Manipulation and Relationships Part I of 3

In the 1970’s, Transactional Analysis created an emotional game that was labeled The Karpman Drama Triangle which is still relevant today.  It looks like this:Manipulation games in relationships

The game is profound because it is a way to manipulate over a lifetime and deceive many people. Drama, intensity and power are very seductive elements, which makes it satisfying.  Drama is best left to high school girls because it will ring very hollow over time. Too often, intensity is a demand insisting “THIS” is the truth and it is your job to constantly make me feel special. (On my website I describe this in greater depth under Relationship Triangles, see link top right hand corner.)

People usually favor 2 positions of the 3 roles. Two people can play this game with each other for years while constantly swapping positions.

Many therapists and nurses have a pile of Rescuer energy when they start out. ACOA’s who’ve grown up fixing things also know all about rescuing. Many love relationships begin with rescuing as the prince did with Cinderella. Rescuers put up with too much mistreatment and lose track of themselves in trying to make everyone else happy.

Rescuers inevitably become Victims because they are too focused on someone else. Rescuers have to solve this problem by becoming more indifferent. Indifference is a useful tool – you can’t make someone else’s life work for them. Rescuers often suffer from a lack of respect for the other person’s choices, though they rarely realize this. Rescuers have lost track of their own wants because of their lopsided focus on others.

Persecutors are all about “getting my way.” Rescuers become Persecutors when they’ve finally had enough. Persecutors love the power inherent in this position. Power just to win at all costs is ugly beyond belief. Many couples struggle with sharing power. This game has nothing to do with fairness or equity. Often Persecutors are very Black/White in their thinking & Feeling which creates a win/lose situation which they are determined to win.

Victims are lost in a sea of emotions, usually about feeling hurt. Their hurt becomes a tool to push people into catering to them. They avoid the responsibility of defusing their intensity or working to problem solve in crisis. The intensity becomes a lifestyle of drama which creates many shallow relationships with many partners. When someone wants to be loved no matter what, it is a dangerous sign unless they are under 17.

The more times a relationship stays defined in these three positions the clearer it is that the relationship is all about manipulation and being manipulated. Neither of these is a way to define your life. If you’ve experienced this game of manipulation, please add a comment at the bottom of the post.

(Part 2 is posted on 8/23/10 & Part 3 on 2/28/11. Go to the Manipulation category on the right to find it easily.)


19 thoughts on “Manipulation and Relationships Part I of 3

  1. Tom says:

    I’m the victim. And “indifferent” is exactly the word to describe to get myself out of that role. “Enlightened self-interest” is another useful concept.
    As usual, another GREAT post!

    • rhodasommer says:

      I really liked your expression “enlightened self-interest” & want you to know I’ve used it at least 6 times with my clients since you wrote your comment. Thankyou so much for a new way to express it, that really delivers the message! Rhoda

  2. Kayla says:


    I think you know from previous posts that I struggle with this.

    I’m the victim, as well. I get caught up in my own thoughts and fears and drag my partner under with me. It’s not fair. I am controlling. I have to know what he’s doing and “approve of it”. We talk about it however and I try hard to keep him from losing himself and his wants. We talk about it a lot and I think it’s more productive than drama. He doesn’t aim to rescue me, I don’t think. He aims to make me feel better but he knows he’s limited in what he can do. I don’t expect him to fix everything for me anymore, though it’s hard not to. I still get upset over stupid stupid things and he forgives easily. I still worry that resentment builds and that this relationship is built on manipulation. I think we stay away from the triangle as much as we can. I don’t want to be loved no matter what, I know there are boundaries, but I feel I deserve to be loved even though I have some serious issues in making a relationship work. He feels I deserve love as well and doesn’t feel that my behavior is a big problem. He says I understand and appreciate him (I know, a little too much like the rescuer) and so he loves me.

    Your posts always hit home and this is no different. I really appreciated your post on taking chances, as well. I constantly worry that I love him for the wrong reasons and that this wont be successful so I just want to leave him now instead of risking it. I know love is about taking chances, its just hard to find balance being young and dumb enough to trust in love and stupid and ignorant enough to ignore warning signs.

  3. rhodasommer says:

    There will be a post on solutions to the drama triangle 2 posts from now, that might prove to be helpful. You sound like you’re genuinely trying to claim your part in things which is always good! Rhoda

  4. Christine says:

    Hi Rhoda

    Good article, I just wanted to point out that Karpman insisted that his model is shown with the upside down triangle – with the victim at the bottom. Eric Berne asked him to display it with the victim at the top to indicate how powerful the victim position is, despite being in a ‘one-down’ position.

    I hope you get to change it, as technically it isn’t Karpman’s model unless its upside down.

    (p.s. I’m a TA psychotherapist)

    • rhodasommer says:

      Thanks so much! Really very interesting. I actually agree with Berne because the victim has so much power and that often isn’t recognized. I write about in & connect movies on the relationship triangle page of my website. It’s important to me that if people “steal” the diagram to use they credit Karpman. Really appreciate your correction heaps!! Rhoda

  5. bob says:

    A lifetime of being a rescuer is a hard habit to break. Somehow it’s at the very core of our being, it is very deep within in our psyche. I only stopped being a rescuer to my stbx after a nervous breakdown and I was literally in fear of further unfounded persecution of me, she played the victim role with consummate skill, learned it from her mother. But I didn’t break the cycle with indifference or by becoming the persecutor, although there was some of the latter. I broke the cycle simply by erecting personal boundaries. I told my stbx exactly what behaviour I’d no longer tolerate. The fact that she crashed right through my boundaries with zero respect for them and persecuted me for additional new, unfounded offences told me a lot about her. Enough that I’d no longer spend my life with her.

