Escaping His Drama

Last week Dan Drake explained how DARVO (deny, attack, reverse, victim, offender) can be used by an SA (or abusive person) to gaslight his wife and protect his addiction. This brought to mind another dynamic seen all too commonly in SA/PSA marriages: the drama triangle.

Stephen Karpman, a student in the transactional analysis school of psychotherapy, first published his drama triangle theory 50 years ago. It quickly became popular with therapists as a way of identifying and explaining many of the unhealthy relational interactions they were seeing between people, particularly people in a close relationship.

Despite its name, a drama triangle interaction does not have to involve three people. However it will involve at least two people taking on at least one of three distinct roles:

  • The victim: in the drama triangle this is a person who feels victimized. The mantra of this victim is "poor me, I need saving"
  • The perpetrator: a person who is aggressively seeking to meet their needs/wants. The mantra of the perpetrator is, "it's your fault" or "you owe me"
  • The rescuer: a person who enables the victim to stay in victim thinking by offering to "fix" the situation (again, and again). The drama triangle rescuer's mantra would be "I'll fix it," or "I'm sorry, I guess I'm to blame."

The Addict as Victim and Perpetrator

As Dan pointed out last week, the sex addict who is still mired in addictive thinking is adept at shifting himself into the victim role (using aggressive, perpetrator tactics) at times. In fact, as I explained in Beyond Betrayal, many addicts will perpetually cast themselves as the victim: to the point where even the actual victims (of their betrayal, abuse, narcissism) can begin to believe it's true. When this happens it's very easy for those around these men to get drawn into the drama triangle as "the rescuer." That includes us wives, who are the actual victims of their abuse.

The problem is "rescuing" is just playing into this form of abuse and unhealthy interaction. I know it can feel like we're regaining some control over this crazy situation and earning their respect or love—but in the drama triangle this is never the result. Everyone loses in the drama triangle, and no one more so than the rescuer.

Opting Out

However there is an answer to drama triangle interactions: the Winner's Triangle (Choy, 1990) or the Power of TED (2009). You can look up more about these online, but in terms of a high-level overview that may be pertinent to wives of sex addicts/betrayers, when we are:

  • Being asked/told to rescue: a better response is to listen and then remind our husband that he has options that would result in an improved situation. Questions might be used to help him explore some of these options, but the coach/carer (no longer a rescuer), leaves it up to the other person to make decisions and take action. This means letting go of any semblance of control, which is really only an illusion anyway.
  • Vulnerable, because our husband is being a persecutor: we accept our vulnerability and focus on the outcome we want to attain, rather than the problem before us. We can choose to take one step at a time (e.g., seeking support) toward our goal. We can also work to make sure our identity is firmly set in the Faithful One rather than in our husband/marriage. Note that it may or may not be safe to be vulnerable with our husband; if not, we can find safe people with whom to share our vulnerability.
  • Tempted to continually demand change from an aggressive stance: choose to speak assertively and confess (where appropriate) our vulnerability. This can often be done using "I" statements (e.g., "when you did this, I felt that"; or, "in order to feel safe in relationship with you I need xyz boundary"). Again working to understand that God is the source of our healing, identity and safety will help.

Changing a pattern of unhealthy interaction rarely goes smoothly. Not only do our own habits die hard, those of the other person (in this case, the SA husband) do as well. It's not uncommon for the SA to become angry and ugly when we step out of the drama triangle.

If you have any concern in your relationship for physical safety (yours or your kids), it is pertinent that you seek counsel before working to confront unhealthy dynamics and change them. Moreover, it will be helpful for your husband to be confronted about his use of the drama triangle by others. This is where a specialist (SA/PSA) counselor can be very helpful.

Finally, as I mentioned in Beyond Betrayal, a husband's "victim" stance can be a spiritual issue. Let's be praying that we and others are able to see the truth in relation to our husband's (and our own) position.


A song for all the wonderful sisters fighting the battle (from the position of the Winner's Triangle) in Pukekohe.