Dear Therapist..."I Can't Manage the Conflict Between My Siblings"
I am the eldest of three daughters – we are all in our sixties and both of our parents have passed. I am writing because my sisters are my only family left and I love them dearly but their relationship is filled with conflict. They can, in turns, be angry and aggressive towards each other. They come running to me in tears or rage when they are on the receiving end of it but don’t seem to see that on other occasions they give as good as they get.
I’m exhausted by it as I inevitably get pulled in as some kind of mediator, or, now that our parents are no longer here, as the parent. It makes me just want to retreat from them entirely and cut off communication but like I said they are my only family (I never married nor had children).
What to do?
You and your sisters sound like you may be creating (and re-creating) Karpman’s Drama Triangle, a model that describes a dysfunctional way of organising in relationship.
In the Drama Triangle, the three participants assume the roles of Persecutor, Victim or Rescuer. As the name suggests, the Persecutor acts angrily and aggressively towards the Victim. A bully who doesn’t take into account the other’s views and integrity. Rather than standing up for oneself in the face of this mistreatment, the Victim resorts to feeling helpless and needy. Complaining and blaming are the Victim’s mode of being. Enter the Rescuer who intervenes to ‘save’ the Victim but in doing so may be keeping a dysfunctional dynamic in place both by neglecting her own needs (many Rescuers exhaust themselves as it sounds like you have) and disempowering others.
An interesting feature of this model is that the roles don’t stay fixed. Rather, they rotate around, sometimes in the same conversation! And different ‘directors’ (perspectives) of the drama ascribe different roles to the actors. For example, one or more may see themselves as the innocent Victim, and rarely do people cast themselves the Persecutor. Instead, they will excuse away any aggressive behaviour as provoked by, or in reaction to, the other in true Victim reasoning.
Let’s take you as an example: You enter the Rescuer but does your involvement ever tip into Persecutor territory for the others? Usually it will. As when you fail to take a Victim’s side unconditionally and instead suggest ways she isn’t blameless you can become the new Persecutor. Or, after many failed rounds of playing Rescuer (as you allude to in your letter), you feel stuck and powerless yourself, become a Victim.
‘Step out of the Drama Triangle’ is an oft-repeated phrase I say to clients as no one wins in this dynamic. The Persecutor acts out unreasonable behaviour, placing all responsibility at the feet of the Victim without assuming any of her own. The Victim loses all agency and sense of self; stays stuck, even abused. The Rescuer, despite her best intentions, ends up frustrated and depleted without escaping from nor ameliorating a quite dysfunctional dynamic. Enter resentment.
While there are three roles in this relational dynamic, we can observe that at the heart of all three is a victim mentality more focused on fixing or blaming others than taking personal responsibility. The key to changing the dynamic is for all three participants to look at their own part in keeping the drama ongoing.
The process of getting untangled from the Drama Triangle is similar regardless of our starting position. It begins with awareness of what style of relatedness is present in ourself and what the ‘payoff’ may be for us assuming this role. It then takes time for reflection as to what our needs are in the moment and how to get these met. What do I want for myself, for the other, and for our relationship? We consider the situation from all angles which is a step often neglected when we are hurting and fixated on our own pain. Then: How would I behave if I really wanted this outcome? Too often our actions get in the way of getting our needs met so this second step is one of moving into ‘enlightened self-interest.’
Let’s look at you. On the surface, you are the Rescuer. What do you get from playing this role? The peace you hope for in the family sounds elusive, or at least fleeting, so what else keeps you hooked? It feels good to be needed, to be able to ‘save the day’ or even just to feel like we have some control over a difficult situation. Perhaps this resonates for you.
Or, there may be fear: what happens if you disengage? Will your sisters still be there for you if you aren’t the glue holding you all together? It can be scary to step back, especially as you mention a couple of times in your letter that they are your only family. But be assured stepping back doesn’t mean stepping out of relationship entirely! Considering your current involvement and your need to stay in relationship with your sisters, what other choices do you have? What boundaries need to be put in place? What if you trust and value yourself, consider your needs here? What does that look like?
I would suggest you recast yourself in this drama, move from saviour to coach, and return responsibility to the other actors. Model an assertive relational style as this is what is lacking in Drama Triangle configurations. Assertive behaviour means standing up for your personal rights. Expressing your thoughts, feelings, needs and beliefs in an open and honest manner whilst still respecting others’ rights. You can be clear that you are coming from a place of love, but that the dynamic isn’t working for you. Own your exhaustion and frustration and be clear about the limits of your involvement moving forward. Acknowledge the Persecutor’s feelings, but encourage her to redirect her attention to her own role in the drama and the hurt beneath. To move from aggressiveness – which threatens, scares or violates the rights of others - to an assertive open and direct request in order to get her needs met.
For the Victim, her work is to move from a passive (or passive aggressive) relational style to something more assertive, and this isn’t something you can or should do for her as it deprives her of her own growth. Instead, you can, acknowledge the harm she’s experienced but that this requires her to stand up for and protect herself. You can frame the discussion as one of empowerment, noting that stepping into agency can be scary at first but ultimately it is liberating.
Extricating ourselves from the Drama Triangle can be tricky, and you may fall into old roles on occasion, but once you understand the dynamic you will be able to recognise it when it reappears and reset accordingly. Good luck!