How to escape the drama triangle & have better relationships

I realised that constantly trying to ‘rescue’ my 20 year old son meant I was perpetuating a bad situation. I was trapped in a Drama Triangle of my own making. In this blog I explain how to escape the drama triangle and what I did to influence a change in everyone involved in mine.

The conflict between my son and husband – his stepdad was fairly long standing.  Nothing dramatic (despite the continuous triangle of drama!), just the usual mundane stuff that wears us down and causes bursts of outrage.

Leaving stuff on top of the dishwasher, not in it (I love Michael McIntyres sketch about this here, skip to 1:07).

Putting stuff in the bin, instead of recycling.

Leaving crumbs on the kitchen worktop. 

And the continuous loop of conversation was; Husband; “why don’t you just listen and do what I ask you to do?”  Son; “I didn’t mean it, I’m not that bad, I usually do it.” 

And me?  I stood on the sidelines watching the exchange and wishing they would find a way to resolve it. 

Later I would talk to my son and husband separately to try and smooth things over.  To my son – “couldn’t you just try harder?  You are cared about, you just need to adapt.”  To my husband – “My son is trying, he just doesn’t realise how annoying he is.  He feels as though you don’t care, can’t you try harder?”

And the result was never what I’d hoped for.  They were both pushed further into their defensive corners.

So, what was going on?

We all had our positions on the (Karpman) Drama Triangle. 

There are 3 positions, but the triangle can apply to any situation with 2 or more people.  

Stuck in our positions

I was the Rescuer

My Son the Victim

And my Husband the Persecutor

So, by attempting to rescue I was reinforcing the other 2 positions! 

As my son or husband became defensive, I would shift into Persecutor myself. And I attempted to appeal to them both to ‘just do as I was asking and it would all be alright.’ 

So the vicious circle (or triangle) continued, I wondered how to escape the drama triangle and I felt stuck.

When well intentioned rescuing back fires

To every well-intentioned do gooder out there, be mindful of the unintended negative impact your rescue intervention could have!

And I see this play out a lot in teams, especially with managers, who want to be helpful to their teams.  They step in and ‘solve it’, and will be frustrated when their teams don’t take responsibility and accountability. From completing a task, to stepping in to iron things out with another team member.

Inevitably this is disempowering for the person who is unintentionally placed into the ‘Victim’ position. 

Granted, the intention was positive and the outcome achieved more quickly. But the opportunity for others to develop those skills and resilience is limited.  The resolution is usually a short-term fix, with the problem resurfacing again later.

Escaping the Drama

So, the first step for me in how to escape the drama triangle was recognising the positions we were all taking.

And the next was to take ownership of my part in the triangle and consider how I could shift.

Because each position has a positive place to shift to.

After another tense interaction happened between my son and husband during the Coronavirus Lockdown, I talked to my son separately.

I moved into Coach by asking what he would like to see change and what action he could take.  He continued to be stuck in the Victim position saying – ‘he (my husband) needs to change’ and ‘I feel as though I don’t belong in the family’ (you can imagine how heart-breaking that was to hear!

I shifted to Challenger and I made my expectations clear. (Also really important when as a leader you are creating accountability).

I suggested to my son that he had the power to change his ‘story’.  He could choose to see himself as responsible and belonging in the family. Only he could make that shift.  I made it clear that it was his choice and that no-one else could make it for him. I painted a picture – a vision of what it would be like if he made a shift.

And then I stepped away and held my breath!

I had no idea whether my son would choose to behave differently.

I’m really pleased to report that he did and during lockdown I am really happy with the way their relationship has improved.

How does this apply to a team?

I’ve recounted a very personal example as it demonstrates really well the patterns we become stuck in, and how ultimately they can change.

The Drama Triangle is everywhere when you look for it!  Including in the workplace and with teams.

I know I have played every position in the Drama Triangle in many different work situations.

The first step in how to escape the drama triangle is recognising the position you are putting yourself in.

This will enable you to observe what’s going on from a slightly detached perspective.

Then you can adjust your approach and readjust if your first attempt doesn’t work. Remember I tried ‘Coach’ and shifted to ‘Challenger’.

The benefits within a team will be:

  • Accountability is encouraged
  • Resilience is developed
  • People are engaged with a future vision, more on this here
  • Influencing skills are supported

Plus – less drama!

If you would like help with how to escape the drama triangle whether at work or home, I provide one to one coaching via Zoom, where we will talk through your situation and work out an action plan.  A one hour session is £70.  I also work with teams, raising their awareness of the games we play in the workplace, so together the team will build alternative strategies and ways of working productively