How the Drama Triangle of Abuse plays out in The Archer’s domestic violence plot.
The Archers, Radio 4’s fictional soap, about daily life in Middle England, is breaking through one of the last taboos: lies, domination, the triangle of abuse and domestic violence in family life. Last year, Helen Archer, a single parent and member of the largest farming clan in the area, married Rob Titchner a new arrival to the village. Helen, a lively mid 30’s farmer’s daughter, had a partner who died, after which she struggled psychologically. A few years ago, she decided to have a child as a single parent, and re-emerged into adult life, competently juggling being a single mum with her responsibilities in her family’s farming business.
Rob is portrayed as dynamic, charming, knowledgeable and reliable. Yet there have been glimpses of another side to him. A side which is controlling, intimidating, manipulative, a liar and a bully. Chinks of this, came to light during his divorce from his first wife, however he was able to convince people HE was the victim and his first wife was mentally unstable, something he then recreated once he married for the second time. With the divorce through, he married Helen Archer on a surprise romantic holiday, away from friends and family. A fait accompli indeed!
Some family and friends had reservations, but the deed was done and Rob is charming enough, until something doesn’t go his way. Then you see a lack of maturity and stability, as he manipulates situations to reflect his version of events. He is never in the wrong! Rob’s ability to influence, includes intimidating deriding and dismissing others. For example, after assaulting a member of the public. he threatened another member of the Archer family, until she falsified her police statement. That should have been a warning, but the storyline, is very true to life. Rob was able to mentally intimidate the person until his version of events prevailed.
There are many types of abuse so no one definition encompasses all. Ultimately abuse is about power, the power to dominate one person and make the other person feel better about themselves in relation to the person or people they dominate. The tactics often used in abusive situation, throw a person off kilter so one minute the abuser shows loving attentive care until the other’s guard drops, then the abuser says or does something undermining or degrading, getting under the mental defence mechanisms that would usually keep them safe. If challenged about this behaviour, the situation is minimised or the challenger is lead to believe they have misunderstood. Abusive behaviour has a knock on effect on a person’s relationships with friends, family, children, colleagues, workplace, finances, their ability to look after themselves and eventually to be think for themselves. The boundaries of emotional, physical and sexual abuse often blur with time. Therefore over time, mixed messages lead to a shift in power, away from a natural flow or balance experienced in healthy relationships.
When the power imbalance shifts, it’s quite common to find, that whatever someone does to please the abuser is ridiculed, or simply found fault with. Nothing, is good enough and this damages confidence and resilience. An example would be of someone cooking a meal and the other person deciding they didn’t like it, so they make a point of saying how disgusting it is and throwing it away, in front of the person who spent time preparing the meal. The message here is “whatever you do for me is of no value”… Combined with other things such as: disapproving of the way someone dresses; their friends; questioning their decisions; deriding their ability to make decisions and doesn’t take too long for the message to be interpreted as, “you are of no value.”
There are at least 400 domestic violence related suicides each year.
Once Helen Archer became pregnant, the psychological bullying continued. There is research that shows some men become physically aggressive to their partners once they become pregnant. In The Archers storyline we know Rob has hit his first wife who wasn’t pregnant which shows his behaviour is not triggered by this additional vulnerability. It is simply his need to have power and control over another human being that drives his interactions.Once Helen had been isolated from her family and friends, the next level of damage started. Rob the concerned husband, told everyone Helen was too unwell to work and took over her job in the family business. This again chipped away at Helen’s identity and position in the world. He even manipulated her stress related outbursts, implying Helen is becoming mentally unwell. This may well be the case, however, the triggers to any anxiety or depression, can often be found in the climate of an abusive environment.
The storyline shows, how a person in an abusive relationship, reaches a point where they become psychologically unwell themselves. This is a direct result of the constant strain of living in this situation. It leads them to distrust their own capacity to make decisions, because everything they do, is filtered through a fear laden lens, of what they believe will annoy, or please, their partner.
The predictable pattern of events healthcare professionals recognise, are often only identified if treatment is sought for physical harm. However, there are specialist trained professionals who can help before the abusive behaviour intensifies. This information came into the story, when Helen decided to ring a confidential helpline number, given to her by her friend Kirsty. Helen rings secretly, and gains some strength, as another lens is used to look at the situation with her. She is potentially no longer on her own, though if Rob got wind of this it would put Helen into an acutely unsafe position, because anything that challenges his behaviour, is a threat he could respond aggressively to.
