5 Strategies for Escaping the Triangle of Dysfunctional Relationships

Have you found yourself stuck in an unhealthy relationship pattern from which you cannot break free? If so, then chances are you’ve taken on one or more roles from the Triangle of Dysfunctional Relationships (also known as the “Drama Triangle” developed by Dr. Stephen Karpman). The triangle is a common denominator in dysfunctional families, whether there is active addiction in the home or not. The three roles of the triangle are the “Perpetrator,” the “Rescuer,” and the “Victim.”

The “Rescuer” and “Victim” are my go-to roles. I learned them quite well in my family of origin. My mom was a “Victim,” a woman who saw herself as helpless and mistreated; she was also an alcoholic. This meant that I didn’t receive what I needed in terms of love and acceptance from her. Essentially, I felt that I needed to “rescue” her in order to keep her from drinking more. I believed that if I took care of my sister well enough that my mom would notice and love me—and maybe wouldn’t need to drink anymore. 

That strategy did not work, of course. 

My sister was a “Perpetrator,” meaning she “perpetrated” harm on others. She believed the world was dangerous and used fear and intimidation to keep me in my place. Her emotional abuse combined with my mom’s alcoholism caused me to switch between the roles of “Rescuer” (rescuing my mom from her own drinking/victimization) and “Victim” (feeling victimized due to my sister’s emotional abuse) for years until I found recovery.

This triangulation shows up everywhere in my family history. I’ve also seen it in my relationship with my brother who used intermittent fear and praise to draw me into a physically and emotionally abusive relationship (the role of “Perpetrator”), which has unfortunately impacted almost all of my relationships with other males. 

The Triangle of Dysfunctional Relationships is quite a scary place to be, especially for a vulnerable child in need of unconditional love, protection, and support from his or her caregivers. But the good news is that we don’t have to stay locked in the triangle. Through our Catholic faith and 12-step recovery, there is a way out.

5 Strategies for Escaping the Triangle

If you are consistently experiencing fear, obligation, and/or guilt (FOG) then you are probably inside a dysfunctional triangle. The simple answer? Get out of the FOG and stop allowing yourself to be manipulated and/or to manipulate others!

For some of us, it might even be easier to see and repent from our own manipulative behaviors than to see and free ourselves from the manipulation of others. In recovery, we often ask God to show us our character flaws and help us treat others with dignity and respect. On the other hand, if we are being manipulated by someone else—especially someone who is still in active addiction and/or an abuser—escaping the FOG can be difficult. Below are five strategies for escaping it (these are adapted from the article “Breaking Out of the Drama Triangle”).

Notice the Pattern – Stand back and observe yourself. Are you repeating a pattern? If so, then most likely you are being triggered in some way that relates to your childhood. In order to change the pattern, you need to first identify it. ACA recovery is very helpful for this. Once you are aware of your “role” in this pattern you can learn to play a different and healthier one.

Don’t Get Hooked into the Drama – Try not to become defensive. Keep a neutral attitude. Even if you feel defensive, DO NOT act from that mental state. Use a non-reactive, non-emotional, easy-going tone with the other person (or people). Make statements that de-escalate the conflict (such as perhaps you’re right, that could be, interesting point, etc.).

You’re Not a Victim – If you find yourself feeling like a victim, learn to take responsibility for yourself instead of blaming others for how your life is turning out. Even if you truly are the victim, do not conclude that you are powerless to take care of yourself under any circumstances. Learn self-care and reparenting techniques. Remind yourself that you will figure out how to solve your problems with God’s help.

Stop “Rescuing” – If you find yourself feeling like you’re taking on too much responsibility, back off. Allow others to take responsibility for themselves. Sometimes others need to face consequences for their own decisions. Remind yourself that you are not responsible for other people’s choices, not even those of your own children. This goes for any other relationship as well. When you constantly “rescue” others you are implicitly signaling to them that they are not competent enough to handle matters themselves.

Practice Self-care – Learn to love and care for yourself. Focus on your own emotional and spiritual growth, acknowledging God’s compassion and care for you as well as His desire that you treat yourself, His beloved son or daughter, with compassion, forgiveness, and a loving attitude.

Born and raised Catholic, Chloe is an adult child of alcoholics who recently rediscovered the beauty of 12-step recovery through attending Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA) and Catholic in Recovery meetings. For many years, Chloe was an Evangelical Christian before the Blessed Mother, the saints, and the witness of a dear friend eventually drew her back to the Catholic faith.