Article – Fix You?

Published articles by Rebecca Mitchell on issues around sexual abuse

Incest, Co-Dependancy and the Drama Triangle

Published in the BACP magazine “Therapy Today”
July 2007

“I’ve been a bad boy” he mumbled into my hair “That’s what you said. I’ve been a bad boy”. He meant it, but he was also working himself up. I know both those things, now. “Will my Heatherbell forgive me”. I didn’t nod, but I didn’t move away either. His voice thickened. “Does she know how much I need her?” I nodded then. I did know. “How lonely I am…how blooming lonely?” He rubbed his nose up and down in my hair. He paused. It took him some time to speak “Both of us is that, aren’t we?”

He rested his head against mine. “Ever so lonely”. We sat quite still “Whatever is going to become of us Piglet?” I couldn’t answer this.
Extract from “Porky” by Deborah Moggach Published by Penguin

The dynamic of a co-dependent relationship has been described as “The Drama Triangle” a term first described by Stephen Karpman as a social and psychological model of interaction in Transactional Analysis. The Drama Triangle is played out by two people who alternate between the roles of victim, saviour and persecutor. The above extract from the novel “Porky” is a graphic illustration of how the drama triangle is being created for Heatherbell. Although a child we can see how she is being set up as both victim and saviour by her father.

Although fictious, my own personal experience as a victim of incest, and as a Facilitator of a group for women who have experienced sexual abuse and incest for over twelve years tells me that this illustrates perfectly how co-dependence and emotional as well as sexual damage is founded in women who suffer sexual abuse at the hands of others.

The Drive To Repeat

Women who have been sexually abused by an intimate other – be that father, teacher, relative, vicar – often describe a childhood where sexual abuse is just the icing on the cake in which their circumstances have been very unhealthy and damaging.

The victim has often become the abuser’s emotional crutch and has been set up in order for the sexual part to be played out. Sadly, this pattern of relating continues into adulthood when the victim often chooses abusive relationships where once again they are often forced into the co-dependent role of rescuer, victim and even persecutor. Philip Hodgson, the Psychotherapist and writer describes these relationships as “Emotional Time Lords” and that we repeat these patterns because “they fit some part of the family template with which we grew up”.

This is echoed by Hemfelt, Minirth and Meier in their book “Love Is A Choice” who call this “the homing instinct” – an internal home within our minds which we return to. Just as birds and animals migrate every year to where they were reared, similarly humans seek to reconstruct childhood lives no matter how dysfunctional and painful they were. For incest victims this is often to step from one triangle (mother, father, self) to another one – perhaps “the other woman” or the role of “carer”.

The Role Of Victim

It is also true that victims of sexual abuse as children have often been highly manipulated, not only by the abuser but at the hands of others leaving them with very damaged boundaries. This means that often as adults they are easy prey for other manipulative people who can sense those broken boundaries. This again re-casts them in the role of victims, and it is upsetting to hear (no matter how many times you hear it) the tragedy upon tragedy victims of sexual abuse and incest victims experience often re-victimised by further sexual assault or rape. When we have explored this together we have seen that because of their past violations, they are simply unable to recognise when they are in an unsafe situation and have very little awareness of their own rights as individuals.

The Role of Persecutor

Although perhaps initially harder to identify, the persecutor role is also one that incest and abuse victims can assume. Often outwardly extremely compliant and vulnerable inside seething with rage, sexual abuse victims are sometimes completely in denial they experience any kind of anger. Yet this hidden anger is usually expressed in their intimate relationships – particularly with a male partner. Over the years I have heard women almost jubilant in their ability to finally have some real power over men. This is especially the case when they have managed to allure and then abandon men – be that in a night club – or in a more serious relationship. At last becoming the controlling rather than controlled. Ultimately though they often come for help because this cycle of behaviour which seemed so enticing at first, has not led them to the satisfaction and feelings of power they had hoped.

The Role of Rescuer

The co-dependency issue is often a very strong driving force for victims of abuse and particularly incest. In a co-dependent relationship “We need each other” can mean “I need you to need me” which often has the underlying message “I want you to be needy so you won’t leave me”. The abandoning damage of incest by both the abuser and the family leaves deeply insecure wounds in the victim of only being of value when she has something to offer. Playing the role of carer/rescuer fulfils this perfectly. Often their own needs to be helped projected onto another person whom they rescue and care for.

M Scott Peck explores co-dependent relationships in his classic book “The Road Less Travelled” describing them as a form of “anti-love” which “causes people to fiercely attach themselves to another”. Yet it is not easy to detach from these triangular roles. We live in a culture that not only colludes with these dependent relationships but actually alleviates and celebrates them – no more strongly than in songs (which are played 24 hours a day) depicting them as the ultimate human experience – for example: “Tears stream down your face … and I will try to fix you” (Coldplay – “Fix You”), “I will go down with this ship, And I won’t put up my hand and surrender, There will be no white flag above my door, I’m in love and always will be” (Dido – “White Flag”).

With this as a constant backdrop in not just song, but often film and TV, it is no wonder people used to being the “fixer” find it difficult to separate off into more independent relationships.

The Way Out Of The Triangle

False Guilt
Penny Parks in her book “Rescuing The Inner Child” says that the most crippling phpect of incest is “self sabotage caused by misplaced feelings of guilt”. So many victims of abuse internalise guilt and shame that really belongs to the abuser – within them. This results in feelings of dreadful self esteem, people who are willing to accept so little in their lives and relationships, and even more sadly, when good things come along they are reluctant to embrace or do not feel they are worthy of them. Helping the client put the shame back on the abuser and reclaiming their own self value is a large part of the work in recovering from sexual abuse.

Rebuilding Boundaries
Rebuilding good boundaries is also a big part of the work – the boundaries of the therapeutic relationship can help to mould this of course, but also encouraging the client to explore what kind of boundaries they have in their styles of relating. For example, do they have good boundaries with their peers but broken ones with a figure of authority e.g. a boss. Looking at their sexual boundaries is extremely important. The classic situation I have heard is when clients say “they just wanted a hug” but felt cagouled into full intercourse – re-inforcing their position as powerless and therefore open to re-victimisation and also re-inforcing their often deep seated hatred of men or women.

Detaching and Saying No
Helping clients create space in relationships to move from co-dependent carer role is key to establishing a more healthy relationship style. When the client is in a long term partnership both people may benefit from coming into therapy. However, where this is not possible, helping the client see that in healthy relationships her “no” is as important as her “yes” and exploring the false guilt that often accompanies saying “no” helps to detatch and restore separateness.

Making changes is never easy but over the last twelve years of running the group I have found that with a lot of hard work, change is possible and a more satisfying life can be achieved. Of course there are no easy formulas for success, but I have observed that the women who are able to identify their role in the triangle, how their triangle was created and who is in their triangle today; seem to be able to move ahead and create new beginnings for themselves and gradually take themselves out of the triangle altogether and into relationships that are more equal and fulfilling.

Porky by Deborah Moggach Published by Penguin
Rescuing The Inner Child by Penny Parks – Souvenir Press
Love Is A Choice by Hemfelt, Minirth, Meier – Monarch Publications
The Road Less Travelled – M Scott Peck – Touchstone Publishers
Shock Of The Old – by Philip Hodson – The Observer – 25th August 2002