In a real life situation, an abuser who sees their partner re-gain strength is likely to react by attacking verbally, physically or sexually, to maintain power. Therefore, by acknowledging something is seriously wrong, Helen is also at greater risk and needs to remove herself quickly and silently. So far, Helen’s survival mechanism, has been to minimise and accept Rob’s possessive behaviour and the mental and sexual abuse. This is a mechanism people develop, to try to stop a situation getting worse.. or so they think. However, abusive behaviours do not disappear on their own.
The Drama Triangle of Abuse.
Abuse simply escalates and changes its form. Take Rob, who initially spent time winning the confidence of Helen’s five year old son and gained legal parental responsibility for him. Over time he created strain between her and her son, which allowed him to start emotionally attacking her little boy. The victim, persecutor and rescuer triangle, has now taken another position as Helen’s son is drawn into the drama. Helen’s position as victim is now shifting as her son Henry has become the unwitting ‘victim’ in the triangle of unfolding drama. There are only two positions left, rescuer or persecutor. Helen has to take up one of them because, abuse can only exist in this scenario, when all three positions are taken. Will she fight for her son, or flee with him? If Helen is unable to rescue herself and her son, Rob, apparently having secured his power, may well become full of remorse before using damaging behaviour again. In The storyline Helen snaps and attacks her husband as Rob goes for her son, he ultimately becomes her victim but this level of aggressive retaliation is unusual and very high risk, mainly because the difference in the emotional power dynamics are so extreme plus the difference in physical strength is one of the factors that can not be ignored. However, it shows how the cycle of abuse flips from one to the other with serious provocation. Things can happen in an instant as the normal boundaries of social behaviour have already been destroyed. The Archer’s plot, included Rob suggesting she harmed herself, even though Rob cannot now intimidate her, she may yet harm herself, as the Drama Triangle continues to play out, as other people and institutions now take up their positions. In real life, statistics show, suicide is sometimes attempted as a way out of the situation particularly if someone has been physically injured and is discharged back into the environment where the abuse took place. (BMA Domestic Abuse report 2014 for more information).
Around 3/4 million children witness domestic abuse in the UK each year.
The impact of abuse continues well after the abuse stops.
In real life, there may not be a chance to stand up to abusive behaviour and remain safe. Instead the triangle has to be broken, which means not reacting as a victim, rescuer or abuser, but simply getting out. Leaving is a first step, it’s crucial that no trace of a plan can be found via the internet or phone. In real life, the shame and distrust abuse engenders means few will call on a friend to help. So it’s important not to appear different while in a situation and seeking professional support. Most men and women who have been in abusive situations walk out with just the clothes they stand up in – they have to – to reach safety.
“Ridiculous, this sort of thing just doesn’t happen in middle-class families”. Wrong! This is what happens behind closed doors in some family homes. No socio-economic group is immune to how and when abuse develops.
It is a crime to attempt to destroy a person’s sense of themselves and take away their liberty. cf The Economist article 9th April 2016: Prosecutions for domestic violence are becoming more common in Britain.
Yet shame, fear and helplessness still keeps this a ‘behind closed doors’ issue, that we literally brush under the carpet. Sometimes we are prepared to accept these things happen in soap operas, but not with our neighbour, our relative, work colleague or even, ourselves.
Furthermore, if we accept abuse happens, it’s somehow easier to see a man as the abuser, and while more women experience domestic violence than men, abuse has no gender distinction.
Fear and shame stops either partner from seeking help, so we all have to be alert to changes in the behaviour of close friends and relatives we know well. Joining up the dots is a difficult thing to do from the outside, because the couple for their own individual reasons, are so good at minimising and hiding what’s going on. However, whilst this is a personal problem, it is also a problem that has an impact in the community, in schools, in the workplace and in the healthcare system. So it affects all of us. The 2011 Report on Domestic Violence show it costs England £5.5bn/year to the public purse.
- More than 80 women and just under 20 men were killed by their partners in 2013.
- One in four women and one in ten men have experienced domestic abuse as adults – 2015 Crime Survey figures in England and Wales .
- Men made up 25% of reported domestic abuse in Northern Ireland in 2013 and approx. 38% of abuse sufferers in UK in 2009.
If you recognise your behaviour from reading this article and want help to stop abusive behaviours, or if you are trying to manage someone else’s behaviour towards you or a child Speak to your GP or phone the UK’s 24/7 Domestic Violence Confidential Helpline. National Domestic Violence Helpline It’s for men and women, those who are being abused and those who abuse 0808 2000 247.
Adriana (Summers) Galimberti-Rennie is a psychologist with a practice in South Manchester, Cheshire, Derbyshire, Central London and The City of London. She also heads up Painless Divorce the only national award winning multi disciplinary team of legal, financial and interpersonal integrated service to assist couples through their divorce, without ending up in Court.
Images www.saatchiart.com/uraniamytika Written by Adriana Galimberti-Rennie