Victim Triangle

Family Dysfunction and The Victim Triangle

Do you find yourself in the same vicious cycle with family members? Have you wondered how to change the patterns of your relationships with them?

Finding yourself stuck with the same feelings and behaviors after every interaction with certain people? Beating yourself up and sitting in shame forces you right back into those same patterns.

Why do we do this? The answer is that we get stuck in The Victim Triangle, also known as the Drama Triangle. Dr. Stephen Karpman knew exactly what to call this vicious cycle when he created The Drama Triangle.

To learn more about Dr. Karpman’s work, click here. Dr. Karpman called the cycle “The Drama Triangle”, but moving forward I will call it The Victim Triangle as that is how I learned it.

Every single person in the ENTIRE world has participated in The Victim Triangle. Are you thoroughly confused or deeply curious about what in the world The Victim Triangle actually is? It’s the toxic cycle that we subconsciously use to interact with others in incredibly unhealthy, codependent ways.

Victim, rescuer and persecutor are the roles involved in cycle. Often, we “play” one role more than the other, especially within our families of origin. Click here to read about the Victim Role, here for the Rescuer Role, and here for the Persecutor Role.

Check out the picture at the top of this post for a great illustration of The Victim Triangle from The Wellness Institute in Isaquah, Washington.

The Roles of The Victim Triangle

Simply hearing the word “victim” often leaves people feeling irritated, shameful or just plain icky. However, I can guarantee that we have ALL played the victim role at some point in our lives.

Common thoughts that correlate to the victim role are, “Why does this always happen to me,” “Why do I always do this,” “What is wrong with me,” “Why do people treat me like this?”

When we find ourselves experiencing those kinds of thoughts and feelings, we then need someone or some “thing” to make us feel better. Hello rescuer! The victim role forces the next role of the rescuer to appear.

Rescuing can be done by people, food, possessions, or substances such as drugs and alcohol.  For now, we will just explore the rescuer role as a person. Whoever is playing the victim role eventually needs to be rescued, as we will do almost anything to escape the victim role.

Often, the rescuer role feels good for us because we believe we are helping the “victim.” Please remember that no role in The Victim Triangle is healthy! Codependency bleeds through all three roles.

After the rescuer role comes the persecutor role. That is the role that unleashes anger towards the person or thing that rescued the victim.

Once the persecutor role is in play, another “victim” is needed for the persecutor to persecute. So, the cycle of The Victim Triangle continues. If you are thoroughly confused here, don’t worry. I will give you an example to help you understand how this works.

The Victim Triangle in Operation

In order to illustrate how The Victim Triangle works, we’ll look at how it can play out in a family. Let’s look at a fictitious family with the last name Dunn. Vicky is the mother of three adult children.

She often places Melissa in the rescuer role, as Vicky has become a pro at playing the victim. Melissa has two siblings who do not have a close relationship. Jane is the oldest. The beginning of The Victim Triangle began when Jane sent a birthday gift to Sam, the middle child.

Sam for some reason did not call to thank Jane for the gift, which resulted in Jane calling her mother, Vicky, to complain. In this scenario, both Jane and Vicky are in the victim role. Due to this, they need an active participant for the rescuer role.

Mom calls Melissa, who jumps right into the rescuer role. Melissa listens to her mother’s plight of her children not having a good relationship. She “casually” suggests Melissa should call her brother to let him know that Jane isn’t sure if he got the gift she sent.

Now, stop and think for a second. Melissa has nothing to do with any of this. How often has that been the case for you? Do you still find yourself jumping in to participate in family issues like this?

Rescuing is Still Codependent Behavior

Hello Dunn family! Melissa is here to save the day, or so she thinks. Next, Melissa calls Sam to let him know that their mother called. She explains that Jane was concerned that he did not get her gift since he hadn’t called to thank her.

Persecutor role is now played by Sam. Once he became the persecutor, he needed a victim to persecute. Little Miss Rescuer is now the victim because Sam was angry at her for getting into his “business” with his sister. Sam informs Melissa that she needs to mind her own business in a not so nice way.

