Karpman’s Drama Triangle

One of the tools I have found very helpful for people exiting a cult who want peace of mind and to find their authentic identity is Karpman’s Drama Triangle.

The Triangle can help people understand their relationship with a spouse, an ex-spouse, a boss, employees, friends, parents, children, neighbors and their church leaders.

In fact, I just shared the Drama Triangle with my local, Ottawa, Canada, ex-JW Meet-Up group to see if they could find uses for it in their lives, and it turned into a lively positive conversation.

The Triangle was first used to help people understand the manipulations of family members in dysfunctional families.  But over time, the Triangle has been used to identify unethical persuasion techniques in many other types of relationships.  

The Drama Triangle is easy to understand and use when one learns the basic principles. While there are assigned positions on each point of the Triangle, people do not always react to those positions.  

People who psychologically manipulate and unduly influence other people to get what they want will take a certain position on the Triangle. If that position doesn’t work for them, they will often move to another position or keep circling to find a position that gets the other person to give in to their demands.  

To maintain some degree of stability and peace, the other person may shift to another point on the triangle to allow the manipulator to win that round.

One of the applications for the Drama Triangle is with Jehovah’s Witness parents and their ex-JW adult children. The parents may see themselves as the Rescuer and constantly “nag” their children to go back to the Kingdom Hall and the meetings. To the adult child, this may feel to them like they are the Victim, being persecuted for the choice they made.

The shunning policy of the Watchtower will also result in many ex-JWs feeling like they are the Victim.

If the adult child speaks out to the parents about what they have learned and reports that the organization has been lying to them, the adult child moves into the Persecutor role, while the parent moves into the Victim role.

The adult child can move to the Rescuer role by placating the parents and go to a meeting or not talking about religion with them. This dance will repeat itself many times. However, there will be no resolution as long as religion divides them.

Watchtower, a rule-oriented tyrant, becomes the Enforcer to Witnesses who don’t follow the rules. Watchtower also becomes the Rescuer telling members there is a reward if they are obedient children. If someone says something negative about Watchtower, it and all JWs become the Victims whose rights have been trampled.

This is the dance that Watchtower forces on all Witnesses. As it indoctrinates new members into its religion, members are slowly introduced to the toxic dance of the Drama Triangle.

The only way to stop the dance is to get off the dance floor and out of the Triangle. Stop playing the game. Some people refer to this as reverse shunning.

One of the problems about having spent time in Watchtower’s toxic environment of unethical persuasion is that even though one may leave, they can take this form of relationship management with them. They thus act out the Triangle in personal relationships with their spouse, children, friends and people at work.

The Victim part of us needs to accept responsibility for our self and make good decisions, which is not so easy, because as JWs most decisions were made for us.

While we no longer have to feel guilty about taking care of our own needs, we must stop feeling like everyone is attacking us. This is JW thinking. Not everyone is out to persecute the JWs. The vast majority of people don’t care about JWs.

We also do not need to be everyone’s Rescuer or Care Taker. If someone wants us to take care of their needs, it’s okay to say “no”. If they don’t like it and decide to un-friend us, we haven’t lost much if all they want is what we can do for them.

For some, anger can take over. They can’t deal with their feelings or decisions.  So they become the Persecutor or Bully blaming everyone else when things don’t work the way they want or people don’t do what they want them to do. And the less people comply, the angrier they often get. They insist that their feelings and right s are above everyone else’s.

David Buskirk says:

I remember this triangle from years ago and the JW experience fits the triangle perfectly. It takes a lot of courage and honesty to look internally and see the hidden paradoxical advantages of all three roles. I noticed in the past myself becoming a persecutor because others would not help me to stay a victim.One thing all three positions seem to have in common is the idea of people not assuming proper responsibility for their own lives.

A victim lives in constant fear. They want others to solve their problems for them so that they don’t have to face up to the hardship and fear that solving the problems for themselves brings. A victim quickly turns into a persecutor to temporarily bolster their low self esteem by blaming others for their problems and feeling a sense of moral superiority. A rescuer usually has a mountain of their own problems that seem to be overwhelming so they distract themselves from solving them by attempting to help solve the problems of people playing the victim role to get an emotional high.

When I was a JW I found it exhilarating and addictive to play the rescuer and help people solve their problems with the “truth”. When the message was rejected it was easy to play the role of persecuted victim and feel righteous. As a persecutor what an emotional high it was to denounce the wickedness of this world and feel special, holy, clean, and elite. Who could be more special and worthy than one whom God chose to receive life-saving secret knowledge while the rest of the world would perish?

After leaving my JW experience, the triangle continued. Now I could persecute this evil cult by exposing it. I could rescue victims from it. I could tell my harrowing tale and get sympathy as a victim and put my life on hold by continuing to blame them for where I am now.

David brings out some great examples of how the drama works with other people. But he very honestly takes a look at how he was part of the drama and how important it is for each of us to take a close look at how we continue to stay in someone else’s or even our own drama. It is so easy to point the finger at what my mother, the elders or a sister did. It is much harder to look at what we contribute to the problem.

The members of my ex-JW Meet-Up group were able to see very quickly how they personally took different positions depending on the situation. For some, they realized the dance only stopped when they decided to exit the triangle. Others could see the dynamics at play with co-workers, bosses, ex-spouses and JW family members. And some could see how they needed to stop dancing to the tunes other people were playing.

For a more expanded view of the Drama Triangle see: Karpman’s Drama Triangle

For more information on understanding the Drama Triangle see: Breaking The Drama Triangle

Posted on by April 5, 2016

About Lee Marsh

Ex-JW. DFed. A survivor of child sexual abuse, physical abuse and emotional abuse. Survivor of spousal abuse - sexual, emotional and financial. Survivor of sexual assault. And one last one - survivor of ethnic/political abuse. Left the first husband (JW) and lost my home. Left the second husband (never a JW) and lost my home. Wound up homeless for 9 months living out of one tiny room at the YMCA. But I still survive and thrive.


