The Drama Triangle: A Key Element Of Codependent Control

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I have often documented here how much control exists in codependent thinking. In contrast to their nemesis (someone with narcissist tendencies), codependents are generally nice people who are willing to do most anything for the object of their codependency (usually a partner, sometimes a parent or employer and often all three). However, that ‘most anything’ will come with a price. Most codependents are people-pleases and fixers because they want ‘return’, that is to feel secure by keeping their partner, parent, employer happy at all costs.

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This concept is at the heart of codependency. Fixing, pleasing and sacrificing in order to have some feeling of security. Unfortunately, it is often aimed at people who are emotionally distant and are not sensitive to their codependent partner. This often sets off a process known as the ‘ drama triangle’, a process that contains a myriad of emotions for a codependent. The diagram at the top of this post describes this process. Stephen Karpman developed the concept in terms of Rescuer, Persecutor and Victim for people in high conflict situations. He describes a ‘toxic dance’ where people in conflict move around the triangle, trying to get their needs met and ‘win’ the argument. There is of course, manipulation and control involved but also desperation and frustration when one partner feels dominated. In my work with codependents, I have noticed this taking place very often, especially on the codependent side. Please note that there is no fixed starting point on the triangle and it depends on the person and situation. For ease of description, I have started with one point.  Let us look at an example of rescuing.

Marie was the matriarch of the family, always ready to take over the family’s issues. They knew they could go to her at any time and she wouldn’t say no. Marie was the family member, employee who would do the most, give the most advice and would never openly complain to the rest of the family. She would also take on issues voluntarily, even when it meant her not doing some things for her that she had planned. She felt better being in this role than one where she is receiving or having things done for her which only brought up feelings of guilt or shame.

The above example is typical of someone looking for validation from others and outside themselves. They are willing to sacrifice themselves and their own needs to get that. They can often be very pushy towards others and feel a failure when help and advice is not taken. This leads to the next stage.

Marie often gets to the point where she gets frustrated that the help and advice she is giving to others appears not to be appreciated. Her expected return has not materialise and it has caused her emotional turmoil. She is starting to become resentful towards her family and colleagues and is snappy in interaction with them. When her daughter criticised her, she became angry and aggressive. instead of a tone of a helping nature, she has started to dominate conversations. When communicating with others, she has become very rigid in her thinking and outlook. Resentment is telling her that it is ‘my way or the highway’. Marie is entering a phase where she is argumentative, defensive and stubborn.

This is a difficult phase for a codependent. Her emotions are boiling over and they are being projected onto all around her. She has a strategy of doing things and fixing for others that she hopes will bring her validation and hence, increase her self-esteem. The opposite has happened in that the people around her are taking her for granted and it has caused anger and resentment to come to the surface in the form of aggressive behavior, snappy interaction and rigid rules placed on others. The next stage quickly follows.

Marie lays in bed at night torturing herself about the way she has spoken to her family and colleagues. Her inner critic is telling her how bad she is and that she has to make amends. She feels as if she needs to make amends to them and is thinking about, once again, fixing and sacrificing herself to do this. There is a myriad of emotions coming up. Guilt, shame, self-disgust and pity. She wants someone to fix it for her and reaches out to friends. She feels stuck a unable to make a decision about what to do next. She feels a victim and that all the good she does brings her nothing. 

Marie is at a crossroads. She will either stay stuck and stay in her victimhood or more likely move into the rescuing mode again. Either way she will feel anxiety and hopelessness.

Marie needs to acknowledge that this is a cycle and she is part of it, so becoming aware of how she behaves and thinks in each phase. Only when awareness is there, can an opportunity for change appear. The next stage is to learn to ‘step out’ of the circle by setting boundaries and calming the child-like voices that drive the drama triangle. The idea is to allow others to take responsibility and to work on sacrificing. This can be done generally by promoting an adult or mentoring inner voice that helps to recognise and challenge irrational thinking. This is where professional help might be needed.

Join Dr Jenner’s Online Group Therapy – Starting April 18, 2021. Sometimes, it helps to know that others are going through similar experiences. Group therapy is designed for you to interact with others in similar circumstances and share your story with them. Join four other codependents in a series of four intensive, totally private, 90 minute sessions, facilitated by me, to learn how you can cope and recover from codependency by learning the background and effective tools and methods. Why just talk, why not learn? Find out more.

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Dr. Nicholas Jenner, a therapist, coach, and speaker, has over 20 years of experience in the field of therapy and coaching. His specialty lies in treating codependency, a condition that is often characterized by a compulsive dependence on a partner, friend, or family member for emotional or psychological sustenance. Dr. Jenner's approach to treating codependency involves using Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, a treatment method that has gained widespread popularity in recent years. He identifies the underlying causes of codependent behavior by exploring his patients' internal "parts," or their different emotional states, to develop strategies to break free from it. Dr. Jenner has authored numerous works on the topic and offers online therapy services to assist individuals in developing healthy relationships and achieving emotional independence.

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