There is a profound triangle, developed to explain the consequences of acting like a victim or a rescuer. Many people act like victims, or believe they are victims, or simply can’t take responsibility for their own actions. Others are compulsive rescuers, trying to fix any problem in another’s life. They are generally unable to allow others to just be in their discomfort. Or they are uncomfortable in their own skin and project that outward onto others, trying to remove the source of discomfort in the apparent victim.

We can use the example of enabling behavior that while on the surface appears to be supportive, yet upon further reflection is actually damaging in the long run. At one corner of the triangle is the VICTIM, at another the PERPETRATOR, and at the third the RESCUER. It is tied to the victim/rescuer dynamic. The premise is that once we step on the triangle in any one place, we inhabit all three. For example, a spouse (the rescuer) who makes excuses to her alcoholic husband’s boss (potential perpetrator) may look like she has rescued him (the victim) from potential job loss. But in the long run she is the perpetrator enabling him to continue his destructive behavior.

The United States reacted to Saddam Hussein’s perpetration of evil in Iraq, perceiving the Iraqi people as victims of his actions, and took action to rescue them. What then happened? We were seen by the victimized Iraqis as the perpetrators of the resultant political and economic unrest which then required the rescuing actions of the insurgents. And then vigilante groups formed to rescue the Iraqi population from the insurgents. And the dance went on.

If we react to a perceived threat with an action designed to rescue, we will always be seen as perpetrators of another harm. It seems to be a basic law that comes with being human.

When we react to something said by our spouse that appears hurtful or attacking, we most often defend ourselves by saying something that appears to our listener to be an attack. Now, who’s the victim of another’s behavior? And who’s the perpetrator? Couples spend seeming lifetimes on the victim-rescuer-perpetrator triangle, instead of asking for clarification of an initial offending comment.

One partner, while being perceived as the perpetrator by her spouse, may have only been attempting to rescue her partner from making a mistake. But once he says something she sees as an attack, she is the victim and most often defends herself. But to have the presence of mind to pause and ask for further explanation, we must be senior to our reactions, because we are rarely upset for the reasons we think. It is always a past event brought forward into the current moment that causes the upset. We must recognize our automatic reactions, our clutter, so that they no longer have the power to run our lives and keep us upset. But it takes work to uncover our clutter and then discard it. Can we still be reminded of it, in an argument without lashing out? You bet. And with practice we can control our words instead of allowing our clutter to control our lives and our relationships.

Excerpted from Confession is Good for More than the Soul

About the Author

Leslie Reynolds-Benns, PhD, author, most recently of Confession is Good for MORE than the Soul. Speaker, trainer, workshop leader, community activist and wedding officiant. Sign up for a FR*E*E 4-part mini e-course – CREATING YOUR OWN REALITY – at