Karpman’s Drama Triangle — 16 Comments

    • Yes, Stacy, they can sap so much energy from us if we continue to live in their drama. It weighs us down. By freeing ourselves, we have so much more energy for other things that we can enjoy.

  1. Thank you Lee. This is the first time I’ve heard of this but reading about it I see how that plays out frequently with well-meaning family members who cannot comprehend how someone could possibly leave JW. org and view it as signing your own death warrant.

    • Yes, in their minds they are a rescuer trying to help you to live through Armageddon. Ultimately, we have to decide whether it is worth the price of admission to live in their little drama.

    • Lou, keep reading everything you can. Not everything will apply to you or be useful. Sometimes you will find it useful later on but recovery is about what you need to do for you. No one size fits all. Certainly no 62-page books that give you ALL the answers. Always take what you need from what you read and ignore the rest.

  2. Thanks! I see how I have followed this useless/energy sapping dance. Gotten off several times with constructive thinking/reasoning as expressed above. Good to know we are on the right path to mend for a better LIFE NOW-free from Watchtower control and lies.

  3. Very helpful post. I left, really, really, really left the JWs about 15 years ago. But, was dancing in a triangle with my JW family since. They would try to preach to me, and if I didn’t take up to their conversations, they got angry. Then, they’d attack and belittle me. One of them, spent every moment trying to convert me or bait me into conversations. Then, told me I was nothing when he got mad. The others would judge me. I wasn’t a good parent, I was celebrating holidays, I was allowing my kids to go to birthday parties .. This was to my face, and behind my back. It would get back to me through my worldly brother-in-law and niece.

    To be honest, I’d do the same with them. I’d ‘fight back” and try to show them the errors in JW doctrine and predictions, and if they didn’t take up in my conversation, I got angry and thought of them as stupid. They thought I was with Satan and persecuting them. That “deer in the headlights” look would come over their face and they’d run out of the room. Then, I’d gleefully think, ‘Cult Brainwashed”. I was elevating myself.

    I felt like I couldn’t win. So, I finally had enough. They were coming to visit me, and I dreaded that visit. I was so relieved when they left. Then, things blew up because one of them decided to report that I had looked at JW.org. I had looked at the site, but to ridicule the JWs. But, the others thought that i was ‘coming around.’ I wasn’t, and when I let them know that I wasn’t, all hell broke loose on their wrath with me, and my wrath with them. Especially, to the one who had dishonestly reported to them that I was friendly to JW.org. I was in a dance, and no one won.

    So, I knew I had to stop the cycle and the only tactic I knew was to leave the dance floor. I reverse shunned them. The only way to stop the cycle, is for me to step away. I created new accounts, blocked, and changed phone numbers. And, I’ve had peace since. I didn’t know there was a name to the dance. Now, I do. It’s Karpman’s Drama Triangle.

    • Good for you for stopping the game. No one ever wins. It is like a never ending merry-go-round where people keep switching which horse they are on. Getting off, getting out, quit playing the game. They can’t fight with you if you aren’t playing the game. And in the beginning they will often try to rope you back in. They know no other dance.

      I like having names for things. It helps me feel more sane when I know something is so common people have given it a name

  4. Amazing. I am so thrilled that I finally have a method to stop this stupid, exhausting, traumatizing dance. This triangle is the exact replica of my life and how I was trained by the jw organization and my jw family to respond too and deal with all situations. I have been everyone of the characters in this dance. I can now see the picture and I am going to begin training myself how ‘NOT’ to dance this dance. It’s very freeing and I’ve just started. I want to thank you with all of my heart for sharing this information with me.

    • I think it resonates with so many people simply because we can all identify how we have been in each position and now want out of the dance. It is so easy to get sucked back in by someone who wants to keep dancing. Just step away. Go for a walk. Leave the room. Just say “NO. I’m not doing this anymore.”

  5. When I left the religion, I went whole hog into the world. I became everything that they said the world was. I was morally corrupt because I had decided to “give up” paradise, so I might as well embrace all the wickedness of the world, right?

    Fortunately for me “the world” helped me to figure out- though it took well over a decade- that I could be a valuable member of society, that I could do good in the world without belonging to a religious organization, and that I could live a positive life.

    I thank the professors who helped me struggle through my first years in higher education, the therapists that help me get control of my life and my many addictions that formed because of my lack of self-respect or control, and my children, who always try to remember that regardless of anything else I will ALWAYS love them and ALWAYS be there for them no matter what ridiculous and self-defeating steps they take in life.

    I talk to one of my sisters every once in a while, but only because she is no longer a JW. I haven’t talked to my mother in years, and probably won’t again. What really burns me up is that she really believes in the doctrine. The last time she was dis-fellowshipped (that I know of) she was so sure that she was really going to turn it around this time that she convinced me to help her return to the fold. I called an Uncle who was an elder, and I advocated for her repentance, and asked him to write a letter for her to the brothers in charge. I knew how the system worked, and I used that knowledge to “help” her. He wrote the letter. She was reinstated because of the letter. I wasn’t even a witness, but I believed her, and I convinced him to believe in her. She was reinstated. A year later she was “done with them” again. Not because she didn’t believe, mind you, but because she was weak.

    That is when I really started to question not just the doctrine, but the way I had continued living my own life, and the reason for all of my self-destructive behaviors. That is when I really started trying to make a good life for myself and my kids, and stopped blaming everything on other people. That is when I started to push all of this drama out of my life. That’s when I really started living.

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