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This is one of a series of articles on Lesson 4 - optimize your
relationships. These articles build on Lessons 1 - 3, and prepare you for
Lesson 5 (evolve a nourishing family) and Lesson 6 (effective parenting).
This brief YouTube video clip previews key points in this article.
The intro mentions eight self-improvement lessons in this site - I've reduced
that to seven.
a widespread relationship stressor - "Persecutor-Victim-Rescuer
introduces the idea of
internal (personality subself)
summarizes why triangles cause significant personal and social problems,,
suggests how to avoid and resolve triangles
effectively in the context of families..
These ideas apply to any human
group, not just families.
of three common relationship stressors
an example of the stressors troubling
a real stepfamily
What Is "Triangling"?
dynamic was first publicized as "the drama triangle" in 1956 by Dr. Steven
Karpman. It involves three people and three
roles, like parts in a
play. One person unconsciously chooses the role of the
("P"). S/He blames, disrespects, attacks, ignores, and/or criticizes the
("V") for something, causing the
Rescuer ("R") to defend the Victim.
That may quickly shift
so that the Persecutor becomes a Victim, and the former Victim may become a
Note that these three labels refer
to roles (behaviors and attitudes),not the person
in the role.
Each role may be played by an adult or a child. Each person can switch back and forth between these roles with different
situations and different people. Few people are aware they're doing this.
they are, they don't know how to not do it
Triangling Looks and Sounds Like
The PersecutorP (say a
father) scowls and says sarcastically to
(e.g. a child,) "Toby, you have the brains of a doorknob. How many times do I have
to tell you to pick up your toys, so people don't fall over them or step on and wreck them? You're completely
V may whimper and cower, glare, or
talk back defiantly. Either way, s/he feels guilty, ashamed, and anxious - and maybe mad.
whine and glance
Rescuer (often another caregiver,
like a mom or grandparent) who observes this interaction and feels empathic and
protective of the Victim. So Rescuer may glower at
P and say something to
V like "Honey, I'll help you pick up your toys now. Let me get you a snack."
Persecutor-role person may resent that R
seems to side with V, rather than supporting him/her ["You know, Hon, (P)'s right -
you should be more careful and considerate."] This is specially true if
it happens often, and Rescuer denies or defends it, or seems indifferent.
Triangles can form in a flash over almost any behavior or interaction. They
may occur once, occasionally, randomly or predictably, and repeat cyclically
for months or years until someone leaves or refuses their role. Several
triangles can exist simultaneously, and can affect each other - e.g. a Persecutor
in one triangle can be the Victim in another triangle with other
Premise - normal people develop an "inner family" of
subselves which comprise their
If you're skeptical or
curious about this, read this letter to you
and try this safe, interesting exercise
after finishing this article.
subselves may predispose them to "accept" one
triangle role more than the others.
For example, a psychologically-wounded
person governed by angry, critical, aggressive
subselves may unconsciously choose the Persecutor role in their
family and other groups. A
adult or child may instinctively adopt the Victim role by not knowing
and asserting their rights as a worthy person.
"triangle" experiences may reproduce their emotional impacts at full strength.
subself remembers the
(Persecutor's) biting sarcasm three weeks later, Victim can
experience a new wave of guilt, shame, anxiety, pain, anger, and confusion. Thus one
triangle incident may count the same as 20!
outer triangles cause or result from concurrent family
loyalty conflicts,which are
common in low-nurturance ("dysfunctional") families. So family
adults do best if they develop effective strategies to spot and resolve
all three of these stressors.
If clergy, lawyers, mediators,
coaches, teachers, clinicians,
case workers, and doctors aren't
aware of triangles, they may unintentionally amplify them in
their clients and patients, and/or cause new ones.
They will often unconsciously take or accept the Rescuer role for the
needy people they serve.
People don't have to be physically present
to take a triangle role. An unmourned dead person, a child
asleep upstairs, or a relative across town or a thousand miles away, can animate
relationship triangles through memories, anniversaries, mementos, holiday associations,
e-mails, phone calls, and silences. A dead
or living fetus or infant can be a full triangle role-holder -
usually the Victim. The two other role holders (or more
accurately, some of their inner-family members) will feel and act for
the fetus or infant.
Sometimes a group can fill one of
more of the three triangle roles - usually the Persecutor. For instance "Your
whole family (or 'everyone at church') disapproves of my nose ring." can set off
The good news - if you accept
the reality of personality subselves, you can use
to keep your Self
in most situations, and train your other subselves to avoid
triangling. That will significantly help reduce your getting
hooked in triangles with other people.
Does what you read make sense to you? Can you think of any recent or current triangles among your family members? Who chose which
role, and what was the outcome - i.e. who got their
primary needs met well enough and who didn't?
What's Wrong with Triangles?
Each person or subself in a triangle role can feel disrespected and hurt by
one of the other role-players. Mutual respect is essential for
effective communication and healthy relationships, PVR triangles hinder both
Trianglesoften cause mixes of anxiety, hurt,
disrespect, competition, frustration, guilt, shame, blame, avoidances, and
arguing among the three role-takers.
These promote expectations of
stress between the three people. Habitual
triangling and ineffective communication in
a family will corrode its
nurturance level. That promotes psychological wounding in developing kids
So what can you do about triangles?
