Transactional Analysis, Part 3: The Karpman Drama Triangle

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Further to my recent thoughts on what Transactional Analysis can teach us about what's going on when the conductor-choir relationship starts going wrong, it's worth having a think about a different way to model the relationships. This is the dramatic triangle developed by Eric Berne's student, Stephen Karpman.

The triangle is an interaction between three roles: the Victim, the Rescuer, and the Persecutor. Sometimes you might get three different parties involved in a relationship, each taking one corner of the triangle; alternatively, you might find two parties taking up two of the roles and casting others who are external to their interaction in the third.

The latter scenario then offers the participants the opportunity to play games with each other by switching positions. Transactional Analysis calls these switches the 'pay-off'. The person who makes the switch gets an emotional kick that may be unhealthy in content (like the 'Don't-Blame-Me-When-it-All¬-Goes-Belly-Up flounce' I mentioned in my last post on this subject), but feeds their need for attention, self-justification or stimulation.

So, you might for example find a choral director swooping in to rescue a choir that has undergone a disagreement that has led to the loss of their previous director (and typically a fair number of singers too). The choir takes the role of the Victim, bruised and hard-done-by, and the new director gets to feel good about themselves as they step in to rescue the choir from collapse.

If nobody is playing games, things settle down quite quickly, equilibrium is restored and music-making continues without further drama. In other cases, you find the roles getting entrenched, with the choir becoming endemically passive and put-upon as a way to elicit the knight-on-a-white-charger instincts of the director. Or, equally true, the satisfaction the director takes in feeling indispensable to the singers' well-being becomes an obstacle to handing over any real musical responsibility to the ensemble. (This kind of co-dependency is often perceptible in the form of a director whose gestures are much more vigorous than their singers' performance.)

And then at some point, someone gets fed up of the role they're playing and initiates a switch. The director may get frustrated with the passivity that they have fostered, feeling burnt out because they have to initiate everything. This frustration may break out in switching to the Persecutor role, haranguing the singers for their failings and bullying them over instructions given repeatedly but only intermittently followed.

Or the director may usurp the role of the Victim, accusing the choir of being ungrateful and unsupportive. The choir, bumped from their usual spot may at this point switch over to take on the Rescuer role, and shower the director with assurances of their continued gratitude and offers of help. Alternatively, the choir may turn on the director as Persecutors and blame them for all the choir's failings.

This post is taking a long time to write, because I keep having to stop and think about specific examples I have seen over the years. I am not going to name them as I'm not into washing dirty linen in public, but my guess is that anyone who has much choral experience will have come across some form of this kind of drama over the years.

In its milder forms, it's probably not very dysfunctional - no more than we all are as flawed human beings muddling through as best we can. You sometimes sees mild forms cycle downwards into a crisis point, which is traumatic at the time, but in the medium term does succeed in clearing the air and giving a fresh start from which to negotiate working relationships.

The problems arise when people get endemically stuck in this script, playing out the fairy-tale narrative of Damsel-in-Distress, Dragon and Knight-on-White-Charger endlessly. It's the repetition of the cycle that tells you that people are being driven more by the pay-offs of the game than the desire to make music. It can be hard to step outside the cycle as it is so richly and emotively meaningful in its structure.

But once you have decided to step away from the safety its standardised patterns, you find there are all kinds of emotional rewards on offer that don't involve bullying or helplessness, and that let you make music without carrying nearly such a weight of anxiety.

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