Concerns about Syrian refugees, illegal aliens from Mexico, ISIS, home grown terrorist cells and the economic and security issues correlated with any one of these concerns, and it becomes easier to understand how reactive comments proliferate across government, the media, and casual conversations. Assuredly these are complicated matters requiring thoughtful consideration of measures designed to meet the needs of society collectively while respecting the dignity and value of human life individually. With that premise in mind, there can be no single resolution capable of meeting the needs and desires of all constituents. There can be, however, dialogue among leaders and citizens reflecting concern, care, and respect for the needs of all affected by a proposal whether they are active or passive recipients of change. This type of dialogue requires some recognition of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory (Paquette & Ryan, 2001) which at its most fundamental level purports that a change in the existing social system (phrased in the language of a popular movie now playing, “a disturbance in the force”) will be felt throughout the entire system, much like a pebble or a boulder produces ripples or waves on a body of water. Multiple factors contribute to the impact of that pebble or boulder on the ecosystem. With that in mind, pause for a moment and reflect on the interdependence of living organisms.
Designed for relationships: We are social beings
So, what is interdependence and why is it important? Generally, most definitions refer to it as a mutual reliance on one another. It differs from dependence in that it is a mutual exchange of services (hopefully beneficial) whereas dependence is a one-sided reliance on another person, function, or object. One is symbiotic and the other parasitic. Independence is defined as not being under the control or the influence of another person, object, or outside force. Few people, if any, are truly independent, and even those who think of themselves as independent are actually interdependent.
Sustaining life, it seems, is an interdependent process even at the cellular level. So, what happens when there is an actual or perceived disruption in existing interdependent processes? Think about what happens when one variable in a string of processes or actions changes and how the outcome in the immediacy may or may not appear to differ. Nonetheless, the change has affected the internal workings of that system. The system has been changed much like a human being is changed moment to moment by continual influences that one moment are known as the present and then in the next moment has evolved into the past. That human being is no longer the exact same person. It may be seconds, hours, days, months or longer before one understands that experiential effect. If the premise that change in one area of a person’s life or in the fabric of society is ignored or disavowed, then interdependence suffers as dependency and independence are strengthened. The strength of Interdependence is its capacity to promote and sustain balance between the two. When interdependence becomes dysregulated with a disruption of power in either direction, the probability of the system becoming vulnerable and losing its strength proportionately changes. The question becomes when and how does interdependence become so great a strength it devolves into a weakness?
When we-ness is lost
In America independence is a highly valued principle of its national inheritance. Yet the story of American independence historically describes interdependence utilized to sustain freedom from the control of the English government when it appeared to disrespect the needs of the colonists and show preference to the motherland. Historically, then, it seems to make sense that imbalances in power, whether perceived or actual, in results in fear, resentment, hostility, or aggression especially when those conditions contributing to dysregulation remain unaddressed. This is where an understanding of the Karpman Triangle (Karpman, 1968) and its dynamics may be helpful towards understanding the frustration, resentment, and displays of anger and aggression that seem to be intensifying throughout the social strata.
The Karpman Triangle is about perceptions played out behaviorally in relationships. For those readers unfamiliar with the triangle, imagine an equilateral triangle turned upside down so it looks like an upside down pyramid. All participants of the triangle suffer as there is no potential for healthy resolution of problems and issues unless one participant consciously or subconsciously realizes the futility of the behavioral pattern and adopts a new healthy and assertive pattern of interaction. The Karpman Triangle is a reflection of an imbalance of power based on disrespectful and controlling behaviors. There are always three roles or functional positions on the Triangle - namely Helper, Victim, and Persecutor. Within the Triangle is finger pointing, blaming, and accusations with all participants feeling badly at some point.
The Karpman Triangle is an example of an unhealthy interdependent system. Participants find themselves stuck on the triangle because the dynamics of the triangle help them avoid seeing the real problem, and because they either do not possess or they have lost sight of the skills needed to break free from triangle influences. The triangle Rescuer feels good because the desire to feel competent, nurturing, or appreciated is met by fixing somebody else’s problems, namely those of the Triangle Victim. The triangle Victim is momentarily satisfied because the desire to get problems fixed without having to accept responsibility or accountability for them is met, but this eventually transitions into resentment as Victim begins to feel more controlled and put down by Rescuer’s actions and messages. Eventually, Victim reacts by criticizing or sabotaging Rescuer’s “helpfulness.” This is usually seen as hostile to the Rescuer who views Victim as their Persecutor. Rescuer now feels unappreciated and attacked. In other words, Rescuer now feels victimized tries to defend by recounting all efforts expended on Victim and pronouncing Victim’s ingratitude while making a personal vow to no longer help someone who does not appreciate and follow their advice. The cycle may continue to escalate with Victim and Rescuer alternating between their established roles and that of Persecutor. Each abhors seeing themselves as Persecutor and quickly succumbs to feeling hurt and victimized eventually returning to their assigned role on the Triangle (Forrest, 2008). On paper the dynamics are readily recognized as relationally unhealthy but in functionality they go unrecognized because they meet the needs of the participants who either are not ready to change or do not know how to break free from the Triangle. Plain and simple, the Karpman Triangle is about power and control. It plays out every day in personal relationships and in organizational structures such as businesses and governments.
