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How to Stop Your Relationship Drama

In the 1960s, Transaction Analysis (TA) theory, based on the work of Psychiatrist Dr. Eric Berne, was popular. Berne simplified and made available to the ordinary person the work of Sigmund Freud. One of Berne’s prodigies, Dr. Stephen Karpman, developed the drama triangle, a tool that took TA from a theory to practical application. The model describes three unconscious and habitual behavioral habits or roles which people often play out or enact in their relationships. It helps you to move out of relationship drama by no longer enacting the roles of victim, attacker, or rescuer.

Here is how:

1. The Victim in relationship drama. The person who enacts this role believes life - through a person, condition or circumstance - is unfair to them. This position is supported by self-fulfilling stories about injustice and negative self-talk, such as, ‘If only X had not happened, I would not be miserable.’ Behavior may include passivity, curling into self, and slumped posture.

The victim believes life is just happening to them; they have no power over what happens and what happens is never their fault.

The basic belief of the victim is, ‘Poor me. I am hopeless. I am helpless.’ Another basic belief is, ‘I am not okay, while you are definitely okay.'

A title for the victim’s theme could be: ‘I will die if you don’t solve my problem!’

Ask yourself these five questions to check how often you play the victim:

1. Do I feel hopeless, powerless or incapable of making decisions or making positive changes?

2. Do I believe my life is just one problem after another?

3. Do I manipulate others or use guilt to get help or get what I want?

4. Do I blame others or circumstances for my difficulties?

5. Do I focus on my problems?

2. The Attacker (Persecutor or Blamer) in relationship drama. The person who enacts this role tries to control, criticize or bully the victim. They believe they have power over the victim. Behavior may include bossiness, criticism, rigidity, and insistence on how a problem should be solved.

From the victim’s perspective, persecution may also come from a condition, such as an illness, or circumstance, such as drought.

The basic belief of the persecutor is, ‘You are not okay. I am better than okay, so do what I tell you to do.’

A title for the persecutor theme could be: ‘It’s all your fault that I have a problem!’

Ask yourself these four questions to check how often you are the attacker:

1. Do I tell others what to do to solve their problems?

2. Do I see others as powerless, incapable, and needing to be fixed?

3. Do I criticize others?

4. Do I speak and act in a rigid, dominating, or bossy manner?

3. The Rescuer in relationship drama. The person who enacts this role intrudes on situations professing a desire to help. Note: This role does not refer to legitimate emergency rescuing.

The rescuer feels compelled or manipulated to help the victim. They believe they are responsible for the outcome and the victim’s problem. Often, an underlying motivation to rescue is to feel superior or in control.

The basic belief of the rescuer is, ‘You are not okay, but I am nice. I will help you.’

The title for the rescuer’s theme could be: ‘You’re so messed up. Let me fix the problem and you.

Ask yourself these five questions to check how often you play the rescuer:

1. Do I accept responsibility for fixing problems that are not mine?

2. Do I believe I cannot say no to a request for help?

3. Do I feel guilty when I say no to a request for help and end up helping nevertheless?

4. Do I perceive others as incapable of making good decisions or of helping themselves?

5. Do I perceive others as needing to be fixed or their lives needing to be fixed?

Typically, the players move around the drama triangle, switching roles. For example, the victim may turn into the persecutor or the rescuer might switch to persecutor. In actuality, each person is playing out their dysfunctional pattern. They are attempting to receive the kind of attention or control each unconsciously desires. Think of the melodrama of a damsel in distress looking for a prince to rescue her or the poor-me grandmother desiring attention from her family or the critical father who does not feel appreciated.

Nine dynamics of relationship drama:

1. Problems are the main focus.

2. Typical behaviors include blaming, complaining, pitying, manipulating, guilt provoking.

3. Feelings include frustration, anger, guilt, resentment, entitlement, hopelessness, oppressed.

4. Power is experienced as either feeling powerless or feeling powerful over others.

5. Responsibility ownership is not clear. Individuals may blame themselves, others, or the situation rather than take appropriate responsibility for their part in the situation.

6. Relationship boundaries are vague, unclear, and inconsistent.

7. Expectations of self and others are unknown and/or unexpressed.

8. Actions are reactive to circumstances and problems.

9. Outcomes affect no real change and often result in emotional pain and dissatisfying relationships.

Remember! You can move out of relationship drama by no longer enacting the roles of the victim, the attacker, or the rescuer.

