In relationships, drama can be defined as manipulating others so that one's own conflicts can be acted out on a 'larger stage' or allowing oneself to be manipulated by others for the same purpose. Interpersonal drama shares with the theater the use of exaggerated expression so that the audience will not miss the message.
In drama, the response of others becomes paramount, so that one's own actions no longer arise out of conviction but rather arise out of strategy of some sort. If actions are chosen, consciously or unconsciously, in anticipation of the response, then it can be said that a 'game' is underway. The outcome is judged in terms of winning or losing. Few people are fully aware that they do this, but the competitive format is also evident in the sense of struggle between people. In a game, people are unable to really cooperate, even to mutual benefit.
In drama, the situation is often maneuvered so that one is justified' in having the feelings one wants to have (projective identification). Drama also gives the false impression that something profound is happening when actually something cyclical or repetitive is happening. The cost of this is that the real building blocks of satisfying living or solid relationships are neglected.
Spontaneous, very upset behavior in extreme situations is not drama. Behavior that is drama-driven has a 'fakeness' to it that is easily perceived next to real sincere behavior. Yet drama also has an intensity and provocativeness which seems to override the slight flavor of insincerity. Most people resort to drama sometimes when they feel overlooked.
Having more feeling than one knows what to do with causes anxiety. Drama draws off anxiety for a time. It is like an escape valve. During adolescence drama increases because feeling and drives have increased dramatically and emotional regulation has not caught up. Drama can become a favored coping mechanism. Even for those who do not tend toward drama as a way of coping usually, may see it increase during stressful times. Work with self-expression, however, tends to decrease drama considerably because the directness and honesty takes the 'reaction' of others out of the equation
Karpman Drama Triangle
One way to look at drama in relationships is with the Karpman Drama Triangle. This model comes from the tradition of Transactional Analysis and not the Reich and Lowen tradition, but is very useful and practical. In the model there are three 'triangle roles' --Victim, Rescuer, and Persecutor--and by implication, one 'non-triangling' role, the 'adult'.
Two people in conflict tend to involve or blame a third person or entity to reduce tension. All participants consider themselves either victims or rescuers, which are the 'good' roles, and struggle to be acknowledged by the others as such. Participants also struggle to prove one of the others to be a 'persecutor' which is the bad role. The roles are never stable, of course, because no one believes they are a persecutor. All roles place the power to change things on other people. Said another way, all roles use blame.
Most turmoil and drama in life is caused by players endlessly trying to change places in the triangle. People tend to identify strongly as basically a rescuer or as a victim in life, and they maintain that role during times of low to medium tension, but when tension gets high, things turn into a rapid scramble through all the roles. Honest, assertive, behavior that avoids the drama is called the ‘adult’ role. Below is a breakdown of some aspects of the roles. Whenever drama is conspicuous in a situation, participants are playing all the roles.
- Motives and Needs: To be rescued, reduce feelings of helplessness. Blames self and (mostly) others but will not take ownership of their results in life and will not take responsibility for their actions.
- Core Beliefs: I’m only lovable if I’m helpless like a child. The world owes me. I never get a break. People gang up on me, and they don’t understand me.
- Behaviors: Let’s things build to a crisis. Fails to meet responsibilities. Constructs a self-story that is organized around being wronged, and not getting a chance. Makes token efforts then gives up. Invites others in to rescue, but then resents losing some of the control.
- Payoff: Avoids responsibility. Attracts sympathy. Avoids hard work and unpleasant situations. Keeps other people involved.
- How to Avoid (Adult Role): 1) When asking for help, state clearly what is needed 2) Ask for suggestions from others but know only you can solve your problems 3) Welcome and acknowledge suggestions. Have an open mind and avoid “yes, but…” 4) Be clear about what you are willing to give in exchange for help. 5) Form a plan of action that makes clear everyone’s understanding of what is going to happen. 6) Be clear on what you can and will do, and what you expect.
