Understanding Karpman’s Triangle

Marie Woods, LMFT, CSAT
Primary Therapist, Gentle Path at The Meadows

In relationships, individuals tend to develop a predictable pattern of acting and reacting to one another that they become accustomed to. This dynamic is sometimes referred to as their dance. This can often be a rather beautiful thing, as the dance metaphor implies, however, in relationships in which there is a great deal of conflict, these patterns can keep couples stuck in rather unhealthy patterns. Relationships in which these problematic patterns present are also often characterized by elements such as high reactivity, over control, manipulation, blaming, and other elements of dysfunction including addiction, for example.

The concept of the Karpman Triangle developed by Psychiatrist Stephen Karpman is a great illustration to help couples become more aware of this dynamic, and also learn how to change it. Within this concept, there are three primary roles that an individual may play. They include the victim/martyr, perpetrator/offender, and the rescuer/enabler. Individuals tend to play one role most predominately in their relationships with others, but in the process, they often move around while typically still landing back where they started. The victim/martyr tends to have unrealistic expectations and avoids sharing their thoughts and feelings while blaming others. The perpetrator/offender tends to engage in a number of acting out behaviors that are offensive or harmful to others, or to themselves. The rescuer/enabler often engages in caretaking behaviors and sometimes serves as the pseudo-peacemaker in the relationship. Although these roles can play out in a variety of different ways, one of the most common dynamics is two individuals moving between victim and perpetrator typically followed at some point by one of them moving into the rescuer/enabler role to temporarily alleviate the problem.

In couples where sex addiction is present, there is an obvious victim-perpetrator dynamic. The individual engaging in sexual acting out behaviors through lies, deception, and secrets, is operating in the role of the perpetrator/offender, and the partner is the victim of this behavior. Typically, when the partner discovers the sexual acting out behavior, they may stay in the victim role and remain in a very painful place filled with constant self-loathing and blame. What is also common is that they can become aggressive and offensive towards the perpetrating partner and thus move into the perpetrator role (not to be confused with righteous anger). In this moment, the sex addict partner would be in the victim role. This movement from the perpetrator to victim and vice versa can happen very quickly. In fact, individuals in a relationship can move back and forth between these roles numerous times in a matter of minutes. Because this exchange is exhausting, one person usually attempts to “fix” the situation. This can look like asking for “cheap forgiveness,” being overly compliant, or even showing extra affection despite their true feelings.

You might be wondering what is wrong with this attempt to repair the relationship hurts. The truth is that in healthier relationships where there is not a lot of underlying hurt and dysfunction it often does work because it offers temporary respite from the disagreement, and both individuals typically engage in the repairing at different times, so there is some balance. In more dysfunctional relationships, such as those where addiction exists, these superficial dynamics don’t really create lasting change. This is because they don’t really address the underlying problem that is often that each partner feels disrespected, unheard and misunderstood.

When presented with the Karpman’s Triangle, many individuals can quickly identify their primary and secondary roles. They can often see how the content of their disagreements in a relationship changes, but the same patterns emerge. The difficult part is learning how to change that dynamic, or “get off the triangle”. For each role, there is a respective antidote that will most effectively allow an individual to step out of that role. For the victim/martyr, the most critical thing for them to do is to begin taking responsibility. This means identifying and owning their part in the problem. For the perpetrator/offender, they need to learn to negotiate. This means that they are not always right, and will need to work with others to create a situation where both people walk away satisfied. For the rescuer/enabler, their solution is in realizing that they have options, so it is their choice to try and fix a situation or to step back and let each adult discern a solution for themselves. Real change tends to happen when individuals engage in these alternatives roles. Often, when they begin to see that the conflict is rarely about the topic at hand, they can begin to address deeper issues requiring more vulnerability and allowing them to move closer to true intimacy.

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