The Family in Addiction and Recovery – Part II

Karpman’s Triangle

Welcome back to our 3-part series about the family in addiction and recovery. In our last post, we explored some ways that addiction is damaging to family members and the family unit as a whole. Today, we’re going to look at some habitual patterns that can get in the way of a sustained and healthy recovery for all members. While there are numerous approaches to looking at these kinds of patterns, we’ll be focusing on one – Karpman’s Triangle.

Karpman’s Triangle, which is also called the Drama Triangle, was originally conceived by Dr. Stephen B. Karpman in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The triangle describes the roles individuals play in conflict, but in a family touched by addiction, it’s common to see these roles play out in daily life. The three roles are the Persecutor, the Rescuer, and the Victim.

Here are a few things to know before we jump in:

  1. No role is healthier than another,
  2. These roles are learned and don’t speak to any individual’s worth or lack thereof,
  3. These roles are not fixed; anyone can take on a role, and “players” can switch roles at any time, though individuals tend to gravitate toward 1 role more than others,
  4. These roles and their associated behaviors may be largely unconscious and are most strongly activated under stress.

Let’s look at the individual roles:

  • The Persecutor: When someone is in the Persecutor role, they are taking what’s called a one-up or power-over position. The Persecutor uses blame (“It’s your fault”) and anger. The Persecutor may be loud and aggressive, sarcastic, or silent. They can be controlling, rigid, oppressive, and superior. What we typically call passive-aggressive behavior still falls under the role of the Persecutor. The Persecutor needs a Victim.
  • The Rescuer: The Rescuer role is often the most difficult to identify as unhealthy because they can appear to simply be trying to be helpful, but this is another one-up or power-over position. The Rescuer deflects away from their own insecurities and discomfort by focusing on others (“I can fix this”). This is the classic “enabler” role. Some behaviors include overgiving of time, energy, money and other resources, problem-solving for others, often without permission, and excusing and justifying poor behaviors of others. The Rescuer needs a Victim.
  • The Victim: The Victim in this model doesn’t represent someone who is being victimized in the moment, but feels and acts like a victim in transactions with others. The Victim is a one-down and power-under role whose habitual approach is self-pity. They may feel oppressed, helpless, overwhelmed, powerless, and ashamed. The Victim needs a Persecutor (someone who “made” them feel this way or that) and also a Rescuer (someone to help them).

In a family, Karpman’s Triangle is almost like a long-practiced dance, and the dance steps have become solidified over time. When addiction is added to the mix, the worry, fear, shame, and stress can intensify the dance. In early recovery, while  healthy changes may be taking place for all members of the family, there can also be added stressors. Time schedules may be altered while one family member engages in treatment, meetings, and new, sober social activities.  Everyone might be trying out new boundaries. Finances may be tight. Emotions might be bubbling to the surface that have never been dealt with before. These are only a few examples.

Anytime stress is increased, it becomes more likely that people will fall into old habits. The roles on the triangle are just that – old habits. Even when family members are trying to work together to heal from the active addiction, these old habits can surface. Though relapse to active substance use isn’t guaranteed, the pathway to relapse can become slippery. Anytime we engage in Karpman’s Triangle, it’s (1) a sign that we’re running on stress and (2) we risk sliding into more hurt feelings, guilt, regret, shame, and resentment, and these uncomfortable emotions increase stress thus increasing the chance that relapse into active use may happen.

Karpman’s Triangle is not abnormal. In fact, there’s a good chance that you’ve seen it play out at work, at school, and in other arenas. Lots of people play the Triangle roles. In a family trying to recover from the damage of addiction, Karpman’s Triangle is both common and something to watch out for. The first step off the triangle is recognizing the roles that you play and when you’re most likely to play them. Another step is to talk openly about how the triangle works in your family and to get help to communicate together in healthy ways. Finally, each member needs to (1) address addiction’s impact on their lives, (2) learn alternate behavior patterns, and (3) move through and manage distress.

We’ll talk more about the help that is available to families and their members in our next post: Addiction and the Family – Getting Help.

If you or a loved one is struggling with the use of alcohol or drugs, please reach out for help. You can visit the SAMHSA treatment locator for help locating an appropriate treatment facility. You are also welcome and encouraged to reach out to us at 1-888-448-LUNA (5862).  Our trained professionals are happy to help.