Rescuer, Persecutor, Victim triangle

Dysfunactionl Triangle

June 20, 2022

By Andy F

Categories: Relationships

The Karpman drama triangle

Relationships and Alcoholism

I had been in AA for many years before hearing of the Rescuer, Persecutor, Victim Triangle. What was it? It sounded familiar, but I did not understand what it meant. This interpersonal dynamic is also known as the Karpman drama triangle. Many alcoholics who are sober in AA grew up in dysfunctional families. Parents were sometimes alcoholics themselves and were unable to model functional relationships for their children. The following quote from Wikipedia describes the psychodynamics of a dysfunctional relationship:

“The triangle maps a type of destructive interaction that can occur among people in conflict. The drama triangle model is a tool used in psychotherapy, specifically transactional analysis. The triangle of actors in the drama are persecutors, victims, and rescuers” Wikipedia.

Karpman also proposed that the roles of Rescuer, Victim, and Persecutor are interchangeable. These behavior patterns create unhealthy dynamics in a family system or an intimate partnership. They make a genuine attempt at happiness and intimacy impossible. “These roles were not undertaken in an “honest” manner to resolve the presenting problem” Wikipedia.

When I discovered the triangle idea, I couldn’t deny that it was a blueprint for my marriage. Sadly, it collapsed in early recovery. After that, I had one relationship after another. They were all short-lived and ended in tears. This “Bermuda Triangle” of dysfunctional relationships was the cause of misery and relapse in my recovery from alcoholism.

A therapist drops a bombshell.

Following the break-up with my wife, I decided to go into group therapy. At the time, I wasn’t interested in the steps or sponsorship. I found a therapist called Liz. She was very skilled and experienced. She specialized in working with addicts and alcoholics in 12-step recovery. One day, in the group, she told us all something very shocking.

“Addiction to alcohol and drugs is an attempt at a relationship.” 

I was stunned! How right she was. I didn’t have girlfriends. Instead, I became intimately involved with alcohol and drugs. They were a substitute for a girlfriend. I was, of course, utterly loyal in this relationship. There was no one else. Just me, alcohol, and drugs!

Codependency in recovery

All I did was therapy for my first thirteen years in AA. Because I grew up in care, I told myself that I was different from other addicts and alcoholics in recovery. The twelve steps may work for them, but my case was unique.

As a dry alcoholic without a program, my sober life was chaotic and unmanageable. I didn’t have a sponsor or faith in any higher power. Women and sex became ‘powers greater’ than me. Like so many of my brothers and sisters in recovery, I jumped on the bandwagon of sex and love addiction.

Relationships and relapse

I had one girlfriend after another. Every relationship was as dysfunctional as the one before it.

“The primary fact that we fail to recognize is our total inability to form a true partnership with another human being.”

(12&12 p.53)

I was trying to become a whole person in the arms of a woman. The old-timers used to say that if I wanted a healthy relationship, first, I would have to develop one with myself and a higher power. I wasn’t interested in a spiritual solution. A girlfriend was all that I wanted!

I would manipulate my way into the affections of women. The only thing I had to offer was dishonesty. I was willing to go to any lengths to medicate loneliness and inner emptiness. In terms of my addictive patterns, there was no difference between addiction to alcohol or relationships. It was about fixing myself with a person instead of a substance.

The question of honesty in relationships

The first paragraph of Chapter Five of the Big Book eventually gave me the answer I sought. Dishonesty in relationships made it impossible to create anything meaningful.

“Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves.”

(BB p.58)

In Karpman’s own words when describing the rescuer, victim, and persecutor dance: “These roles were not undertaken in an “honest” manner to resolve the presenting problem” Wikipedia.

The Victim 

I gained critical and life-saving insights while working on steps four and five. Since childhood, I learned to see myself as a victim. As I grew into adulthood, I acted out this negative belief system in most interactions with other people. My AA sponsor told me plainly: Get rid of the victim belief system, and your relationships will improve.”

The rescuer

In my book, The Twelve Steps for Agnostics, I make the following statement:

“In stark contrast to the first promise, which is coming to know “a new freedom and a new happiness,” was the reality that I had always been a slave to all my addictions. Besides alcohol, there were many others. My addiction to food and sugar started by the time I was eight years old, followed later on by an addiction to drugs and codependent relationships.  In recovery, I got addicted to rescuing people.”

It became apparent that I had also learned to be a rescuer besides being a victim. My alcoholic mother was always unhappy. It was my job to save her from her hopelessness and despair. This well-practiced role would attract helpless victims. Looking back, going in as a rescuer was merely a manipulation. I wasn’t aware of this then, but a hidden agenda lay behind these valiant rescue attempts. In trying to help others, I, too, was looking to be rescued from my emptiness and loneliness. Behind the rescuer lay a needy victim. It kept the dysfunctional triangle alive and mutually dysfunctional.