The problem with power and control in a relationship is that it destroys interdependence. Relationships characterized by power and control reflect little respect for its members to dissent or differ from a norm or rule established by the stronger member of the relationship. Eventually the weaker member becomes weary or intimidated and succumbs to appease the more powerful person.
On a larger scale, what happens when the toxic environment is the established social structure and members of society perceive their voice is not heard by the governing body? When a society’s national identity evolves or devolves faster than its constituents can process, integrate, and adapt, resulting misunderstandings seem a natural byproduct that can breed frustration, loss of personal efficacy, as well as perceived threat to safety and integrity as communication breaks down. Such a scenario, it seems, would set the stage for civil unrest and an upsurge in violence as the social structure attempts to restore its sense of balance. There have been several major revisions in recent years to America’s sense of identity and those revisions have polarized factions of Americans. Additionally, the lenient double standard favoring legislators, high ranking officials, and the wealthy has been a source of division and resentment while deepening the divide of societal interdependence. Perceptions of “us and them” are becoming more pronounced as feelings of loyalty and human dignity, value, and worth seem to diminish. With political correctness at an all-time high, people in many walks of life are feeling marginalized and vulnerable.
Some people believe violence in America is increasing despite FBI statistics stating violent crimes have decreased (FBI, 2015). Others say rates of violence have not increased but simply receive broad media exposure. There is a third possibility. Violence appears to be escalating due to accessibility to advanced weaponry and also according to how violence is defined. Dr. Pfeiffer, an anger management specialist, asked group of therapists their perceptions as to whether people appear to be feeling angrier and the general consensus was they did (Pfeiffer, personal communication, December 4, 2013). Whether or not anger and violence in society is escalating, people are becoming more sensitive, aware of, and less tolerant of angry behaviors whether in public or private settings. Most people feel uncomfortable when confronted by an angry individual and, at times, fear for their safety. Reports of mass shootings in schools, places of business, houses of worship, and retails establishments no longer draw the same intensity of reaction and disbelief they once did. Now reports of home invasions, drive-by shootings, genocide, terror attacks, and armed violence are familiar topics and have desensitized society (Peace Alliance, 2015) to the point such reports no longer elicit shock and disbelief. Psychological defenses permit most people’s return to a “business as usual” approach shortly afterward. Nonetheless, the imprint of violence remains because human beings are interdependent which requires a measure of trust.
Restoring balance to we-ness
The need to belong and feel accepted by one’s group is strong and plays a role in maintaining interdependence. It also contributes to each individual’s world view. People need and seek approval to feel good. Whether it be through gangs, clubs, teams, associations, or ideologies. To not belong is deeply painful and is part of what is referred to as primal pain (Klott, 2015). The resulting pain of unmet attachment needs can support an addiction or compulsive behavior, and can inhibit the ability to form trusting interdependent intimate relationships (Dye, 2012). Yet, despite this bleak sounding scenario, there remains hope due to idiosyncratic variables that allow people to learn and grow despite their past.
Through respectful communications and assertive behaviors one’s personal needs can be met while regarding the needs and feelings of others. Unmet needs usually remain unmet when people are relating in a manner described by the Karpman Triangle. Getting off of the Karpman Triangle depends on developing and utilizing assertive communications skills and respecting one’s internal values and beliefs.
The restoration of we-ness hinges on mindfully and thoughtfully developing and strengthening recognition and respect for the human condition, including its dark side. We-ness involves far more than political correctness or tolerance. It is an attitude that begins to develop with the acceptance and the dismantling of us and them including thoughtful recognition of how the past shapes the present and the future. Even those inglorious moments residing in the shadows of human existence demand respect and remembrance for their valuable lessons. This is the byproduct of genuine acceptance and unconditional positive regard. We-ness is a philosophy of giving and receiving – not give and take. It goes hand in hand with interdependence and is more than equal power. If indeed conflict arises when perceived needs are unmet, perhaps through interdependence needs can be met and aggression decreased.
Dye, M. (2012). The Genesis Process for Change Groups Book 1 and 2 Individual Workbook (4th ed.). 2563 Rodeo Flat Rd., Auburn, CA 95602.
Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved from https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2014/crime-in-the-u.s.-2014
Forest, L. (2008). The three faces of victim — an overview of the drama triangle. Retrieved from http://www.lynneforrest.com/articles/2008/06/the-faces-of-victim/
Karpman, S. (1968). Fairy tales and script drama analysis. Transactional Analysis Bulletin, 7(26), 39-43.
Klott, J. (2015, Feb 2). Suicide and self mutilation [DVD]. PESI Publishing & Media.
Peace Alliance. Retrieved from http://peacealliance.org/tools-education/statistics-on-violence/
Paquette, D. & Ryan, J. (2001). Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory. Retrieved from