The Victim Triangle of Co-Dependent Families and Addictions

Notice that You Always Take the Same Role in Your Family’s Drama?

Shelly, a divorced mother of 4 young boys, says that her ex-husband is such a jerk. She says that because of him, her two older boys need to go to therapy; she angrily states that he controlled her throughout their marriage; she hates that she has no money to pay for nice things that she wants and thinks he should pay her more spousal support; and she says that it is because of him that her life is now so awful.

Shelly is the way she is because of the dynamics she grew up with in her own family-of-origin. She unconsciously learned that when she played the role of the “victim,” she got attention during times when she was feeling neglected, and felt a (albeit false) sense of power during times when she was feeling powerless.

Shelly’s role is a very common occurrence in many families today and is part of a phenomenon often described as: The Victim Triangle of Co-Dependent Families and Addictions.

What are the Characteristics of the Victim Triangle?

The Victim Triangle has been around for a long time, first introduced by family systems’ therapists. It is the basis for dysfunctional codependent relationships/families and is almost always present in families with addictions. The common characteristics of these families are: an addiction to drama and chaos, a fear of intimacy, unpredictability, many unspoken rules, a distrust in people outside the family system, a high degree of conflict without any resolution, and a family steeped in shame.

What are the Roles of the Triangle?

As it implies, the triangle has three roles: the victim, the rescuer, and the persecutor. The glue that binds these roles together is lack of personal power and unclear personal boundaries; people don’t know who they are or where they end and another person begins. These boundaries become diffuse and undefined because the family members continuously jump from one role to another to another.

  • The victim is a person who feels helpless, blames others, and feels sorry for himself: “If it weren’t for my boss, I’d be __________________(rich, happy, successful).” By blaming others, the victim surrenders his power which is what keeps him feeling helpless and powerless.
  • The rescuer is a person who takes care of everyone else. Often times, this is a child of an addictive family who feels it is her responsibility to solve the family’s problems and take care of the addict. Within the role of rescuer is the victim consciousness.

The victim and rescuer are, naturally attracted to one another and thereby perpetuate the codependent relationship with one another. The rescuer is constantly trying to “fix” the victim, which results in the victim feeling even more helpless and eventually even resentful. In turn, this resentment brings about a role reversal, wherein the victim becomes the persecutor.

  • The persecutor persecutes the rescuer, and then the rescuer becomes the victim. Persecutors can be physically, emotionally or sexually abusive; they may persecute by withdrawing love, sex, or money. They usually are very passive-aggressive and use guilt as a way to control and manipulate others. Interestingly enough, then the persecutor feels pity for the victim and moves to the rescuer position. The victim resents feeling helpless and having to be rescued and begins to persecute the rescuer. The triangle takes on a life of its own and off they go.

Why Do the Roles Switch So Often?

As you can see, this triangle is quite stable and roles are constantly changing. In family systems theory, three is the most stable arrangement. Think about it: two points connected by a line versus three points connected to make a triangle. The triangle wins out every time!

In the dysfunctional family, the sides of the triangle are made up of poorly defined personal boundaries. Dad asks his daughter, Suzie, a question and Mom answers for Suzie. Mom is upset that Suzie had a snack before dinner and Dad disciplines Suzie. Dad comes home drunk, Mom goes to the bedroom, and Suzie makes Dad a cup of coffee and sits up with him.

Why Don’t People Just Step Out of the Triangle?

That’s almost like asking why people don’t just step off a moving roller coaster! Remember how stable it is? If one person tries not to take a role, the other two will either overtly or covertly pull the person back in. In this way, the Victim Triangle is an addiction of sorts: Victims will attract rescuers and persecutors. Rescuers attract victims and persecutors and in turn, persecutors draw victims and rescuers. Once this pattern has been established in your family-of-origin, it’s an imprint you carry with you wherever you go. For instance, if you were a rescuer while growing up, as an adult, you will attract mates, friends, and/or neighbors who are ideally suited to playing the “triangle game” with you.

Are You Ready for This One?

Here’s the kicker to it all: we can move in, out and around all the roles of the triangle ourselves, not needing other players! We do this all the time without even realizing it!

For example, let’s say you feel out of control with regard to food, like a helpless victim. In order to rescue your victim-self, you decide to go on a diet. Then you go to a party and have a piece of cake, wherein you become angry, start persecuting yourself by putting yourself down and making derogatory and harsh self-statements. You then, again, begin to feel guilty, out-of-control, and helpless and…here you are, right back where you started: a victim.

Let’s Take a Real Life Example

Bob was born with severe asthma, the victim. He is young, helpless, has physical problems. His mother, Sharon, feels sorry for him and begins to rescue him (This, by the way, is exactly how pity and love get confused). Sharon is very overprotective of Bob, not allowing him to play with the other boys and not allowing him to take risks. This further imbeds Bob’s feelings of helplessness and powerlessness, and invites others to persecute him. Bob’s father, Dan, wants Bob to stop being a “sissy” and decides to “play rough” with him to toughen him up. The more Dan does this, the more Sharon rescues, and the more Bob feels like the victim.

Calgon, Take Me Away!

Often times, people come into therapy unaware that they have been playing this game their whole lives! They seek relief from eating or addiction issues, while lurking underneath is this codependent cycle.

Since hypnotherapy treats the symptoms as well as the underlying causes of the symptoms, it is highly effective at dissolving this habitual life pattern in order to replace it with healthy, functional intra- and inter-personal relationships.

Really?? How??

From the example above, Sharon, the mom, was the one sought treatment. She came to therapy because of what she termed her, “emotional eating.” Sharon said that she had tried everything under the sun to try to curb her eating, and nothing had worked.

Sharon agreed to try hypnotherapy. Once relaxed, she determined that she feels some guilt, shame and fear right before she is about to emotionally eat. She then went back to a time when she was 6 and remembered watching her younger brother getting beaten by her step-father while her mother was at work. Her brother was only 3 1/2-years-old and had accidentally wet his bed. Sharon was eating breakfast when she witnessed this incident and reported how she felt so helpless and scared. She said that all she could do was to try to “act normal,” keep her eyes to herself, and continue to just eat her cereal. She reported feeling robotic and “numbed out,” as she was eating. Then she said, “It was better than feeling all that guilt for not doing anything!” I helped Sharon connect how she had felt helpless sitting at the breakfast table, like a victim, and in order to take some control and avoid feeling that, she ate. Sharon then said, “I should have done something to save my brother.”

This was a way that Sharon continued the cycle of victimization on herself-by beating herself up-becoming her own persecutor.

After this session, Sharon began to draw some parallels between her childhood, her eating, and her current family situation. Sharon said, “Wow. I realize how now my son, Bob, is like my brother and how my husband is like my step-dad. And I’m still me.”

We had a couple more hypnotherapy sessions where Sharon visited other times in her childhood that made the pattern very clear to her and how she had played (and continues to play) the rescuer in the family: “So, what I’m realizing is that I either step in with my son and protect him and make him the victim, or I do nothing, feel guilty and ashamed and then eat.” Sharon connected with these younger parts of herself from her childhood and comfort them, telling them that it wasn’t their fault for not doing anything-that they were just children, themselves.

Once she did so, Sharon began to report big changes in her life. She noticed an increase in energy and more creativity. She said that Dan had begun to be interested in therapy to work on his own childhood, having seen the huge shifts in his wife. Sharon was allowing Bob to take more risks and play with the neighborhood kids, and Bob had actually made a new friend and had asked whether he could learn how to play the drums! Sharon wasn’t so sure she wanted to support the drum-playing (because she valued her sleep), but she was so pleased to see Bob’s initiative that she was willing to consider it!

Coming Full Circle by Way of Triangle

In this article we talked about the Victim Triangle of Co-dependency and Addictions: what it is and its roles, why it’s so common, and how to break out of it.

So if you can relate with Sharon story, (or even with Shelly’s whom we met at the beginning of this article), and you’ve tried other therapies without any luck, hypnotherapy may just be your answer! It just takes one person in the triangle to make a shift and the whole triangle changes!

Call me at 303-396-8084 for a free, 15-minute consult to make sure that hypnotherapy is the right fit for you!

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