Who’s the Persecutor? Rescuer? Victim?

Doris Helge, Ph.D. © 2012

Have you been taken advantage of in a personal or professional relationship? When have you tried to rescue someone who seemed hopelessly stuck? What about being accused of victimizing someone when you were just trying to do the right thing? If any of these sound familiar to you, you need to discover how to step away from a Relationship Drama Triangle.


The Drama Triangle, first described by Stephen Karpman in 1968, is a fascinating way to understand painful relationships of all types. The Drama Triangle is based on the interaction of three primary roles that all of us sometimes play:

  • persecutor
  • rescuer
  • victim

The Persecutor

A persecutor contributes to someone else’s feelings of inadequacy, shame or incompetency by criticizing their actions or belittling their abilities to resolve challenges and live a fulfilling life. This person becomes “the victim” in the triangle.

Being critical of the actions of victims enables a persecutor to feel superior, righteous or vindicated. Persecutors perceive themselves as more capable of handling situations than a victim could.

The Rescuer

Rescuers also discredit victims’ abilities to resolve challenges. Rescuers accept responsibility for resolving issues that victims could actually handle. Rescuers attempt to help by “doing for” instead of empowering victims or encouraging them to accept personal responsibility for their own happiness and success. This type of “rescue” is very different from spontaneously leaping into a cold river to save someone who is drowning. That’s altruism. You’re helping someone who sincerely needs assistance and you’re doing so without expecting a payoff.

In a Drama Triangle, the relationship between the victim and the rescuer is codependent. The rescuer doesn’t want the victim to succeed on their own because the rescuer has a strong desire to be needed and feel superior. The dysfunctional victim-rescuer game would end if the victim decided they could function independently. Once a victim feels empowered, the rescuer loses the psychological payoff of feeling necessary and superior.

The Victim

Drama Triangle victims collaborate with persecutors and rescuers by degrading their own abilities, knowledge and skills. Other people or organizations then take care of victims or criticize them. Rescuers caretake to create an illusion (“You need me”) that results in codependency.

Even if victims don’t yet know how to solve a problem, they could become empowered by making an effort or acting in another way that is more consistent with their abilities than throwing in the towel before the race begins. In a Drama Triangle, victims blame perpetrators and eventually resent the way a rescuer contributes to their feelings of inadequacy and dis-empowerment.



When we’re involved in a drama triangle, most of us are unconscious of the roles we’re playing. We’re unaware that we’re trying to meet our unmet needs in dysfunctional ways. We’re busy rationalizing our behavior with self-talk like:

  •  “I’m the person who knows what’s best.”
  •  “I’m right and the other person is wrong.”
  • “He/She can’t get along without me.”
  • “I do so much to help and then I’m taken for granted instead of appreciated.”
  • “I feel helpless.”
  • “I’m incapable. I need other people to solve my problems.”

Think about the last time you were involved in a relationship conflict. Who played the role of victim? Who acted like a rescuer? Who was the persecutor?

These questions sound super simple, but the Triangle is very tricky. It’s actually very difficult to figure out until who’s who until you understand the sneaky, shape-shifting antics in a Drama Triangle. Here are a couple of examples from situations my clients presented to me.

Notice Role Changes in a Professional Drama Triangle

After Kelly was promoted, Pat, a former colleague who had also wanted the promotion, spread nasty rumors about Kelly’s competency. Kelly fired back at Pat by documenting weaknesses, inadequacies Kelly only knew because the two had once been teammates. Another ex-colleague, Jordan, who had never coveted Kelly’s new position, jumped into the fray to create a drama triangle.

Jordan felt like Pat was being victimized and tried to cover for him by taking away some of Pat’s responsibilities. Instead of being grateful to Jordan, Pat was furious and lashed out at Jordan, “You must be agreeing with Kelly that I’m incapable. Otherwise, you’d never try to cover for me. You’d let me sink or swim based on my own merits.” Jordan was shocked, “Ouch! I was trying to help. You don’t appreciate me and you’re taking our friendship for granted.”

Who played the role of victim? Perpetrator? Rescuer? When did the players switch roles?

Notice Role Changes in a Romantic Drama Triangle

Kate planned to introduce her teenagers to Jay after dating him for many months. Even though Kate had heard horror stories about children sabotaging new relationships, she was sure her kids would love Jay. She confided in her best friend, “Jay’s so mature and special. Unlike my ex, Jay always treats me with respect, even when we disagree. He grew up with three younger siblings and once taught teenagers in a summer youth program, so he’s great with kids. He’s also eager to gain the kids’ approval. I know they want me to be happy so I’m sure everyone will get along great.”

Kate was amazed when the kids pushed away from Jay. They asked to be excused from meals and rapidly left the room whenever he appeared. When Kate tried to reason with the kids, “At least give Jay a chance to prove he’s a good guy,” they were blunt, “No! You have to choose him or us.”

Kate began doing extra favors for the children, hoping to win them over. She tearfully told her friend, “I’m exhausted from trying to please the kids and Jay. Nothing’s working.” After a few months, Jay ended the relationship, “I still love you but this will never work. Your kids hate me and they need you.”

In this Drama Triangle, who played the role of victim? Perpetrator? Rescuer? When did the players switch roles?

Now notice the similarities in the two scenarios. In both situations, people played dysfunctional roles because they felt hurt, vulnerable or threatened. Instead of identifying and expressing their needs, they played games of self-sabotage.


We’re hardwired to live in relationships and we get most of our needs met by collaborating with other people. Since a Drama Triangle requires three fully engaged players, it only takes one person to destroy the lose-lose-lose drama triangle and create win-win-win situations so everyone can stop playing the roles that result in anger, fear and hurt.


Are you ready to joyfully dance away from the pain of a Drama Triangle and embrace the loving, supportive relationships you deserve? After over 20 years of working with clients who were struggling with personal and professional relationships, I added new pieces to the puzzle of how you can disengage from a Drama Triangle. Sign up for the proven teleclass series, “Transform a Painful Relationship Into a Powerful Partnership”, at

© 2012. Excerpted with permission from the #1 Bestselling book, “Transforming Pain Into Power” by Doris Helge, Ph.D. With over 20 years of experience, award-winning, Certified Master Coach Dr. Doris, has a proven track record of helping people like you enjoy meaningful work and relationships, including powerful personal and professional partnerships. Enjoy life-changing teleclasses and videos at Download your free ebooks and see client testimonials at You may reprint this article as long as it remains intact and proper attribution is given.

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