(SNN) The following discussion is excerpted from an article addressing dysfunctional families, but the principles apply to anyone in a relationship with a narcissist.

Marsha Utain, M.S.

Recovery is often a long and painful process for adult children of dysfunctional families, but sometimes it can be made easier when you understand the systems and patterns that run your life.

If you were raised in a dysfunctional family, you have, for the most part, been raised to be inauthentic, to lie to yourself and others about what you are feeling and what motivates you.

You have been raised to play psychological games with yourself and others.

Although true insights about those games come from doing deep levels of process work, it often helps to have a framework of understanding from which to view your daily situations and some steps to follow to help you out of the dilemmas.


Developed in the late 1960s by Stephen Karpman, the Drama Triangle is a description of one of the most persuasive and damaging psychological games played today.

In 1978, after recognizing the value of the Drama Triangle, I began working with Dr. Arthur Melville to clarify the Triangle so that it could be used as a major tool in the understanding of dysfunctional families.

The Drama Triangle now can be used to describe the various processes characteristic of all dysfunctional families, including addictive families.

By understanding the roles designated in the Triangle, the way they interact, and the rules that ensnare you, you can learn to avoid becoming entangled in the Triangle and the drama that the Triangle precipitates.


If you come from a family suffering from alcoholism, incest, emotional or physical violence or chronic co-dependence, you are probably aware of the chaos and drama that was part of growing up in a dysfunctional home.

Having been raised in a dysfunctional family, you realize that you were expected to act out a particular role in the family for the family’s benefit.

You were expected to be inauthentic.

You were not allowed to be in touch with who you are, how you were feeling and what truly motivated you.

If you were raised in a dysfunctional family, you are already familiar with the Drama Triangle, although you never had a name for what you were experiencing.

All you would know is that you felt awful and nothing seemed to turn out the way you had hoped or expected.

What you were experiencing was being caught in the Triangle and having to play out the various roles and moves governed by the nature of the Triangle.

The Drama Triangle is the representation of a complex interaction process involving the three participating roles of victim, persecutor, and rescuer.

The triangle is based on blame and guilt and is put into operation whenever any type of lie or denial occurs.

Without blame, guilt or lies there would be no Drama Triangle and no chaos.

Instead, there would be healthy responsible relationships based on honest communications.

If you look at the Triangle in figure 1, you will notice that it is placed upside down on one of the points, rather than on its side.

This configuration emphasizes the pivotal position of the victim. To understand the Triangle, it would, therefore, be best to start with that position.

Before exploring the Triangle in-depth, it is important to remember that participating in any role in the Triangle does not mean that you are a bad person.

It means that you are caught in the dysfunctional programming that you grew up in within your family.


The victim position is the key role in the Triangle because it is the position around which the others revolve.

People operating in the victim position take no responsibility for their actions or feelings. They truly believe that they are life’s fall guys.

Their perception is that everyone in the world is “doing it to them.” They continually look for someone or something else to blame for things not working in their lives.

Victims can frequently be identified by their use of such language as Everyone/anyone does it to me; you/they (the government, my mother, father, boss, spouse, children, etc.) do it to me; poor me!


There are two basic types of victims, the pathetic victim, and the angry victim.

The pathetic victim plays the pity-ploy using woeful “poor me” looks and the desolate language of self-pity, while the angry victim pretends to be powerful, using phrases, such as, “I won’t let you do it to me,” “Look what you did to me,” “You’re not going to do that to me again,” or “you’re bad.”

Both types of victims are looking for someone to blame for the emotions they are having and for their lives not working.

In addition, they look for a rescuer, someone they can “hook” into taking care of them and their responsibilities.

Victims manipulate others into doing what they want with blame and guilt.

They will find someone that they can blame for their unfulfilled lives.

The victim sees this person as a persecutor.

If that person believes the victim and accepts the blame, then he will feel guilty and try to remedy the situation.

As soon as he tries to fix things for the victim, he moves from persecutor to rescuer.


Let’s take an example of two friends and watch how the victim operates and tries to manipulate the friend into rescuing him:

Neil and Martin have known each other since grade school.

Martin holds down a responsible position as an assistant manager for a large food chain, achieving his position by working his way up since graduation from high school, six years earlier, when he began work as a box boy.

Neil has never held down a job for more than three months. He is rarely on time anywhere, especially work, but always has some excuse.

Neil is a victim.

He claims that the world picks on him and no one understands him.

One day Neil shows up at Martin’s, wanting to borrow Martin’s car.

Neil’s car is in the shop.

He didn’t check his oil, and he destroyed his engine.

Neil says that he has a job interview and that he tried to borrow his mother’s car, but she refused to let him use it.

Neil has taken no responsibility for not taking care of his own car.

Neil, the victim, enters Martin’s house, blaming his mother for stopping him from going to his job interview and calling her names because she would not lend him her car.

Neil’s mother is cast in the persecutor role, and Neil is trying to manipulate Martin into the rescuer role by implying that Martin will be to blame if Neil cannot get to his job interview.

The last time Neil had car trouble, Martin loaned Neil his car even before Neil asked for it.

Neil was supposed to borrow it for a few hours, but he kept it for several days, and Martin had to take the bus to work until he could get his car back.

When he finally got it back, it had two dents in the door that Neil claims were there before and refused to repair.

Martin was upset but never learned how to communicate his feelings or take care of himself in this type of situation.

His parents had taught him that it was not nice to get angry with people.
When Neil came back to borrow the car again, he tried to make Martin feel guilty and believe it would be Martin’s fault if Neil could not get to the interview.

If Martin were to feel guilty, he would be “hooked” again into the Triangle because he doesn’t know how to deal with guilt in a healthy way.

He would lend Neil the car and become the rescuer.

If Martin did not lend Neil the car this time, Neil would then make Martin into the persecutor.

Even if Martin attempts to help Neil by making suggestions to Neil about getting to the interview by bus, Neil would still find a way to blame Martin.

Neil would claim that Martin was trying to make Neil look bad by having him show up by bus.

Martin was raised in the Triangle without ever knowing it.

He was trained by his parents and his church’s standards to believe that in order for him to be good, he had to take care of other people – physically, emotionally, or spiritually – even at the cost of his own well-being.


Martin was drilled with the idea that taking care of himself was selfish and that selfishness was bad.

Therefore when Neil, the victim, approached him the first time with his tales of woe, Martin was a prime target for the manipulative hook of guilt.

Martin already believed that he should take care of other people’s problems and that if he did not, he was bad.

Because he did not wish to be cast in the bad guy, persecutor role, he quickly jumped in to rescue Neil, the victim.

He ended up doing something that was not in his best interest.

Martin did not realize that he was raised to be a rescuer.

His parents did not realize that they were teaching him not to be selfish for their own selfish reasons so that they would look good to those around them whom they wished to please.

They did not realize they were setting Martin up so that no matter what he does with Neil, he will feel awful because they raised Martin in the Triangle, and he does not know how to get out of it.

All that he knows how to do is move positions in The Triangle, but moving positions in the Triangle only produces more pain.

Image Credit

Recommended Books:

How To Break Free of the Drama Triangle and Victim Consciousness

Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed

The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments