The Drama Triangle & The Games People Play

Posted at 14:30pm on 11th January 2010

I looked, a couple of days ago, at Transactional Analysis – the Drama Triangle in particular:

  • First as a means of conflict resolution for those experiencing problems with their personal relationships.
  • And second – for writers and aspiring authors – as an innovative way of creating fictional characters.


The theory of transactional analysis is that in our normal, everyday, relationships, we are all involved in playing one of three roles: Parent, Adult, Child. I’ve explained this in my article titled: Conflict Resolution: Relationship Psychology - And Creating Fictional Characters and I would suggest that you read this before continuing with the article below.

The Drama Triangle, identified by Stephen Karpman, is used to portray rather more dysfunctional relationships. Understanding how it works also has a dual role:

  • As a valuable lesson in relationship psychology which may be applied to the personal relationships in your life.
  • As a brilliant and plausible way for an author to add to the conflict between characters when writing and publishing a book.


The example I gave in my last article was inspired by one of my readers, and is featured in Readers’ Letters. It describes a scenario between two elderly parents which, when one of them was taken out of the equation, had repercussions on their adult daughter.

The mother – perhaps because she had lost her father whilst still a young child, and certainly because she had been the spoiled youngest daughter – had created a relationship with her husband whereby she was the Victim (in need of help and support) and he was her Rescuer (the one who was both to provide her need and to ensure that others did, too).

Every now and then, this would backfire and he would lose both his patience and his temper (thus switching from Rescuer to Persecutor in the triangle). At this point, if playing the Victim failed to produce the results mum wanted, she would become the Persecutor (by going off for the day and making dad feel guilty) and he would thus become the Victim. The Drama, according to their daughter, was played out throughout her life.

The illustration I shall use today is similar, though not identical, to that of another reader who wrote to Dear Mel – Abusive Relationships & Those Trapped In Them. This takes place between a couple who used to live in France.


In this case, the husband – let’s call him Anton – chooses to conduct all his relationships in the role of Rescuer. This is as powerful a position as that of Persecutor, because both demand a Victim. There is no altruism (selflessness) in a Rescuer; the need to be playing this role is entirely self-serving. The person whose natural inclination it is to be a Rescuer on the Drama Triangle, is playing out his own insecurity. Becoming a Rescuer makes him feel good about himself, thus reducing his sense of inadequacy.

Anton had a less than satisfactory childhood. As the younger son in a rural culture which favours the firstborn male, he began life at a disadvantage. However, he must have discovered at some point in his life that always being available to help out – i.e. being a Rescuer – made him a popular friend and neighbour. Now adult, Anton is seen, in his community, as kind, and generous to a fault.

Certainly that was how his English girlfriend, Jane, saw him. And because her father had indulged in extra-marital affairs and left home when Jane was only a girl, it was only to be expected that she would bask in Anton’s care and attention. When Jane married Anton, she felt truly loved.


Problems began almost immediately, however, though Jane did not recognise them at the time. In order to maintain their role on the Drama Triangle, Rescuers need Victims in need of rescue! Anton, a ‘natural’ Rescuer, constructed a regime whereby Jane – willingly, or unwillingly – became his Victim (i.e. in need of rescue).

He dissuaded her from going to French classes; she didn’t need to, he said; her schoolgirl French was good enough and, besides, he could translate for her. But the fact is that he didn’t! When their children were born, Anton spoke only in French with them. Jane began to find herself at a disadvantage. Living in a rural community, miles from anywhere, she had had little opportunity to make friends. Now, she found herself unable to understand her children’s teachers, homework, or school plays. She felt increasingly isolated.

Jane was a well-educated young woman. Even though she loved her husband and was determined to make a go of their marriage, she found waiting on Anton hand and foot less than satisfying. She began to consider taking a job. However, her language deficiencies were against her. Besides, whenever she tried to stand up for herself, Anton would send her to Coventry – behaving as if she didn’t exist, sometimes for weeks on end. The only means of reconciliation was for Jane to grovel and beg forgiveness. This put her in Victim mode (she needed Anton to ‘rescue’ her with his forgiveness) and him in Rescuer mode once more!

Anton always maintained a gentle manner. It wasn’t difficult for him because it reinforced the power invested in him as Jane’s Rescuer. If she was upset, he could console her. If she was humbled, he could forgive her. And if she stood up to him for her rights, he could become her Persecutor – making life unbearable for her by maintaining what he would call a ‘dignified’ silence for days on end. In whatever scenario presented itself, Jane was ultimately forced to play the role of Victim either to Anton’s Rescuer or Persecutor mode.


The games people play have often been laid down in childhood. Your negative self-belief may have begun when one or other of your parents stuck a label on you: stupid; incompetent; lazy; fat. You’ve worn that label ever since, and there’s no reason for you to disbelieve it. Consequently, all your adult relationships are skewed by this view of yourself.

But this is not always the case. In the illustration I’ve used above, it was not Jane’s perception of herself which distorted her relationship with Anton, but his perception of her. Knowing that her parents were divorced, he believed Jane was a natural Victim: someone whose past had hurt and damaged her; someone who was, therefore, in need of being rescued!

This would make her attractive to him because her supposed neediness would make him feel good about himself. Unaware of this when they met, Jane mistook Anton’s ‘love’ and ‘care’ as the genuine article. Once she realised how smothering his mode of loving actually was and began to stand up for herself, he increasingly took on the role of Persecutor. In this mode, he would attempt to make her a Victim again by telling her, disparagingly, that her ‘aggression’ was due to her having grown up in a ‘dysfunctional’ family.

There was nothing in Anton that encouraged Jane to be herself, to fulfil her potential, because to do so would mean that she could stand on her own two feet. She would no longer be a Victim. She would no longer need to be rescued. She would no longer need him to be her Rescuer!


No one needs to be stuck on the Drama Triangle! It requires an understanding of the relationship psychology, plus a good deal of effort to take yourself out of the never-ending scenario of the games people play. However, there are ways in which it can be done - and that’s what we’ll be looking at next time in Transactional Analysis: Getting Off The Drama Triangle Part 1.

Remember, if you’re a writer of fiction, this model of interpersonal relationship, is invaluable for creating fictional characters in need of conflict resolution.

This article may be reproduced on any non-commercial website or blog on condition that it appears unaltered, in its entirety, and that the following copyright line and bio are prominently displayed beneath it.


Author of a number of books, one a No 4 Bestseller, Mel Menzies is also an experienced Speaker at live events, as well as on Radio and TV. This article, in its original form, can be found at:

Your Comments:

11th July 2018
at 5:05am
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I know that writing posts takes a lot of time, but you can always help
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