The British people were given a binary choice in the EU Referendum last week – and are now locked in a dangerous and potentially destructive drama triangle.
First identified by Stephen Karpman in1968, the drama triangle is a psychological model that can help to illustrate dysfunctional relationships in which there are three players.
The players assume one of three clear roles that apply precisley to the sorry saga of the Brexit debate: the persecutor, the rescuer and the victim.
The campaign Leave played Rescuer, protecting voters from the perils of immigration and the EU’s assault on our democracy, casting Remain as persecutor and voters as the victim.
Remain tried the same ploy.
But in their version of the triangle, they were the rescuer, with Leave the persecutor threatening to bring voters economic meltdown, reduced standing in the world and compromised national security. Voters were cast as victims here too, destined to suffer dire consequences if they put a cross in the wrong box.
The referendum result suggests that voters found Leave’s rescuer narrative the more compelling.
Psychologically, Leave had a head start, in that they had the promise of the new, the bold and the daring, which are integral parts of any good rescue. They underscored their position throughout the campaign by implying that only they could save the UK from mass immigration and even going so far as to place themselves symbolically between the voter and the hordes apparently waiting to get in (link here if you need a reminder).
In the aftermath of victory, Leave already have a myriad of cares.
Another care to add to the list is this: in drama triangles, the rescuer very often gets re-cast as persecutor. The victim builds an expectation of how their world is going to be changed, an expectation typically beyond the rescuer’s ability to deliver. The trust which has been built is fatally undermined and the relationship can turn sour very quickly.
How to escape the drama triangle?
In executive coaching, the model is often used to help the victim understand why this dysfunctional pattern keeps cropping up in their relationships and to identify ways in which they can stop the pattern recurring.
The coach would be looking for ways that the victim can feel more empowered and better able to withstand the pressure of persecutors and the charms of rescuers.
In a ‘physician heal thyself’ moment, I mulled this over with my inner coach, and two actions have emerged that are helping me to feel less of a victim in my political relationship with my country.
Firstly, I’m getting involved. I’ve joined a political party and I’m going to stop carping from the sidelines. For the purposes of this article the name of party is irrelevant, except to say that I look forward to voting in a leadership election very soon.
Secondly, I’m waging a one-man war on ‘the Westminster elite.’
Not the people, but the phrase. I simply don’t believe that an elite exists in Westminster. To state the obvious, all of our MPs are democratically elected. It is not they who are distant from us but we who are distant from, and unresponsive to, them.
There was nothing elite about Jo Cox, but I only know this because of her recent and tragic death, and the media coverage it attracted. There are hundreds of other MPs doing similarly selfless, thankless work all across the country. They should be lauded, not lambasted.
‘The Westminster elite’ is a lazy and pernicious phrase, used to undermine our political life, to allow ill-thought-through arguments to masquerade as the voice of the people and to fan the flames of social division.
In such a frame of mind I find myself in need of neither rescuer nor persecutor. Whatever might be said about Brexit, I’ll judge it on its merits and put across my own point of view, to my MP (hello, IDS) and to my party.
No drama there, triangulated or otherwise.