Remember how I said the cycle of The Victim Triangle just continues on and on? You can see now how that is true. Sweet little rescuer Melissa is now the victim and she needs to be rescued. Jane, the original victim, is now Melissa’s rescuer.

Jane rescues Melissa by telling her that their mother never should’ve called her about the situation with their brother. Apologizing, Jane even goes so far as to lie and say that she told her mom not to involve Melissa.

She genuinely wanted to make sure Sam got her gift according to her. We know that’s not true. Jane loves drama too much and gets a thrill out of watching it all play out.

Here comes the persecutor role now. Easily sliding into the persecutor role, Melissa persecutes her mother. The conversation between the two is Melissa verbally attacking her mother for having gotten involved in the drama between her siblings. By now, you should know what role is next. Once again, Vicky is now the victim.

Your Family and The Victim Triangle

Nausea may be creeping in now as you realize how your family has functioned in The Victim Triangle. Keep in mind that every family has participated in this dysfunctional cycle. Breaking the cycle is very difficult. It takes a conscious effort to truly begin stepping out of it.

Every single family has exercised this dysfunctional cycle in similar ways to the Dunns. Allow yourself to stop and think of one or two scenarios within your family. Who was in which role and how did it all play out?

Are you questioning how in the world you are supposed to do that now? Well, it begins with acknowledging the roles you have played in the past. Also, you must begin to recognize when family members are playing the roles in The Victim Triangle. Yuck! Fun will never be associated with this kind of work.

Looking at the unhealthy patterns of your own family can be hard as you are used to the way everybody functions. Watching TV can actually help you gain a better grasp of this dysfunction. It is much easier to identify the roles fictitious people play than it is to see yours and your family’s unhealthy cycle.

Identifying Roles of The Victim Triangle

Turn on a TV show that involves families. Allow yourself to start noticing which characters play which roles. Learn the movements from one role to the next with the characters in the show. Once you’re able to get a good grasp on this, you can begin to look at your own family.

A word of caution while navigating this work is needed here. Trust me when I give you this warning! Do NOT attempt to explain to your family members what roles they are playing in The Victim Triangle! Keep in mind that you’ve chosen to do this work, not your family.

You cannot make others see their own dysfunction. Unfortunately, I attempted this with some family members before realizing they had no desire to change. Frustration and hostility are all I got in return, as will you.

Always allow yourself patience and compassion if you choose to do this work. I tell all of the clients that I guide through this work that they will undoubtedly fall back into The Victim Triangle.

Consider how many years you were unknowingly jumping from role to role in this cycle. Your brain has been wired to respond in the same manner. Due to this, you will have to make a very conscious effort to step away from The Victim Triangle.

If you are wondering how you can work towards avoiding being pulled into The Victim Triangle, click here to read the post “Family Generational Curses Cause Dysfunctional Relationships Full of Guilt and Shame.” Just know that the first step is to recognize the roles you and others play. After that, you can read the blog post mentioned above. Then, you will be ready to begin functioning in a healthier way with your family.

The Victim Triangle: “Our family was stuck in a cosmic hamster wheel of toxic love, making the same mistakes, saying the same words, being hurt in the same ways generation after generation. I didn’t want to keep playing a role in this tragedy of errors.”
― Yamile Saied Méndez, Furia


This site is only intended for people who are truly willing to look at themselves with an open mind and have the ability to truly be vulnerable with themselves and others. Please understand that this site is in NO WAY THERAPEUTIC ADVICE. However, this site can be very beneficial in learning the causes of your Not Good Enough Stuff. This site is not intended to provide or replace medical or psychiatric treatment. Mary Beth HIGHLY RECOMMENDS finding a licensed therapist to help you process the information from this site and all that you learn about yourself. Visit Psychology Today to find a licensed therapist in your area.

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I’ve never thought of this in these terms before. I can see how I’ve played all three roles at different times in my life. It’s nice to know what each role looks like so that I can try to stop myself from repeating the behavior. I imagine this triangle can also occur in a group of friends and would be just as toxic.

[…] There’s not enough room in this post to explain The Victim Triangle, but to read more about it, click here. For now, just know that it is a very toxic, dysfunctional cycle that never ends […]