The Secret Life of Arguments


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Underneath the surface of arguments

Underneath the surface of what we say is a whole other world of meaning where we can discount our own and each other’s power and dignity.

There is a theory that’s like a glass-bottomed boat helping us to see what’s going on underneath an unhealthy pattern of relating to another It’s a theory that is deceptively simple and elegant and it’s called The Drama Triangle. I hope you find it helpful.

The Drama Triangle was designed by Transactional Analyst Stephen Karpman in 1968 to look at unhelpful and inauthentic ways we can relate to each other.



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Fig.1   The Drama Triangle by Stephen Karpman [1968]

As you can see there are three roles people can play on the Triangle.

A Persecutor is someone who views themself as being in a one-up position to others.  A Persecutor will enjoy finding fault with others and putting others down.  A Persecutor will discount other peoples’ innate human worth and dignity.  Persecutors can play a psychological game called ‘Gotcha!’ where they’ll set up a situation where they can pick on someone.

A Rescuer will make more than 50% of the effort with other people wanting to rescue and take responsibility for them.  Rescuers see others as being in a one-down position, incapable of doing things for themselves.  Rescuers discount other peoples’ ability to look after their own needs and be responsible for themselves.  Rescuers can play a psychological game called ‘I’m only trying to help you’.

A Victim will see themselves as one-down in relation to others so they will typically want to relate to people from a one-down position.  Victims discount themselves and their own power to get their needs met.  Victims can play a psychological game called ‘KIck Me’ where they invite people to Persecute them by putting themselves in a one-down place.

Most people have a couple of favourite positions on The Drama Triangle.

Have a think about what yours are.

Whatever your favourite roles we can all switch roles on the Triangle. We can PING around all of them very quickly.

Here’s an example of a made up conversation between friends.

A – I’m so lonely, I never meet anyone. [Victim]

B – Well [Rescuing] why don’t we go out on thursday night?

A – I can’t, I’m just so tired after work.

B – [Still Rescuing] Ok what about saturday night?

A – Ah no, I can’t do Saturday, there’s a programme I never miss… 

[Victim turning into Persecutor maybe with the underlying message ‘your suggestions will never be good enough for me’]

Now B could stay Rescuing or B could PING round the Triangle here.  B could go to a Victim place ‘I’m not very good at this am I?’ or even go to Persecutor ‘No wonder you’re on your own…’

All three roles on the Drama Triangle are people not being real with themselves or others. When we Rescue, Persecute or play Victim we are reprising roles from our pasts, perhaps roles we’ve seen others play.  That’s why interactions with people can seem uncomfortably familiar, especially if there’s a switch of roles.

This isn’t about blaming or shaming each other, because that only sends us pinging around the Triangle again.  We all step on the Drama Triangle every day.

But what the Drama Triangle gives us is a window of awareness, like the glass bottomed boat, where we can see what might be going on underneath us.

If we start to see into the secret life of arguments and interacting, we become more aware. And the more aware we are, the more choice we have to do us differently and to have a more real contact with ourselves and others.

Which is the subject of my next article – the opposite of The Drama Triangle and another piece of theory which I love and I hope you find helpful – The Winner’s Triangle [Choy, 1990].

If you’re interested in finding out more and if counselling in the Aylesbury area might be the way forward for you give Paul a call on 07804 350757



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