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Triangles Can Help or Hurt Communication

Sometimes when we want to talk with someone, we assume they wouldn’t understand, or worse still, wouldn’t listen. Maybe they’d even fire back some criticism at the messenger so they didn’t have to deal with the message. So we send our message through a third party.

This is called a ricochet message, or a bank shot, but these terms imply it just happens once. Usually messages keep coming this way, and so it’s more accurate to call this form of communication a triangle. It creates talks about third persons who aren’t there.

This form of communication isn’t very effective– problems hardly ever get solved this way. Actually they get enlarged, because triangles are always an insult to the person being talked about.

Not all triangles are unhealthy. When you find you can’t talk with someone directly, arrange to have a third person mediate a new 3-way meeting. Ask him or her to uphold not one or the other of you, but your relationship, and the open and kind communication it needs.

One of the best descriptions of this mentally healthy triangle is Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18: 15-17. Businesses would do will to put this procedure into their policy manuals. It would cut way back on gossip, backstabbing, the fear of same, and so it’s great for team spirit and morale.

Most triangles are harmful, behind-the-back. One especially tricky triangle involves a victim, a villain (victimizer), and a rescuer. Psychiatrist Stephen Karpman has taught that when this situation doesn’t get resolved, and a person keeps being drawn into these roles, it feels a lot like the Bermuda Triangle. This is variously called trauma repetition, repetition compulsion, or trauma bonding, but policemen and counselors call it a Karpman triangle.

When someone gets traumatized and tries not to think about it, research shows that the trauma victim will keep feeling victimized by other things, and keep calling in others for rescue and to punish those perceived as abusers. Sadly, the drama doesn’t end—it keeps repeating itself.

And the roles keep changing: once you enter it as a rescuer, you often become a villain to one or both of the others, and the original villain often feels like a victim. You then feel like a victim, and may look to one of the others to bail you out, thus launching another round of Karpman Hades.

All the characters are drawn into the triangle by identifying with the victim in another, and before it’s over, you will all feel victimized. The only way for you to get out of a Karpman triangle is to detach from the game without emotion, realizing you’re neither victim, victimizer, nor rescuer.

Blame no one including yourself, and accept that both of the other two may continue to see you as a victimizer/villain. Realize they need to bond with that victim role more than they need to bond with you, mental health, or reality. You can only pray they will someday work through it.

Research shows that there is a much higher incidence of Karpman triangles in the lives of not only trauma victims with repressed memories, but also alcoholics, drug addicts, and behavior addicts like sex and gambling addicts, bulimics, etc. Why? Subconsciously, if something once upon a time came into them to hurt them, they keep looking for something else to come in and take the hurt away—a pill, a bottle, a Twinkie, a lottery ticket, or yes, a villain and a rescuer.

None of course will give more than temporary relief. The game must repeat itself, until the trauma is uncovered and healed in therapy, and the grip of the addictions are broken.

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About Dr. Paul Schmidt, PhD

Dr. Paul Schmidt, PhD is a psychologist life coach with offices in Louisville and Shelbyville, KY, 502 633 2860.