The way we interact with others is often motivated by psychological needs outside of our direct awareness or consciousness. To meet these needs we tend to play certain roles in relationships, although the role we take on can change in different situations and with different people.
Being aware of this can help us as we try and develop mutually empowering peer relationships. There are some commonalities in the roles that appear in people’s relationship dynamics and two different models have been developed by psychologists to help us understand and be aware of those roles.
Stephen Karpman, a Transactional Analyst, recognised a pattern of interaction that he called the ‘Drama Triangle’. The Drama Triangle model, includes three roles:
- Victim: The victim either takes on or accepts the role of a mistreated, persecuted person. A victim is someone who usually feels overwhelmed by their own sense of vulnerability, inadequacy or powerlessness, and does not take responsibility for themselves or their own power. In this role, a victim would look to a rescuer to take care of them.
- Persecutor: The persecutor pressures or bullies the victim. This is an unconscious stand where the person is not aware of their own power, which they use in a negative and destructive manner.
- Rescuer: The rescuer rushes to defend the victim, protecting them from the persecutor. A rescuer is someone who doesn’t own their own vulnerability and instead seeks to ‘rescue’ others whom they see as vulnerable.
The Drama Triangle is usually represented as a triangle with its point facing downward, with the persecutor and rescuer at the top and the victim at the bottom. This shows that the persecutor and rescuer both assume a position of power over the victim. Each of these three roles needs the others to function and together they play a game. The roles do not necessarily represent the reality of each person’s place in the situation, or their true level of power. Each of these positions is a way of taking power when we feel uncomfortable.
In fact, we often go through all three at various times and in various circumstances. A second model of the roles people unwittingly assume in relationships was described by another transactional analyst. In his book ‘The Games People Play’ Eric Berne describes parent, adult and child roles in relationships. Being aware of our tendency to slip into these roles can help in forming mutually empowering relationships. Berne suggests that negative experiences in relationships can be linked with people assuming certain roles or switching between roles.
We are all familiar with these roles from our own life experience and we commonly assume different roles.
For example, one person may assume the role of adult in a relationship. In this role we might act as the voice of authority and behave in a directive manner. This role can be connected to that of helper. A peer supporter might unwittingly adopt a controlling parent type role in a relationship.
Alternatively they might assume the role of a nurturing parent and try and smother the other person with concern. In both cases a possible response from the other person is to respond in a childlike way.
We can all at times assume the role of child in a relationship, perhaps most often when we are feeling vulnerable. In this role anger or emotion can dominate reason. Another childlike response is to allow the other person in the relationship to take over. Both create an imbalance of power in the relationship with the person assuming the childlike position will be less likely to take responsibility.
When we assume an adult role in relationships we are basing our actions on the information we have before us – in other words we stick to the data we have in a relationship. In mutually empowering peer relationships we are seeking to establish adult to adult type relationships.