The empowerment triangle

There are three healthy alternatives to enacting the victim, persecutor or rescuer roles. Knowing and putting these alternatives into action will help you better stay
out of a dysfunctional relationship pattern. They will help you establish healthier and effective ways to speak, listen, and connect.

1. Move from the Victim to the Survivor/Thriver.

People who consider themselves survivors, or even better, thrivers, focus on goals and outcomes, and see problems as challenges. Consequently, they see opportunities for learning and growth.

The survivor accepts personal responsibility and is accountable for herself and her actions.

The survivor believes, ‘I always have choices. I have the power to create a future not bound by my past.’

Ask yourself these eight questions to check how often you use the behaviors of a survivor/thriver:

1. Do I have a sense of purpose or a passion that gives meaning to my life?

2. Do I have goals in regard to the person I want to be, have, and do?

3. Am I committed to my goals and work consistently toward them?

4. Do I thoughtfully evaluate my current situation?

5. Do I preview and review my choices and actions to make sure they are goal-focused?

6. Do I daily demonstrate that I am responsible for myself and am accountable for my actions?

7. Do I actively learn from my experiences by gaining insight, knowledge, and skills so I do not repeat mistakes?

8. Do I face the difficult aspects about myself and my habits?

2. Move from the Attacker/Persecutor to the Challenger.

People who challenge are willing to appropriately confront others with the truth. They avoid blaming, criticizing, and judging. 

The challenger uses assertive communication: For example, they will use “I” Statements, such as, “I feel _____ (emotion) _______ when/because ________ (behavior) _______.  I request ________ (different behavior) __________.”

Challengers believe: ‘I assertively confront behaviors in myself and others that are negatively impacting me.’

Challengers can help others correct mistakes. They can also help others avoid disaster or significant problems.

Ask yourself these four questions to check how often you use the behaviors of a challenger:

1. Do I use assertive communication?

2. Do I confront behaviors but accept the person without judgment?

3. Do I accept conditions and circumstances that cannot be changed while making the best of the situation?

4. Do I state my expectations and boundaries clearly?

3. Move from the Rescuer to the Coach.

People who coach listen deeply and acknowledge the experiences and feelings of others.

Coaches ask good questions to help others survive
and thrive.

Coaches believe: ‘I can listen with empathy to you, but I cannot solve your problems.’

Ask yourself these six questions to check how often you use the behaviors of a coach:

1. Do I say no to requests for help when I do not willingly and freely want to help? Or perhaps I don’t have the skills to effectively help.

2. Do I listen deeply and with empathy?

3. Do I acknowledge what others are experiencing and feeling?

4. Do I ask good questions to help others clarify their goals? For example, “What do you want to happen?” or, “What is your plan?”

5. Do I ask good questions to help others assess their current situation? For example, “What is getting in the way of achieving your goal?”

6. Do I ask good questions to elicit actions? For example, “What do you need to do next?” “What is one step you can take toward your goal?”

Results of the empowerment triangle

Here are nine other dynamics related to the empowerment triangle:

1. Goals and outcomes are the main focus.

2. Typical behaviors include self-awareness, accountability, assertiveness with clear communication, empathizing, and active (deep) listening.

3. Feelings include a sense of passion and purpose, hope, and self-empowerment.

4. Power is primarily personal power and perceiving others as equally powerful.

5. Responsibility ownership is clear. Individuals only accept responsibility, own their actions and the consequential results.

6. Relationship boundaries are clear, consistent, and maintained.

7. Expectations of self and others are known and expressed.

8. Actions are thoughtfully chosen and focused on goals.

9. Outcomes effect positive change and often result in movement towards goals, personal growth and learning, resiliency to circumstances beyond one’s control and more satisfying relationships.

Remember! You can move out of relationship drama by no longer enacting the roles of victim, attacker, or rescuer.

Patricia is a professional speaker and an award-winning author. Her inspirations, stories, and solutions are developed from solid research and extensive training in the field of humanistic psychology, positive psychology, and resiliency. To book Patricia, an upbeat, energetic presenter who will show you how to strengthen personal and everyday resilience at work or at home, or to purchase her books, visit solutionsforresilience.com. 

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