The Triangle–What It Looks Like In Family Life

Molly* is a difficult [in my more honest moments I think of her as nearly tyrannical] early adolescent, who makes her mother’s life a horror. She picks on Mom’s clothes, her hairstyle–the way she chews her toast in the morning. It seems little escapes Molly’s critical eye, despite the fact that her mother Marge* has dedicated her life to raising Molly–and to raising her as a more self-confident person than Marge herself is. Marge and husband Mark* had so hoped for a large family, but they got Molly–and both know–or at some level they do–that she is a gift from the heavens.

Mark, however, believes–and he certainly seems to have a point here–that Marge spoils Molly, giving in to her desires, her tantrums, her smallest wishes. Sadly, but for obvious reasons, Mark doesn’t inherently seem to like his daughter that much, and if there is discipline to be meted out, it is Mark to the rescue. Mark, Molly and Marge form a triangle, with somewhat conflicted relationships between each of the members, as well as an enmeshed one between Molly and Marge.

A dyad is sally unstable, so families resort to a classic triangle structures, perhaps the most familiar is between mother and son and son’s wife. The second classic triangle is among two parents and a child–and the permutations for this are endless. Let Mark, Molly and Marge show you just one way you can play with triangles in your family dynamics until the shape is so worn out it’s amazing it retains its structure at all.

Let’s look at the Karpman’s Drama Triangle, where the points of the triangle represent the victim, the persecutor, and the rescuer, as seen below:

(image from http://www.my-counseling-site.com/codependence-counseling)

Note the importance of the arrows in this diagram, indicating motion, for here’s how this family’s dynamics work:

Molly persecutes Marge, who puts up with her daughter’s non-stop criticisms [did you know Marge walks like a duck?]–until she’s had it. Marge, worn out from her role as the victim, calls in the rescuer, Mark, for some serious discipline. And Mark actually–can you imagine?–raises his voice when speaking to Molly. . .

who quickly takes on the victim role. I’ve seen it in action, and Molly has some serious acting potential.

But it doesn’t stop there, and this indicates the fluidity of these roles, and the complex dynamics inherent in the triangle structure. Sometimes Marge calls on Mark so much in a short period of time to handle their child that Mark gets sick of it, and turns on Marge, wondering why she has so little discipline potential, why she has set up so little structure for Molly, why she has let their little girl turn into a monster. Thus Mark, the rescuer, changes his role in the triangle to persecutor, and Marge, alas, is victim again–a role where she seems comfortable.

Alternatively, there are times that Mark’s tongue-lashing of Molly is so harsh (or at least it’s perceived so by Marge and Molly) that Marge can’t let Molly sit in the her role of victim any longer, and it’s Mom To The Rescue from Persecutor Dad. Observe in the diagram that, on her way out of victimhood, in order to allow Mom to re-enter her permanently rented place, Molly once again becomes persecutor of Marge, as she complains bitterly about how her mother fails to protect her from her “verbally abusive” father.

Then they both double-team Dad, who waltzes into the victim role. As composer Mick Terry would have said of Molly’s time spent as persecutor, “it’s a nice job if you can get it.”

Some important take-aways for your own family drama: Rescuing, tempting as it is, doesn’t work.  Those who have rescued for a while can become so sick of it, they persecute the victim.  Those who are repeatedly rescued get sick of it, too; and they get angry. Victims get themselves out of their position by problem solving. No one fixes another person. Get out of the triangle and off the merry-go-round. And watch as the family system stabilizes.


**As with all characters in my blog posts, there is no real Molly, Marge, or Mark, whose names have been changed to protect their privacy.  They are teaching characters, composed of bits and pieces from real life humans plus details from my imagination, which make the story more interesting and, hopefully, instructive.


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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