Should I Stay or Should I Go?: Problem Marriages #2–Rescue Marriages

It probably seemed pretty clear how the first problem marriage structure, of the over- and under-functioning spouses, could lead to marital stress–although  many of these couples stay together for the long-term.

The second ‘problem marriage,’ in my view, though, is that of the rescue marriage, and oftentimes it’s harder for people to see the problem with this one.  There’s a certain highly romantic element to this relationship structure, and people feel, as they enter into it, that either they will be saved forever, or that they have the ability to rescue a drowning person–and the rescuer and rescue-ee will live happily ever after, once the rescued person’s life has been fixed.

There are multiple examples: a woman marries an alcoholic, convinced she can cure his addiction with her love and compassion. Or perhaps she marries a man who has never made a living, and is certain that her belief in him will help him be successful.  I had one client, with some serious commitment issues, actually, marry a woman with a terminal diagnosis. Again, his love and support, he seemed to believe, could cure her illness.

More commonly, the term ‘rescue marriage’ is utilized to describe one spouse saving the other from a bad family-of-origin set-up. This is one of Judith Wallerstein’s four models of marriage, written about in her book with Sandra Blakeslee, The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts.   Wallerstein is a psychologist and researcher who has studied the long-term effects of divorce for over 25 years, and she actually writes about the rescue marriage in what I find to be a highly romanticized way.


For another pattern emerges that can be destructive in the relationship–and it’s one you might expect. Simply put, the rescuer often undervalues the contributions her spouse can make, and thus enables the ‘victim’ in his need to be rescued. Alternatively–and this makes perfect sense to anyone who has rescued a lot–sometimes the rescuer just gets sick of rescuing–to the point where she actually starts persecuting the victim–and the victim, sick of being in the role of the one needing rescued, becomes resentful–and, at times, takes on the role of persecutor himself, too.

It’s all clearly explained by Stephen Karpman’s work [he is  a psychiatrist who is Vice-President of an organization called the International Transactional Analysis Association (best if you check that out yourself)] by what became known as the Karpman Drama triangle, as depicted below, and is pretty fascinating to read, so I encourage you to take a look, especially if you believe you might be in a rescue marriage.

In the first post on the topic of whether you should stay or leave I suggest that before you walk away from a marriage you need to ask yourself how you’ll change your own behavior in the future so that you don’t fall into your pattern again. Because rescuers tend to be rescuers, no matter what the setting, and that applies to marriage, too. The outer construct of your second relationship may look different from your first–but if you don’t work through why you always need to be in the position of rescuing your mate, it’s a question of being doomed to repeat your destiny.

And the same goes for the ‘victim,’ or one who needs rescuing. If you believe in your heart of hearts that you are incompetent, or that the world has dealt you a bad hand and you can’t make it out there on your own without someone swooping in to save you from your own fate–well, it’s pretty clear to me the type of person you’ll marry next time, too–and then begin to resent.

I can’t answer if you should stay or go in this marriage more than in any most  other ones, but I can recommend that you work through your issues, or you’ll be repeating your pattern, no matter how different the surface of your next relationship may appear.



I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

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