fight and watcher

Image by Brian Sutter

Do you know those arguments where you feel you have been there before? Where you feel that you can predict what is going to be said next? As if the people were following a script?

At times like this we have often slipped into a role. One of the simplest ways of looking at these roles comes from analysing stage drama. In this analysis (and there are many others) there are three basic roles: persecutor, victim and rescuer. The dramatic element is the switching around of these roles.

Here’s an example to explain what I mean. Imagine a Western. The hero (rescuer) rides in to save the fair damsel (victim) from her evil uncle (persecutor) plotting to take her farm from her. Imagine the scene where the evil uncle (now victim) is held at gunpoint by the hero (now persecutor) and the fair damsel (now rescuer) pleads for her uncle’s life. The hero is distracted by the fair damsel allowing the evil uncle (now persecutor) to gain possession of the gun and hold at gunpoint both the hero and fair damsel (now both victim). At this point for there to be more drama a rescuer needs to be introduced (cue the cavalry).

These roles can be found in pretty much any dramatic work, a detective story, a comedy, science fiction or romance, the list is virtually endless.

Often in those moments where we feel that know what is going to happen next we have slipped into these kinds of roles. The challenge is to step outside of the role and this will be the topic of my next post.

This way of analysing relationships was developed by Stephen Karpman in the early days of Transactional Analysis. The best introduction to Transactional Analysis (and the best self-therapy book I know) is Born To Win by James and Jongeward. It includes a chapter on games.

To reflect on:

  • Choose a situation that you don’t like and you feel like “I’ve been here before” or “I know what is going to be said next”.
  • Look for the switch.
  • Ask yourself who is playing what role.
  • Ask yourself what is it that I get from playing this role. (It may confirm ideas you have about yourself and others).

4 Comments to “The Drama In Our Relationships”

  1. DrSteve says:

    What about role switching? What I mean is, say, starting off and interaction as the perpetrator (being the one who tells the brutal truth), then feeling guilty and trying to rescue the persons who seem hurt. But because of the satisfaction they’re getting playing the role of victim they persecute you, resulting in your feeling victimised…And like that.

  2. Evan Hadkins says:

    This is exactly what happens.

    For those of us who wish to help others (and certainly anyone who is paid to do so) it is important to understand this dynamic (though not necessarily in the same language I use of course).

    It has always appealed to my sense of humour to watch ‘clients’ manipulating the people who are meant to be ‘more together’ and caring for them. And the puzzlement the ‘carers’ show. They don’t understand that people have the positions they do for good reason. I suspect these ‘carers’ of wanting to be good boys and girls. This may be unkind but getting over this position of ‘being good boys and girls’ will increase their effectiveness enormously. I’m not advocating that they adopt the role of being ‘a bad boy/girl’ but that they understand the reason why they have adopted their own position.

    Trust this makes sense.


  3. DrSteve says:

    Indeed – rather clarifying, actually. Someone who gets into the mental health game “because I like to help people” is headed for certain burnout. Your model helps to explain this. If that person is determined to be the rescuer they’re practically demanding that the client be either the victim or the perpetrator (or both)!

  4. Evan Hadkins says:

    This is what they are doing.

    Usually you here them complain that those who they thought were victims have turned into persecutors! These are the ones who tend to end up cynical and disappointed.

    I think of a real burn out as something different. The vision is endless but a person isn’t: so they end up completely exhausted. These are the people found after three days staring out the window or in a casino.

    Hope this makes sense.


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