling your emotions tends to do this to you, that may be a sign to take things slower. You don’t have to feel everything at once. Take it step by step. Give yourself space to feel just a little piece at a time, and as soon as you’ve had a moment to feel a little bit, take a step back. Give yourself permission to take a break, recharge, and do something you enjoy. You can go back to feeling your emotions later when you’re feeling rejuvenated and ready again.
Here are some tips for how you can feel your emotions safely:
- Write down what each step of your downward spiral looks like. Know the signs that you’re getting too overwhelmed and need a break.
- Create a plan for how to recharge after feeling your emotions. What’s something that truly helps your body feel better? Do you need to take a walk? Listen to some upbeat music? Watch a favorite movie?
- Set a timer for as long as you want – a minute, 5 minutes, 15, whatever feels safest and most doable for you. While the timer is running, notice your emotions and how they feel in your body. Allow them to be there without judging them. When the time is up, take a break.
- Visualize putting your emotions away somewhere safe. You can imagine storing them in a vase, a treasure box, or some other container that marks them as precious and important.
- Remind yourself that you can revisit them later.
You’ll notice that with repetition, the time you can spend feeling your emotions gets longer. The more you practice, the easier it gets!
If the integrity of your relationship has been violated due to a harmful choice or behavior by either party, there are steps that you can take to restore trust and intimacy within the relationship.
There is no one size fits all approach for handling a trust violation in a relationship, however, there are ways to begin the process of repairing the relationship.
Here are 4 actionable steps that you can take to begin the process of healing:
Take 100% accountability.
Accountability is twofold. Accountability includes (1) acknowledgement of your wrongdoings and (2) not offering excuses to suggest that you couldn’t help doing what you did.
Developing empathy in a relationship is crucial. The most effective way to do so is to imagine yourself in your partner’s shoes. Ask yourself, how did my actions affect my partner’s life? Did my behavior cause damage to their sense of self-worth?
Taking accountability for your mistakes and acknowledging the impact helps you to avoid invalidating your partner’s emotions.
Offering an apology and asking your partner what can be done to rectify the situation and repair the damage.
Create an amends plan or contract to demonstrate your commitment to the relationship. An amends plan is a guide for navigating a breach of trust or betrayal; it generally includes an outline for what changes will be made on a personal and relational level. It will include actions and activities that indirectly restore your partner’s faith and trust in you.
For example, “Allow access to social media passwords, computer, phone, etc.” “Increase quality time with my partner and enjoy a date night every Friday.”
Your amends plan will need to be tailored to your relationship’s specific needs. Including your partner in the creation of the plan helps to show your devotion to your partner’s needs.
Making a promise to not betray your partner in the future and to follow-through with the actions you have promised.
Relationship check-ins at various intervals can help keep you on track and provide you with more of an understanding of what relationship needs are not being met and what promises have not been kept.
Communicating with your partner if you feel you are unable to follow through with promises made.
Increasing communication and vulnerability with your partner promotes emotional connection and intimacy. In order to repair and reconnect, you have to give your partner something to connect to. Secrecy, blame, anger, disengagement, and control do not provide connection points for repairing trust and faith in a relationship.
In seeking to mend a fractured relationship, the willingness to work on the relationship and reconstruct the trust that was broken is crucial.
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