The Transformation from the Karpman Triangle:
Victim, Rescuer, Perp To the Survivor Square – Theory and Work Implications
by John Boland, M.S.W.
In 1968, Dr. Stephen Karpman wrote an article called Fairy Tales and Script Drama Analysis. *
From this, came what was to be known as the Karpman Triangle, a concept used widely in all kinds of therapy, particularly Family, Couple and Mediation.
The current article is designed to help people understand the basics of the Triangle and then progress onto a new concept that transforms the triangle into a positively oriented direction for survivors. I will give case examples (optional – at request only) of a family in crisis but not in treatment (therapy/counseling) and a couple, very fixed, in treatment with a built-in rescuer. This article is also meant to be interactive for the reader. All you need is a pencil, paper, good surface to draw on, and ideally uninterrupted space and time.
When I was working in the field, one day I was giving some time to two students whose assignment was to interview a real live Social Worker with a pulse, to find out if they really wanted to take the education necessary. As I was attempting to answer their questions, all at the same time, my pager went off, my cell phone was ringing, my regular phone was ringing, I hadn’t checked my email and someone was knocking at my door. I shut everything down except the door which was a crisis community mental health nurse whom I supervised and had to quickly arrange fifteen minutes to consult on a case. The female student made a kind of small cough, and they both thanked me for my time and left. I should, yes should, have known it was a sign for me to leave (the job) as well. (Seeing myself as victim).
To understand the triangle fully (yes, even if you know all about the triangle, and yes digitally is preferred), draw a triangle about the size of half a sheet of paper in size with the bottom as a point, not a line. Now mark the two top points as Rescuer and Perpetrator/Perp/Instigator . Now I’m going to change the word perpetrator as I simply don’t like it. It has too many connotations. People can associate it with a crime too often. That is not to say the perpetrator has never committed a crime as sometimes the perpetrator has committed physical and/or sexual abuses which are serious crimes. It’s just I want a slightly softer name (that’s easier to type). Problem is finding another name … instigator … that’s the best I’ve come up with but I don’t like it either. So please email me with suggestions. By the way, wacked out son of a bitch/bitch have already been rejected.
Rescuer. Oh, but such a nicer name. Visions of fire fighters, or someone to show up with help in the middle of the film Out on a Limb or 127 Hours. I don’t remember much from grad school or any school, even forgot most of first year Calculus in which I got one hundred percent, with sixty percent of class failing (below fifty). I do however remember the names of all the clouds and a graduate school teacher who told the first class that we were all there in Social Work – the ten percent of applicants who were accepted – to “work to be social”. Turned out he was still doing that. He implied that we needn’t work to be rescuers as we evidently already were, or at least were ‘wannabe rescuer’ victims. So there seems to be a comforting level here, almost a savior, Mother Teresa aspect. BZZZT… WRONG.
The bottom point in the triangle is Victim. That’s easy although - it hurts, cause we’ve all been one of those. A friend of my Mom's was one for virtually their whole life. And how do you know for sure that you are a victim? … because there’s going to be an instigator and rescuer nearby …
Now take that pretty triangle that you drew, and on each side draw arrows going both ways. So two arrows each side going different ways, for a grand total of six arrows. The reason … because the triangle is often extremely fluid and volatile. And that’s the reason that the rescuer isn’t as comfortable as it seems. You can become the victim or the instigator or both at the same time because two others are perceiving your role. Both at the same time. As I said volatile.
(Case Examples – AVAILABLE UPON REQUEST ONLY)
- one family case very fluid, not in treatment; another case (marital), very fixed, in treatment, with built-in rescuer.
Three Scenarios for Change
1) When another corner is added to original triangle (erase/delete 6 arowws) the triangle becomes a rectangle (sort of - it has 4 sides). Taking the survivor away from the triangle leaves three scenarios, beyond say the perpetrator and rescuer substituting a new victim, such as another sibling.
a) If victim becomes survivor, then instigator and rescuer are in a straight line. The prognosis here would be seen as hopeful with a lower risk to the victim (survivor) and possibly other members as well. Treatment here is assumed.
b) If rescuer moves to survivor, the prospect of instigator versus victim has a poor prognosis and very high risk. Treatment here is critical.
c) If instigator becomes survivor (say through outside intervention), then having rescuer and victim in straight line results in a corresponding lower risk as long as safety plan is in place. Again treatment is critical.
Further clinical study needs to be done to
further understand the resulting dynamics when a familiar triangle is replaced
by a rectangle/square.
© 2005 John Boland
* Karpman, S. (1968). Fairy Tales and Script Drama Analysis. Transactional Analysis Bulletin, vol. 7, no. 26, pp. 39-43.