    But that habit is hard to break. I now see it as my shadow side and it’s “work in progress”.

    • rhodasommer says:

      I agree that needing to be a heroe or heroine is a large part of our identity (including those in the helping professions). Yes, you’re right, boundaries are a crucial part of real change for many people.
      My second post that offers the mentally healthy triangle should mention that boundaries are about respect. Thanks for taking time to comment. Rhoda

  6. Catherine says:

    Hi Rhoda:

    The drama triagle really resonates with me…finally, I have found the answer to the polarizing quirkiness of my old friend Sarah Palin. Back here in Wasilla, we just described her as an adolescent, self-centered, drama queen. The girls at th local Republican woman’s club willlove this blog.

  7. Tami says:

    I am definately caught in this triangle trap. In my case, it’s a true triangle between me, my husband, and his mother. He most often plays the victim role, complaining to each of the other two about how terrible and “put upon” he is although it feels like the three roles are interchangable to all three at times. I am a rescuer/victim… until I’ve had it… then I’m the persecuter of the mother. With him then becoming the rescuer of her or me …when he’s not playing victim to the two of us. OMGosh… just typing all that shows its a twisted game no one can win!

    • rhodasommer says:

      Typing it gave you more self awareness, that’s the beginning of change. On my website there is a manipulation page or in the categories there are 9 posts with even more details that might be helpful. There is also a post on what to do instead, a healthy triangle! Thanks for reading! Rhoda

  8. Liz Graham says:

    I just ended a relationship with a victim/addict. I am already in the profession of care taking. But the tumult came from my not putting up with his “love me at all costs”. However, I did “play” along in very subtle and endearing ways. I did feel that I was losing myself on some level, but I also find that these definitions of pathology fail to nuance the roles or discuss the fact that all of us have many more than these 3 positions potentially operating based on the environment. It is still shocking to me how once the victim decides or finds a riper heroine, he simply seemed to shut down, shut me out, used every trick int he book to try and build some case against me which since I had been so loving, supportive, cooperative, was hard to make. The opportunity is now there, for me to focus once again on me. I find it interesting how for years and years I did not want an intimate relationship and these feelings were there regarding being a single parent. It all dovetails to provide us chance to see our weaknesses and where we can learn and grow. I am trying to be able to give myself those parts of the relationship I once cherished but that have now fallen away relative to the manipulation at the end. It feels like it was intentional, but I think it was unintentional and is native to his early, deep, unresolved wounds that drive him to use drugs to avoid confronting it. My error was keeping on believing in his healing. When you watch the actions, things are quite clear. I am struggling not to be the victim now or to feel insular and “right” but somewhere in between, as with couples where reality lies. Thanks for the article.

  9. Amy Morishita says:

    My husband is a rescuer turned persecutor and is literally trying to sabotage my every step. I’m a highly empathetic but also mildly autistic woman and I’m a very honest person. I also call him out on every foul and he’s been unable to extinguish that. I don’t pick up on things like others do, but at the same time, I also immediately recognize any inconsistencies in actions, things said, etc. I don’t let things slide and for that I’m the villain in his eyes. I’m isolated, have only NPD family that disowned me for escaping the scapegoat role. No friends for the last 10 years and literally no where to go and no support. It takes me so long to identify that someone is like this if it’s a love interest. I don’t recognize when I’m being insulted or dismissed a lot of the time. People say I let people treat me badly, but I don’t when I finally recognize it. I’m not able to hold down a job (have autoimmune disease also), have to homeschool my 3 autistic kids because services are terrible here. I need out, I want out. I have been doing things for my own happiness for a while, realized a while ago that he just didn’t care. I made peace and quit expecting anything from him. I thought that would be ok. Apparently his new mission in life is to destroy anything that I love, try to achieve, will even hide my tools “accidently” so I can’t engage in my creativity. My only outlet and coping skill. He tears me down or pretends I don’t exist when I’m happy with something I did. I know why he is like this and that he is now doing to me what was done to him by his father. Until I find a way out, is my only option to hide everything that makes me happy? I also have terrible judgment and tend to believe people have good intentions. I know I will have to trust someone in order to get out and the reality is that without being able to read social cues, with my nature to be over-trusting and miss red flags, I’m truly puzzled and a bit doubtful that I can pull off what needs to be done. My therapist is good, but at a loss. I’m truly concerned for my kids. They have no grandparents, as they are a danger to them, no other family, really and I really don’t want to add any more destructive people to their lives. Most of the time, when I ask for help, which is hard, people use it against me. The churches, most therapists, etc. I wind up with narcissists so often I know that I must be a beacon to them. I’ve been burned by everyone I’ve asked for help in the last 10 years except my current therapist. How can I figure out who to trust when I’m inclined to trust everyone?

  10. rhodasommer says:

    Is it your belief your “therapist is at a loss” ? or did she/he say that was true. If it’s the first you need to say it to them directly, if the second you need a new therapist.
    What work have you done to improve your judgement & learn to be more wary to take care of yourself. When something is a pattern you need to change. Work harder on your own change & you won’t be trusting everyone anymore.

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