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The Drama Triangle: It Takes Three To Tango!

Dr. Stephen Karpman loves sports. He is also an internationally acclaimed psychiatrist, author, therapist, and former athlete himself. As early as 1965, Karpman was doodling circles and symbols trying to figure out ways that a quarterback could outsmart the defensive halfback in football, or how offense beats defense in basketball.

As the quarterback for the Delta Tau Delta fraternity football team at Duke, he would trick the defense by looking at two different receivers, then throwing to the third. Score! He also developed a matching set of fakes in basketball: a little fake, a big fake, then a third way to score.

Karpman went on to develop a sophisticated model of how games get played out between people, discovering that it all comes down to triangles and roles. An offense lures a defense into expecting a certain role from the players who are interacting through triangles. Without notice, one or more of the players switch roles, leaving the defense wondering what happened.

Off the court, people do the same thing! We play one or more “expected” roles. And then, seemingly without notice, we switch, inviting confusion, frustration, guilt, and other nasty emotions that influence people to do what we want, in order to get what we want. The difference is that in real life, the switch causes a lot more problems than allowing a few points or missing a screen.

Karpman’s Drama Triangle

To explain what he discovered, Dr. Karpman developed the Drama Triangle, a model that describes how three different negative roles play off each other to keep us all guessing and, in the process, perpetuate unhealthy behavior. For this innovative work, he was awarded the Eric Berne Memorial Scientific Award by the International Transactional Analysis Association.

Three Roles of The Drama Triangle

The Persecutor attacks, blames, or manipulates others to get what they want. As if to say, “Everyone else is the cause of our problems.”

The Victim over adapts and internalizes the attack of the Persecutor, or advice of the Rescuer, as confirmation of his inferiority. As if to say, “I am the cause of everyone’s problems.”

The Rescuer inserts herself into others’ business without permission as if to say, “I’m the solution to everyone’s problems.”

These three roles play off each other to keep the drama going. People can play more than one role, sometimes switching to keep others confused and maintain the upper-hand.

Things to ponder

  • What role(s) do you most often play in drama? What does it look like, sound like, or feel like?
  • Drama invites drama. What roles and behaviors trigger you the most? How does your behavior trigger others?
The Drama Triangle: It Takes Three To Tango!

Nathan Regier

Nate Regier, PhD is CEO and Co-founding owner of Next Element, a global leadership communication firm specializing in building cultures of Compassionate Accountability®. A former practicing clinical psychologist, Dr. Regier splits his time between writing, speaking, training, consulting, and developing Next Element's global network of certified trainers. He is co-developer of the Leading Out of Drama® training and coaching system for positive conflict, and has authored two books on drama and conflict; Beyond Drama: Transcending Energy Vampires, and Conflict Without Casualties: A Field Guide For Leading With Compassionate Accountability. Nate is a certifying master trainer in the Process Communication Model®. He lives in Newton, KS, is married and has three daughters. Learn more about Conflict Without Casualties here.

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APA Reference
Regier, N. (2018). The Drama Triangle: It Takes Three To Tango!. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 22, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 Sep 2018
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