Get off the Drama Triangle to Save your Relationship

When people relate to each other, we can get polarised into unhealthy positions that don’t make for a healthy, close connection. The Drama Triangle is one model that explains the mess we can sometimes get into with people we care about. The three parts of the triangle are Victim, Bully, Rescuer.

This can play out in arguments, for example, we hear our partner say something, and we perceive it as a criticism or an attack. Our partner is placed in our mind as the bully, and we move into the victim part of the triangle. From the victim stance we think or say things like “Why do you always put me down’, “This relationship is terrible”, “How could you treat me like this if you loved me?” Our partner might  get defensive when they hear this and then try to protect themselves with what feels like more bullying, “I didn’t mean it”, “You’re too sensitive”.  At this point, you might swap into a bully role yourself “You always blame me and never take accountability”, “You’re gaslighting me”, which sends your partner into the victim role, showing upset or shutdown. Which might send you into the rescuer role, trying to console them, or backtracking on what you said.

There are many ways we can jump from different roles back and forward, but whatever version you play out, you are still stuck in the drama. Maybe it settles for a few days, but the hurt feelings remain, and when one of you says something that is perceived as a criticism or attack- you jump back on and play out the same old patterns again.

This model was outlined by Stephen Karpman to describe the power struggles that people can get into. (

This does not describe genuinely abusive relationships where there is a victim and a perpetrator, this model and blog describes relationships that are usually loving and equal, but become stuck in power struggles where both parties feel criticised or put down at times.

The roles can become entrenched over time:


This role isn’t a genuine attempt to support the other person out of their pain, it is a ‘one up’ position to feel superior to the other person and to avoid more conflict. When people go into this role a lot (often learnt in childhood), they put other’s needs before their own, playing the ‘benevolent leader’, doing more than a fair share, feeling needed and wanted – but this can build resentment over time, which can boil to a point where the rescuer becomes the bully. (Often pushing the victim into the rescuer role).


You are in the victim part of the triangle when you are feeling blamed, and internally might be feeling some shame, which often originates in past experiences from childhood. This is a ‘one down’ position. Perceived criticism triggers old feelings of not feeling good enough, and these difficult feelings are understandably uncomfortable. Sometimes the victim gets tired of being ‘looked down on’ by the rescuer- and then the victim lashes out- becoming the bully.


Originally called Perpetrator in Karpman’s model. This role is about protecting yourself from discomfort and pain, a ‘one up’ position. When in this position, it feels justified, as you have been feeling stuck as victim or rescuer. Lashing out is a way to feel better and block feelings of shame, pain and powerlessness, which can also be old feelings from childhood. Defensiveness helps us to regain power, it’s not very effective or a conscious decision- but there is a sense “I need to hurt them before they hurt me”.

Getting off the Triangle

To get off the triangle, when we feel criticised or offended by our partner, we  try to not move into a ‘one down’ position of victim, or a ‘one up’ position of bully. Instead, we need to go within and be with ourselves and the trigger we just experienced.

There is a saying in counselling ‘Name it to Tame it’.

We say in our heads, or even to our partner ‘I’m noticing what was said was felt as a criticism’. In a healthy adult relationship- we recognise that our triggers are our own responsibility to work through. We can check with our partner if they meant to criticise, and we recognise that perhaps they were triggered themselves for some reason- we stand alongside our partner, and let them be responsible for their own feelings. Perhaps we can take some responsibility for whatever triggered us, even a drop of accountability can defuse the situation. It might sound like, “You have a point, I did do that”, or “I can see how you might have thought that, would it be okay if I explain my intentions behind that?”

Getting off the triangle means that each person is responsible for their own feelings. It is up to us to share our needs and feelings with our partner, and to let our partner take responsibility to express and look after their own feelings and needs. Couples that can do this can reach a greater depth of connection and can achieve a more authentic relationship.

Reflect on which part of the triangle is your ‘go to’, and if you think that the drama triangle is playing out in your relationship, book a session of relationship counselling to learn how to ‘get off’ the triangle, and into an interdependent and healthy relationship dynamic. Book with Ella Now

Get off the Drama Triangle to Save your Relationship

When people relate to each other, we can get polarised into unhealthy positions that don’t make for a healthy, close connection. The Drama Triangle is one model that explains the mess we can sometimes get into with people we care about. The three parts of the triangle...

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