Encourage your family adults to...
Do Lesson 1
together, and accept the idea
of having a dynamic
inner family of
Develop your own terms and language, if that helps. This empowers you all to become aware of, and reduce, your
They cause the outer triangles!
- specially in times of change and conflict. Triangles and related stressors
flourish when false selves have taken over. See
Lesson 1 for options; and invite your family adults to...
accept triangles as normal dynamics in any
social group, and that none
of the three role-takers are "bad" or "wrong;" and....
Evolve and agree on your
family's own role-labels and "triangle vocabulary." For example, you might prefer calling the Persecutor "the Blamer,"
"Aggressor." Learn to acknowledge (name) current or
recent triangles, as in "Hey gang, we had (or have) a triangle going."
Also agree on a term for dissolving, unhooking, or mastering your
Get clear together on what you want instead of triangles
self-respect and mutual-respect
everyone being clear on
their respective personal rights; and...
other agree on who is choosing what role, and talk non-critically about
that as teammates. e.g. "Noriko, are you feeling like I'm the Persecutor
and you're in the Victim role here?"
Lesson 2 a high priority
in your family's homes.
In particular, help each other learn to use hearing checks, awareness
"bubbles," E(motion)-levels, respectful assertion and I-messages, and
ruled by a false self often have major trouble holding attitudes of genuine mutual respect - specially in
Use the skills and language of
metatalk to begin to talk
as partners about inner and outer triangles as they happen.
Model this for your kids, and encourage them to learn how, too. Option
- experiment with rotating
the new family role of Triangle Hunter or Scout. Becoming
of triangles and their relationship impacts is a big part of the solution.
Teach and show your
kids the three triangling roles, and agree on what to call each of
younger kids understand the difference between roles and the people
the roles. Neither the roles nor the people in them are "bad, " but the
of triangling can hurt self-esteems and family harmony, trust,
bonding, and teamwork.
Adults give high family priority to
learning how to spot and resolve values
and loyalty conflicts in and between your
homes. Help each other (a) develop a common language to describe
and discuss each of these, and (b) be alert for these stressors any time
you spot a triangle - they usually occur together.
Options in Action
the adults in the example above had invested time and effort at these
options together, they would have
spotted the triangle and
problem-solved instead, or avoided it in the first place.
Triangle spotted: The mom (original
"Rescuer") experiences her mate's impulsive, sarcastic
(1-down) message to her
child. Intentionally avoiding her own inner triangle (blocking
her Mama-Lion personality part), Mom says something calmly like "Whoa! We've got a triangle
here, people. Let's back up, OK?"
Dad ("Persecutor") would trust from discussion and experience that his
partner wasn't criticizing (disrespecting) him, but just alerting all three to their shared risk of a
new triangle. That alerts him to his inner triangling without undue
guilt, so he says something like "Mm, yeah, your right. Sorry, Toby..."He then shifts intentionally to
win-win problem-solving, rather than blaming and complaining. That might
look like this...
avoided: Dad becomes
aware of feeling frustrated and irritated (and ignored - again) when he sees
daughter Toby's toys strewn carelessly on the living room floor again.
He takes a moment to check his (false-self's) impulse to bark
sarcastically at Toby. Then he thinks "What do I need now?"
Taking a few more moments, he decides "I need to ...
avoid inner triangles by keeping
in charge of my inner crew, and affirming my other subselves who are upset;
and I also need...
to let Toby know with a respectful, clear
''I'' message (assertion) how her actions affect me, and what I need; and...
to keep working patiently at building her
awareness and cooperation. I also...
I need Nell's (wife) true
Self to stay in charge, and give me empathy, cooperation in doing
win-win problems-solving, rather than taking sides in a loyalty conflict
Lots of scenarios could develop from this beginning. One
might sound like this respectful "I"-message:
"Toby, when you forget my request to
pick up your toys, I feel really frustrated and mad! I get worried you or someone
else is going to trip and get hurt, or someone'll step on your game and break it. Then
you'll feel bad, and we'll all get into am uproar about you earning enough allowance to
buying a new game. I don't want those things to happen. How can we solve this problem?"
Notice where your thoughts are now. Anything like "Ah, who talks like that in the real world?
We could never sound like
that." If you have thoughts like those, it's probably your InnerSkeptic trying to protect you from trying something new and risky.
can learn to think and talk like this example
if they (you) want to!
social dynamic called
significantly stresses adults and kids. Triangling occurs
when three people - or three personality subselves - unconsciously adopt the
situational or chronic roles of Persecutor, Victim, and Rescuer.
Triangles are symptoms of
internal conflicts, and adults' and kids'
inner families + triangle dynamics + effective communication skills. All of
these can be improved!
This article describes triangles and why they're harmful; and illustrates their
dynamics among people and subselves, The article provides specific suggestions on
avoiding or dissolving triangles, and gives a brief example.
Helping each other form effective strategies to manage triangles, values
conflicts, and loyalty (priority) conflicts will
benefit any relationship and family. See this article
perspective and options.
Note that effective strategies depend on
family adults (a) usually being
true Selves (Lesson 1), and (b) helping each other to intentionally learn and use the seven
skills in Lesson 2.
Are your people doing those yet?
Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you
get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's
these questions - your