The Karpman Triangle

Karpman Triangle

I’m an addict, which makes me the most visible part of a sick family system. Someone could look at my acting out behaviors and say omg, how awful, stupid, gross, or whatever. That same person would look at my husband’s insane work schedule and be impressed. But he’s every bit as sick as I am. And that was a shock for me to consider. I have always though that my husband is a truly good person and that he never deserved to be saddled with a wretch like me. I’d admired him and despised myself, a perspective that’s fully supported by our culture.

The truth is, my husband is every bit as sick as I am. This is something we addicts struggle to accept because it interferes with one of our core beliefs: that we are bad. It also supports egocentrism because we believe that we have the power to fix our relationships by becoming good. It was difficult for me to get better. I had to stop acting out and get through withdrawal. Other addicts gave me suggestions, talked to me, and encouraged me to reach out for help rather than self-medicating with compulsive sexual behavior. I worked the steps to the best of my ability with a sponsor. Now I’m different, life is better, and I have the freedom to choose my actions.

My family is still together. That’s pretty amazing, all things considered. Not because what I did was so awful, but because when the addict gets better, the family system doesn’t work anymore. That’s one of the reasons it’s hard for addicts to remain sober after they go back home; their sobriety throws a sick family system out of whack.

The best way to understand this is with the Karpman Triangle. In a nutshell, the Karpman Triangle is a way of looking at the framework of interactions between people without getting caught up in the content. Looking at your relationships through this lens is like looking at one of those 3D posters. At first, there’s confusing mess of colors and shapes but after you know the trick, you can see the hidden image. This is such a good analogy for how understanding the Karpman Triangle works, it’s worth clicking over to Magic Eye just to look at one. It’s not a gradual process, you’re able to see the image instantly. Once you get it, you can look around within the image and not immediately lose your perspective. If you do lose your perspective, sometimes you can get it back immediately but other times you have to start over again. I would imagine that the more practice you get, the easier it is to see the hidden image.

When I got better, our family system changed. That’s been more difficult and painful than I would have imagined but ultimately it’s been a good thing. My husband was able to see that although he doesn’t look as sick as me, he is. And he was able to make the crucial step of actually changing. His withdrawal from compulsive working was painful and difficult but it was worth it. Now he has the freedom to choose his behavior, just like I do.

We feel more in love now than when we first met, and our upcoming 25th wedding anniversary will be a true celebration. We laugh a lot, fight much less and try hard not to pick up those old scripts. When we do fall into old patterns, we cut ourselves some slack and try again.


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