There is no doubt about it: human relationships are complex. However, have you ever thought about them using the form of a triangle? Well, psychologist Stephen Karpman thought of this geometric form when he proposed his model to better understand how we relate to other human beings and how they relate to us. This idea of three vertices can help us to understand the different patterns that take place in our relationships. Specifically, Karpman postulated a triangular model that explains the forces that come into play in unhealthy relationships. According to this author, we would relate from three positions: as the persecutor, victim or savior.
To better understand this triangle we will use characters that you may be able to identify with:
“Victimaria and Amortonio have been married for a long time, but lately they have been having some difficulties. Victimaria is a hardworking and tenacious woman who has always been characterized by her desire to excel. Amortonio, on the other hand, is a caring and attentive man who at the moment barely works a couple of hours a day; that’s why he is responsible for housework and taking care of their two children, three and five years old, who are more and more rebellious every day. When Victimaria finishes her workday and goes home with Amortonio, she realizes that “circumstances surpass them”: Amortonio is paralyzed by the task of dealing with the children. In those moments Victimaria tends to move him aside him and take control of what is happening.
When they argue, she usually throws this in his face and accuses him of not taking care of his obligations; she feels like she turns into an ogre around him, but she’s tired of not knowing how to do better. He, on the other hand, adopts a self-pitying attitude and feels very guilty about not knowing how to improve. He usually apologizes and feels guilty for failing to remember the tasks he promised to do — he says that he feels like a disaster without a solution. Seeing this, Victimaria is filled with compassion and, although she’s exhausted after her day of work, she chooses to help Amortonio with his tasks when he feels overwhelmed by the little work he has.
As if this were not enough, Victimaria’s relationship with her mother-in-law is not particularly good. Mrs. Mari Mucho, Amortonio’s mother, has never been happy with the way Victimaria educates their children. They talk about it often because Victimaria does not want to go to dinner with her in-laws on Sundays. When this happens, Amortonio does not much care: he knows that his parents are older, and he wants to be able to enjoy their company, so in the discussions he reprimands Victimaria harshly for her selfishness and makes her see that this is important for him. She feels guilty and goes on Sundays generally without complaint: she feels badly about not being more considerate with Amortonio.
Taking Amortonio and Victimaria as an example we could ask ourselves: what point of the triangle does Victimaria relate to? How about Amortonio? Are they victims, persecutors or saviors?
In relation to the model that Karpman has proposed, it is clear that the positions are not stable. Victimaria herself goes from being a persecutor of her husband to taking the place of a savior. Amortonio passes from victim to persecutor in his relationship with her. The interesting thing is to pay attention to the fact that when we place ourselves in one of the roles, the other person has no choice but to be in one of the remaining two. So if I position myself as a victim, the other person has no choice but to be in the role of either persecutor or savior. If I am a persecutor, they can only be either a victim or a savior. Finally, if I am a savior, the other has only the option of victim or persecutor.
When he positions himself as a victim, Amortonio does not give Victimaria the option to be in a position other than that of persecutor or savior. It seems that he needs to be either saved from or scolded for his actions. In the same way, Victimaria does not give Amortonio the option of placing himself more than in the position of victim if she is persecuting or saving. The relationships in this triangle are always bidirectional, that is, the position that one assumes will inevitably affect the position that the other takes on.
From this insightful perspective, we can ask ourselves about the relationships in which we adopt the role of victim or those in which we feel that we are always “saving the other” or accusing them of something. What would change if we deviated from our default positions?
The learning and identification of these relational games is complicated and often an unconscious process; we often don’t realize that we are entering into a vicious cycle in which if I am always X, you always have to be Y.
What do we do if find ourselves lost in one of these games? Constructing the healthiest relationships possible requires effort and time. Even so, we can follow some simple guidelines to guide us in that direction:
If you usually assume the role of persecutor, it might be rewarding for you to work on your assertiveness; that is, learn to defend your own interests and rights while also taking into account those of others without resorting to aggressiveness. This way, you can defend yourself without harming the relationship.
If you tend to relate more to the position of victim, it would be good for you to focus your personal growth on the assumption of responsibilities, helping you to take more control over your life without expecting that always other people will always be able to help you to resolve your difficulties.
Finally, if you relate most from a position of savior, knowing how to set limits and remembering to take care of yourself are skills that will help you develop personally.