- Motive and Needs: To be seen as wronged or treated unfairly. To be seen as the person with the ‘high moral ground.’ To get his or her way by portraying others in a bad light. To avoid the consequence of their actions by maintaining that they “had” to do what they did.
- Core Beliefs: I’m a good person so if bad things happen, it is entirely someone else’s fault. I always try to help people and I get burned and taken advantage of. I can’t be responsible if other people don’t cooperate. I’m right and if others would agree with me everything would be fine
- Behaviors: Blames. Minimizes. Denies. Accuses. Keeps the focus on other people’s behavior. Often labels a former 'rescuer' as a persecutor
- Payoff : Gets to meet the need to be taken care of, without admitting that is what is wanted. Avoids the full feeling of rejection. Avoids responsibility. Distracts self from shame. Gains power and control over others. Exploits others’ sense of justice. This is the victim behavior of people who start out as rescuers, giving help or attention ‘with strings attached’
- How to Avoid (Adult Role): 1) Honesty 2) Cheerfully accept the consequences of actions, even if unanticipated 3) Respect and accept other points of view. 4) Accept that love cannot be earned (and therefore, except as children, we cannot be cheated of love.)
- Motive and Needs: Feels lonely or remorseful, fears isolation, needs closeness and forgiveness. Need to feel superior in a relationship.
- Core Beliefs: I’ll only have love if I earn it by taking care of you. I think I'm bad, but if you need my help I am better than you. A relationship is only safe if I’m in control and leading.
- Behaviors: Offers advice. Takes on others problems like they are his or her own. Gives time and money even unasked. Offers sympathy. Gets increasingly upset, judgmental, and controlling if the victim doesn’t ‘get better’ or doesn’t start returning nurturing. In fact rescuers are often hungry to be taken care of and can’t take care of others very long. Will start calling him or herself the victim, and start calling the original ‘victim’ a 'persecutor'.
- Payoff: Has the expectation, usually unspoken, that he or she will become special and loved by the other person. Can feel superior, and forget about one’s own problem and situation.
- How to Avoid (Adult Role): 1) Have agreements instead of expectations. 2) Be honest and clear about what you are willing to do. Help is different than rescue, it has limits, is clearly defined, and has no strings attached. 3) Know and accept your limitations, you can help but you cannot force someone to change. 4) Believe others are equal to you and have the ability to solve their own problems and learn from their mistakes. 4) Help others find ways to help themselves—‘empowerment.’ 5) Ask for nurturing directly
PersecutorThe role of persecutor is somewhat trickier to illustrate because it only shows up momentarily in behavior, or only shows up in accusation. The following are two ways to think of the role 1) when person A believes he or she is helping and making things better for person B, but person B says that person A is making it worse, in effect person B is calling person A the persecutor. This is especially difficult if person C joins together with B ‘against’ person A. A fruitless argument over who is really the persecutor will ensue. All participants will believe they are either victims or rescuers, and statements in the above sections will apply. 2) When any participant is overtaken with rage, envy, and desire for revenge, he or she may move to hurt or control the other person, all the while putting responsibility for his or her behavior on them. This point of view is described by the statements below.
- Motives and Needs: Wants power and control, feels betrayal, believes love and credit has been withheld or stolen
- Core Beliefs: I earned your love and loyalty but you are ungrateful. You are making me a victim. You are making me do this. You deserve what you get.
- Behaviors: The rage.. Abuse and coercion. Self-righteousness. Battles with another about who the victim really is.
- Payoff: Regains control when other tactics have failed. Relieves unbearable tension. Drowns out bad feelings from rejection, loneliness etc…
- How to Avoid (Adult Role): 1) Don’t be surprised that others will act in their own interest 2) State your feelings honestly without abusive anger or intimidation 3) Listen! 4) Understand what you expect, state it, and ask what others expect of you 5) Avoid seeing other’s efforts to cope as an attack toward you. 6) Don’t blame others for your feelings or behavior 7) Avoid the rescuer role, empower other people