- Many couples are stuck in a drama triangle, fluctuating between roles of victim, persecutor, and savior.
- This dynamic is a result of limiting core belief, problematic boundaries, and fuzzy communication.
- The alternative model is called the "Circle of Differentiation."
- In CD, partners shift between the roles of leaner, protector, and supporter with confidence and clarity.
Co-authored with Galit Romanelli, M.A.
Deborah isn’t happy with her husband, Gilad. She carefully chooses her words, afraid he might explode. “He’s always angry, short, and unexpected. I can never relax next to him,” she quietly shares. Gilad rolls his eyes and answers: “No matter what I do, she always interprets me as aggressive and blames me for not loving her.”
Deborah jumps up. “I’m just trying to help him, and all I get from him is pain! Please tell him that’s not how you treat a partner! Tell him this isn’t normal!” she half asks, half commands us. “Please help her understand that I’m not a violent man like she always claims!” he begs us. We take a breath and say: “You two are stuck in the victim triangle. We can help you move beyond this dynamic, if you two commit to leaving your comfort zone.”
In systemic therapy, a relationship is seen as a pattern in which both partners engage in a “dance” with complementary roles. Many couples find themselves in the drama triangle (also called "victim triangle") dynamic, shifting between the roles of victim, savior, and aggressor. The roles are not based on personality but are the result of a systemic homeostasis. In its extreme form, the drama triangle can lead to violence. This article will focus on the less extreme and more common version of this dynamic.
The drama triangle occurs in part when people struggle expressing clear boundaries, wrestle with asking for clear and explicit help, and have a core belief that others can’t take care of themselves. When people don’t learn how to express and channel their aggression positively, they bring those challenges with them into their relationships.
Deborah feels invisible, unappreciated, and under constant criticism from Gilad. Victims usually feel helpless, reactive, and trapped. As a result, they blame their partner for feeling stuck or trapped. Victims’ blindspot is their aggression: They often don’t take ownership of their passive or overt aggressive behavior, which is their way of punishing or hurting their partners.
Persecutor: “How dare you?!”
Gilad is cast as the persecutor. He uses power and guilt to manipulate Deborah. Persecutors tend to fluctuate between attacking and stonewalling. Often persecutors complain that their pain is not being heard and they are cast in a narrow role that always expects the worst in them—the family grump.
Savior: “I know what you need!”
From time to time, Deborah outdoes herself and tries to “save” Gilad by taking him to self-development workshops, giving him self-help books, and dragging him to couples therapy. The savior is sure that they know the persecutor (or victim) better than they know themselves and sacrifices their needs in order to (unsuccessfully) “save” the other. The secondary gain of the savior is a sense of moral superiority and meaning. However, because saviors aren’t good with boundaries, they often end up feeling taken for granted and/or taken advantage of, sending them into a victim role.
All three roles are unhealthy expressions of pain. Both partners in the dynamic are suffering and lonely, without mutual support and empathy. In a previous article we expanded on the dynamics and origins of the drama triangle. In this article we present an alternative to the destructive dance of the drama triangle.
The Differentiation Circle (DC)
The alternative model we developed is called the "differentiation circle". Both partners are safe and stable and remain the experts on themselves. DC strengthens their differentiation, which is the ability to remain close to oneself while being intimate with another (read more about differentiation here).
The DC helps partners express their feelings in a healthy, explicit, and respectful way. In DC, each partner is 100% responsible for their life and doesn’t need to rescue or be rescued. Instead of the roles of victim, persecutor, and savior, the couple moves between the roles of leaner, protector, and supporter.
Leaner: “I’d appreciate help with _____”
Instead of the helpless victim, the leaner remains the expert on themself. They know what they need and are not afraid to ask openly and clearly and are comfortable receiving help. They won’t collapse if they get a no. They don’t use guilt to get their way. Their request is specific: “I’d be happy if you could come home by 8 p.m. .… I’d love a hug…. I’d appreciate you picking up the kids today.”
Protector: “No, Thanks.”
Instead of attacking their partner, the protector guards their boundaries. The protector feels comfortable saying no to their partner, because they understand that saying no to their partner is saying yes to themselves. “No, I can’t come home by 8 p.m., but how about I get a babysitter? … No, I can’t give you a hug right now, but I’m happy to hold your hand… ” The protector understands that boundaries are the distance to love myself and my partner. By being clear on boundaries and limitations, they are able to say yes from a place of generosity, without slipping to the martyr role.
Supporter: “I’m here. How can I help?”
As opposed to the savior, who assumes their partner is in dire need of help and is incapable of taking care of themself, the supporter trusts that people are the experts on themselves. The supporter respects their boundaries and helps from a place of generosity, not pity. If the request is beyond their ability, then the supporter becomes the protector and respectfully says no.
The differentiation circle might seem simple but it requires daily practice so as to help rewire the brain toward a more differentiated dynamic. By actively practicing DC, you exit the drama triangle toward a more equal, intimate, and authentic relationship.
Galit Romanelli is a certified personal coach, Ph.D,-candidate, and the co-director of The Potential State.
Zimberoff, D. (1989). Breaking free from the victim trap: Reclaiming your personal power. Issaquah, WA: Wellness Press.