The Perpetrator Can be a Victim?: Understanding the Drama Triangle

Transactional Analysis (TA), a psychological theory created by Eric Berne, M.D., in California in the 1950’s, combined Psychoanalytic (Freud), Humanistic (Rogers) and Cognitive (the pre-curser to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the most researched theory these days). In 1968 Stephen Karpman, M.D., wrote one short TA article, Fairy tales and script drama analysis, where he outlined his theory of the drama triangle. Subsequently the drama triangle became a foundational concept for psychological theories in domestic violence, sexual assault, addictions, bullying curriculums (used specifically in BVSD today), couples and family counseling.

So what is the drama triangle? It’s a model of human interaction comprised of three roles: victim, perpetrator, rescuer. The victim is passive and helpless to the perpetrator, the perpetrator is pressuring, manipulating or persecuting the victim, and the rescuer intervenes to “save” the victim and stop the perpetrator. In popular culture today (and in countless re-imaginings of this theory) these roles are static: the perpetrator is wrong and deserves punishment, the victim is innocent and needs help, and the rescuer is altruistic and deserves praise. However in the original theory, the roles are fluid. People are continually switching positions and, often enacting the roles simultaneously in different areas of their lives.

After being charged with domestic violence (perpetrator), Sam came in to work on his anger. After learning anger management skills and stabilizing his behaviors, I discovered that Sam’s father used to beat him (victim), he often stepped in between his dad and his sister to protect her (rescuer), and eventually fought back, severely beating his father (perpetrator). We then took the model into his present-day life. With his friends he rescues (people crash on his couch and borrow his car), at work he plays the victim (complaining that no one listens to his ideas), and in the past, at home with his wife and kids, he became a perpetrator.

As Sam’s awareness grew he started to make changes. When he put some of his helpful “rescuing” energy into his family, they wanted to spend more time with him. At work he distinguished between aggressiveness (“perpetrator”) and assertiveness, and learned that when he started to feel like a “victim,” it probably meant he needed to work on his assertiveness skills. Where are you enacting these powerful roles and what changes do you want to make?