The Theory behind the Drama Triangle

Louisa003 Rewriting the Narrative, The Adoptee Journey

The Drama Triangle

He called me emotionally immature when we broke up. And at the time it was one of the worst insults you could hurl at me (that’s hard to believe now though). Emotional immaturity was a ‘belittling’ criticism. Something to be ashamed of. I was an adult, wasn’t I? Surely I was emotionally mature. But unlike physical maturity, emotional maturity tends not to grow ‘naturally’ that is to say, over the passage of time. It requires work. And so my emotional maturity has come over fits and starts. Through pain and experience. Ironically the fact that this insult doesn’t hurt anymore, is one of the ways I know that I have grown. That though I am still somewhat emotionally immature, I am far less so than I used to be.

That’s because emotional maturity is the ability to understand, manage and take responsibility for one’s own emotions.

We were all emotionally immature at one point or another, just as we were all physically immature. But whereas there is a definitive end to physical immaturity, emotional immaturity is something which evolves in secret. You can still be emotionally immature at 80… indeed there is always room to grow emotionally and no clear ‘line’ to crossover from immature to mature.

The way that less emotionally mature people try to get love is by playing the drama triangle, which is what I did (and sometimes still do). Here’s how it works if you’ve grown up in an emotionally immature household.

As a child, you will seek to blame others for the hurt you feel. You will try to play the victim in order to have your parents ‘rescue’ you. And I believe this is a perfectly healthy position if viewed as a rite of passage. In fact as a child, you are unable to survive on your own and you must often be ‘rescued’. It is one of the most important jobs of the parents to teach their children over time, about the power they have over their own emotions, to cultivate a healthy self-esteem and to help the child realise that playing the victim only perpetuates neediness and is highly unattractive. This is impossible though if the parents themselves are not emotionally mature and have not worked on their own self-esteem.

In less emotionally mature families then, the child might always play the victim to be bailed out of their messes by their parents (who like playing the rescuer), or play the rescuer tending to their parents’ emotional needs (because they themselves still play the victim) or be positioned as the persecutor – the bad child who causes enormous trouble. Invariably, children who grow up under these circumstances will think that the drama triangle is a ‘mature’ state of affairs. Like I did. They will grow up believing that they too must continue playing it in order to get love, because that is the only strategy they know. Children who grow up playing this game will have low self-esteem because they have never been given the opportunity or condition to ‘grow’ self-love internally. As an adult they will date inside the drama triangle to get love from outside themselves in order to feed their self-esteem.

Emotional maturity then is inextricably bound up with self-esteem. I reckon, those who have low self-esteem cannot operate at a high level of emotional maturity (even if they pretend otherwise). Those who have high self-esteem may not be emotionally mature either, but they sure as hell have a better chance at ‘growing the muscle’ than those who don’t.  Worse still if you have a low self-esteem and you are by definition emotionally immature, you will only attract those who like you, have a level of neediness which is at a similar level to your own. You will unconsciously choose to date those who will ‘play’ with you inside the drama triangle.

Of course, people do try and hurt us (those bastards). And this can cause pain. We all experience pain but we react differently. Because pain does not have to entail suffering; suffering is a choice. Suffering is normalized by our society as the appropriate response to pain. It’s an unwritten law – if you do not suffer, you are not human. All too often then, we choose to suffer. Often it is the only choice we know. Emotional immaturity is a normal beginning point. Once more, you are not to blame for this, but you are the only one who is responsible for changing it. Pretty Woman provides ample food for thought on this subject. In one instance Edward crosses a boundary that they’d both agreed to by telling his repulsive, rapist friend that she’s a hooker.

Vivian: You hurt me.
Edward Lewis: I know
Vivian: Don’t do it again.

Sure, Edward did cross a boundary. But what Vivian might have said was ~

Hey you know what? If you are ashamed of who I am, then I prefer to be with people who aren’t because I’m worth better than that.

But she didn’t yet believe it herself.

When your the victims you hurt, but it may be disproportionate. Victims believe that if they put responsibility on others, they will get the love they need to feed their self-esteem because someone ~ the white knight ~ will rescue them. It is a manipulative position.

The rescuer plays their role by assuming responsibility for others’ emotions and actions. They believe that they will get the love they need by fixing others problems. They feel validated and worthy by doing so. Their self-esteem is supported.

The victim and the rescuer need a persecutor – that’s to say someone who can be responsible for the hurt. Sometimes this role is played alternately by the two people being the victim and rescuer, sometimes not. Sometimes the persecutor is a purely projected role, but all too often the projection becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The persecutor is in a perceived position of power. It is also a position which supports self-esteem simply because of the power to inflict pain. It is an attempt to control the situation and others in it.

But the drama triangle is a funny beast. You can be self aware and still be playing it with your partner. That’s because all positions on it are not created equal in our society’s eyes. Our culture and media thrive on the drama triangle.

Most of us recognise the victim because it’s so obviously needy. Likewise the persecutor…but the rescuer is often considered to be the mature adult.

Edward Lewis: So what happens after he climbs up and rescues her?
Vivian: She rescues him right back.

The rescuer is not only preventing personal growth, but is also enabling the rescuee to stay in a position of victimhood. All positions are damaging therefore because they stop you taking responsibility for your own emotions. This means that you will ALWAYS be dependent on other people to support your self-esteem. You cannot grow. Your love is also need and your relationship becomes a position of entrapment.

The single most valuable thing you can learn in this life is to take responsibility for your own emotions. It means recognising that others are also responsible for their emotions. It means eliminating the ‘need’ to have others rescue you and the need to rescue others. It means that you have no need to inflict pain on others in order to be happy. It means that you can attract people who empower your journey to growth instead of babying each other in a state of emotional immaturity… and calling it love.