addiction in the familyAddiction doesn’t happen in a bubble, it has a way of altering a family and the interactions of family members.  The effect addiction in the family has becomes quite apparent when we look at the dysfunctional communication roles that family members often take on.  These interactions are fittingly called The Drama Triangle.  There are three roles in the Drama Triangle and each one is reactive and manipulative instead of honest and authentic.

What Are The Roles People Play When Addiction Exists In A Family?

Victim: This person continually feels victimized for what others are doing to him or her.    They feel helpless and hopeless.  Victims typically have unrealistic expectations and feel despair, vulnerability, and suffer chronic disappointment. Victims or martyrs tend to communicate in passive ways.  The victim avoids responsibility by blaming others and trying to control them with guilt.  This person feels “less than” the persecutor and often receives pity and is taken care of by the rescuer.

Persecutor: This person acts out in order to get revenge and/or offend others, as a way of avoiding his or her own discomfort.  Persecutors often communicate in an aggressive way.  They blame and criticize others.  They see everything as win/lose and insist on “being right”.  This person feels “better than” the victim and uses intimidation and threats to feel power and try to boost self-esteem.

Rescuer: This person is a natural caretaker and very non-confrontational.  They keep secrets and enable addictive behaviors.  Rescuers provide unasked help (while neglecting themselves) and often feel tired, depleted, unappreciated, and resentful. Rescuers communicate in a passive-aggressive way.  This person feels superior to both the persecutor and the victim.  Rescuers concentrate on others in an effort to avoid turning inward.

If you see yourself in different roles in different situations, that is expected!   

People will start in one role and often move around the triangle to different roles, sometimes within one interaction.  For instance, consider an alcoholic who is out late drinking while their partner is at home worried.  The alcoholic may come home to an angry partner (persecutor role) and instantly be in the victim role but then try to turn the blame onto his/her partner (therefore reversing the roles).  The interaction may then evolve further with the partner helping the alcoholic to bed and calling into work on his/her behalf the next day (rescuing role).

Also, don’t forget this is the drama triangle, so these roles are assumed when things are going awry.  These are not permanent roles.  However, as we know as an addiction progresses things go awry more and more often.

Why Would Anyone Participate In The Drama Triangle?

We take on these roles because subconsciously there is a perceived benefit to each one.

  • The victim receives pity and doesn’t need to take full responsibility for their actions.
  • The rescuer feels superior although over time they feel unappreciated, frustrated and tired from their attempts to rescue.
  • The persecutor feels a sense of power and entitlement and demands respect from others.

But these benefits are really an illusion, Claude Steiner comments, “The victim is not really as helpless as he feels, the rescuer is not really helping, and the persecutor does not really have a valid complaint.”  All the roles have something in common: by taking on a role, you don’t have to deal with your own issues or take responsibility for your own actions.  The roles serve the purpose of getting our adult needs met but in immature ways.  All three roles share a lack of boundaries and hinder one’s ability to be intimate and/or respond to others appropriately.

How To Step Out Of The Drama Triangle?

The only person you can control is yourself.  You can begin to step out of the unmanageability of the drama triangle by:

  • Recognizing that there is a Drama Triangle that is not working
  • Setting healthy boundaries
  • Taking responsibility for your own actions
  • Speaking honestly, calmly saying what you really mean
  • Having respect for yourself and others
  • Valuing the relationships more than being right, or better than

If you or a loved one is repeatedly in The Drama Triangle because of addiction.  You can get help getting out by contacting New Hope Recover Center at or 773-883-3916.  For more information about us visit our website at

Other articles you may find interesting: Family Roles and Addiction

Written By: New Hope Recovery Center


What role are you?

Families operate as a system, no matter how functional or dysfunctional that may be perceived to be.  Each family member has a role.  It is not necessarily an assigned role, it is often an assumed role based off of learned actions and reactions.  Families which have one or more members who suffer from addiction will most likely find the entire system to be organized by the disease.  When someone is suffering from addiction it is often the family members who notice and experience the consequences first before the actual person does.  The consequences felt by others are real; they are not perceived and therefore in an effort to adapt family members begin to change their role to lessen the consequences they experience.  Change is slow, especially for the one suffering from the disease, so as a result the family balance begins to shift.  Think of it as a baby’s mobile above a crib, not all the toys hanging from the mobile hold the same weight yet it hangs in the balance in its own unique way.  What this looks like in real life is a family which is trying to increase consistency and structure in a system which is becoming more and more unpredictable and chaotic.

This manifestation of specific roles is not always noticeable while it is happening; incremental change is hard to see while it is happening.  A common way a family comes to realize this shift is once the family member suffering from addiction decides to start on the road to recovery.  They may go off to treatment and be ready to work a program only to come back to their family and realize the new role they want is not conducive to how the family system was functioning before.  A similar example is a veteran who returns home from war and has trouble reintegrating into their family and society.  The family and the individual do not always know how to adjust, even if the desire to change is positive.  Claudia Black Ph.D. has taken the work of Virginia Satir on family roles and adapted it to the addictive family.  People do not always fall into one category or another cleanly; sometimes family members take on different roles for different situations.  Where do you see yourself fitting into these categories and what implications can you draw from them?



1. Successful

2. Organized

3. Leadership Skills

4. Decisive

5. Initiator

6. Self-disciplined

7. Goal-oriented


1. Perfectionist

2. Difficulty Listening

3. Inability to Follow

4. Inability to Relax

5. Lack of Spontaneity

6. Inflexible

7. Unwilling to Ask for Help

8. High Fear of Mistakes

9. Need to be in Control




1. Caring/Compassionate

2. Empathic

3. Good Listener

4. Sensitive to Others

5. Gives Well


1. Inability to Receive

2. Denies Personal Needs

3. High Tolerance for Inappropriate Behavior

4. Strong Fear of Anger or Conflict

5. False Guilt

6. Anxious

7. Highly Fearful

8. Hypervigilant




1. Creative

2. Less Denial, Greater Honesty

3. Sense of Humor

4. Close to Own Feelings

5. Ability to Lead


1. Inappropriate Expression of Anger

2. Inability to Follow Direction

3. Self-Destructive

4. Intrusive

5. Irresponsible

6. Social Problems at Young Age

7. Underachiever

8. Defiant/Rebel




1. Independent

2. Flexible

3. Ability to Follow

4. Easy Going Attitude

5. Quiet


1. Unable to Initiate

2. Withdraws

3. Fearful of Making Decisions

4. Lack of Direction

5. Ignored, Forgotten

6. Follows Without Questioning

7. Difficulty Perceiving Choices and Options




1. Sense of Humor

2. Flexible

3. Able to Relieve Stress and Pain


1. Attention Seeker

2. Distracting

3. Immature

4. Difficulty Focusing

5. Poor Decision Making Ability


As mentioned, roles are assigned and assumed based off of learned behavior in the past.    It is important to understand how roles can be restricting in our life.  The label alone has implications for how someone is perceived by others and in turn views themselves.  There isn’t a specific role which someone should strive to be, each role has strengths and deficits.  It is more beneficial to be self-aware of our own strengths and shortcomings so we can attempt to use the information to maximize the positives and minimize the negatives in our day to day life.  The disease of addiction affects the whole family, there are some things one can control and there are others that one cannot.  If you are a loved one of someone who suffers from addiction consider reaching out to a 12-step fellowship near you such as Al-Anon or Families Anonymous:

At New Hope Recovery Center, we involve family and friends as a key component of addiction treatment. If you have questions or would like more information, please contact us at 773.883.3916.

You may also be interested in reading: Addiction in the Family: The Roles We Play

Written by: New Hope Recovery Center