Lesson 4 of 7  - optimize your relationships

Spot and Dissolve Divisive
Relationship "Triangles

Avoid the Persecutor-
Victim-Rescuer Game

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

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The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/relate/triangles.htm

Updated  02-23-2015

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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.

      This article...

  • describes a widespread relationship stressor - "Persecutor-Victim-Rescuer (PVR) triangles,"

  • introduces the idea of internal (personality subself) triangles

  • summarizes why triangles cause significant personal and social problems,, and.

  • suggests how to avoid and resolve triangles effectively in the context of families..

These ideas apply to any human group, not just families.

      The article  assumes you're familiar with:

  • the intro this Web site, and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 4

  • this overview of three common relationship stressors

  • an example of the stressors troubling a real stepfamily

  What Is "Triangling"?

      This common 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 Persecutor ("P"). S/He blames, disrespects, attacks, ignores, and/or criticizes the Victim ("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 Rescuer. 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. If they are, they don't know how to not do it    

Triangling Looks and Sounds Like This...

RVP triangle.gif (9110 bytes)The Persecutor P (say a father) scowls and says sarcastically to Victim (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 hopeless!"  

V may whimper and cower, glare, or talk back defiantly. Either way, s/he feels guilty, ashamed, and anxious - and maybe mad. S/He may whine and glance pitifully at...

The 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."

      The 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 people.

Triangles and Subselves

      Premise - normal people develop an "inner family" of talented subselves which comprise their personalities. If you're skeptical or curious about this, read this letter to you and try this safe, interesting exercise after finishing this article.

      People's dominant 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 shame-based adult or child may instinctively adopt the Victim role by not knowing and asserting their rights as a worthy person.

      PVR triangles occur among personality subselves all the time. For example, if an Inner Critic and Perfectionist harshly judge the host person, a hypersensitive Shamed Child and/or Guilty Child can activate ("Victims"), causing several Guardian subselves (like the Addict, Magician, Pleaser, Warrior, or Numb-er) to activate and comfort (Rescue) the unhappy young subselves.

      Remembering past "triangle" experiences may reproduce their emotional impacts at full strength. If a Victim subself remembers the Inner Critic's (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! 

      Internal and outer triangles cause or result from concurrent family values and 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 Victim-Rescuer fireworks.

      The good news - if you accept the reality of personality subselves, you can use parts work to keep your Self in charge in most situations, and train your other subselves to avoid triangling. That will significantly help reduce your getting hooked in triangles with other people. See Lesson 1.

      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 of those prizes.

      Triangles often cause mixes of anxiety, hurt, resentment, distrust, 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?

  Resolution Options

      Encourage your family adults to...

      Do Lesson 1 together, and accept the idea of having a dynamic inner family of personality subselves. Develop your own terms and language, if that helps. This empowers you all to become aware of, and reduce, your inner triangles. They cause the outer triangles!

      Keep their true Selves in charge - 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...

      Understand and 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," "Critic," or "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 triangles; and...

      Get clear together on what you want instead of triangles - e.g.

  • genuine, stable self-respect and mutual-respect attitudes, and...

  • everyone being clear on their respective personal rights; and...

  • cooperatively identifying each person's current primary needs, and...

  • doing win-win problem-solving as teammates, vs. these alternatives.

      More de-triangling options...

      Help each 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?"

      Make 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 win-win problem-solving. Note that people ruled by a false self often have major trouble holding attitudes of genuine mutual respect - specially in values and/or loyalty conflicts.

      Use the skills and language of awareness and 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 aware 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 them. Help younger kids understand the difference between roles and the people in the roles. Neither the roles nor the people in them are "bad, " but the results 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.

 These Options in Action

      If 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...

      Triangle 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 my Self 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...

  • want to model effective listening, assertion, and problem-solving for her again. And ...

  • 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 and triangle."

      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 Inner Skeptic trying to protect you from trying something new and risky. Reality: Anyone can learn to think and talk like this example if they (you) want to!


      The universal social dynamic called relationship triangles 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 false-self dominance (wounds),  internal conflicts, and adults' and kids' unawareness of 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 for more perspective and options.

      Note that effective strategies depend on family adults (a) usually being guided by their true Selves (Lesson 1), and (b) helping each other to intentionally learn and use the seven effective communication 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 answering these questions - your true Self or ''someone else''?

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