The persecutor

When in the role of persecutor, the agenda was the same but with a different approach. As a persecutor, I would disempower the victims so they wouldn’t abandon me. The fear of being alone again would drive me to control and intimidate. 

The role of persecutor would make me feel more secure. “They won’t leave me if I take their power away completely.” Sometimes, the roles would switch. The victim would suddenly turn into the persecutor.

When trapped in the Karpman triangle, no genuine love existed. It was all about neediness. The driving force of this type of relationship was a powerful need to fix each other’s chronic insecurities. At other times, the persecutor would start to resent the victim and the rescuer for not being their idealized fantasy of the perfect partner. Unmet expectations could often evoke aggression and abuse.

The solution

I went to meetings regularly and managed to put together a few years of sobriety. After losing my first sponsor, I met Jamie. He was a sponsor who was very committed to working the twelve steps. Jamie took sponsees through the steps exactly as described in the Big Book. By that time, I had written several step fours using various techniques. No other method of doing step four kept me sober nor helped me address my other problems. How Bill presents the fourth step in the Big Book revolutionized my recovery.

Step Four

Jamie showed me Bill’s method of doing step four, which is in five columns:

Column 1: – The person(s), place, institution, or thing I resent.

Column 2: – What specific harm did they cause?

Column 3: – Which of these six instincts were affected?

1) Personal relations

2) sex relations

3) self–esteem

4) security

5) ambition

6) finances

We find the fourth and fifth columns on page 67 of the Big Book. The relevant paragraph that saved my life as a committed victim begins with:

“Referring to our list again”……..

In this paragraph, Bill poses five questions.

Column 4 – Where was I selfish, dishonest, self-seeking, and frightened? Where was my mistake?

Column 5 – Jamie explained that when answering the five answers, they should be specific to the actual resentment in the first column

When I was in the middle of my 4th and 5th step, Jamie said: “The purpose of the 4th and 5th step, Andy, is to begin dismantling your victim belief system.At the time, his words meant very little.

As a victim, I kept the toxic triangle alive and mutually destructive. Jamie made me aware that the victim belief system is the driving force of all three roles in the dysfunctional relationship triangle. The prisons, he said, are full of persecutors that were once victims in childhood.

The magic of Bill’s 5th column in step four

The fifth column (BB p. 67) of the fourth step helped me to see myself and my past through a new pair of glasses. It was like a controlled demolition of the victim’s belief system. I gradually began to see the world through the eyes of an adult and not a wounded child. My distorted perception of reality began to change, and with it, my relationships with women. I began to grow up!

The more I learned to live in the truth of the 5th column, the less I saw myself as a victim. Steps four and five were like laser surgery. They did for me in several months what ten years of therapy failed to do. Was it the fault of therapy? Not at all! I played all of my therapists like a piano. As an addict and alcoholic, I was highly manipulative and dishonest. I paid them good money to confirm that, yes, indeed, I was a poor victim. All I was looking for was sympathy.

Food for thought

Over the years, despite still identifying as an agnostic, I have thought a lot about the following statement made by Bill in the Big Book:

“When the spiritual malady is overcome, we straighten out mentally and physically.”

(BB p. 64)

Could it be that the “rescuer, persecutor, victim triangle” has its roots in the spiritual illness described by Bill?

A possible answer

I was shocked when I considered the possibilities. Could the victim be desperate to be rescued from their inner emptiness? Moreover, could it be that the rescuer is also seeking a sense of acceptance and validation? Did a lack of self-acceptance and emptiness also drive the rescuer’s role?

Why is the persecutor addicted to the power they feel when abusing their victims? Could their addiction to power be just compensation for their lack of personal power? Does this powerlessness in the persecutor also have its roots in a poor self-image, thus creating an inner vacuum? I wondered if loneliness and neediness drive these three roles. Could this type of inner emptiness describe “the spiritual malady.” (BB p 64) that Bill describes in The AA Big Book? If that is true, perhaps the solution to recover from the Karpman triangle is spirituality, more so than psychology.

An entire psychic change

Through the twelve steps, I experienced the “entire psychic change” that Doctor Silkworth writes about in The Doctor’s opinion. Without this radical transformation, the good doctor writes that there is very little hope that the alcoholic will recover.

“Unless this person can experience an entire psychic change, this is very little hope of his recovery” (BB p xxix)

AA’s spiritual program of action helped me to recover from twenty years of active alcoholism. What is also truly wonderful is this. The “psychic change” has, to a great extent, healed my inability to “form a true partnership with another human being.” (12&12 p. 53) I am now happily sober. The AA program has not only kept me sober, but it has also released me from the “rescuer, persecutor, victim triangle.”

In fellowship

Andy F

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