Role-playing in relationships

We all have many roles in life: we are spouses, parents, children, siblings, colleagues, friends, mentors, neighbours, acquaintances… you get up, you’re a wife and a mother for an hour or two, you go to work and switch into a colleague and a boss, suddenly your mum calls and you get to be a child for a while, you meet your girlfriend for lunch and slip into friend mode, you go to do your hair after work – and there, you are a client.

We almost never think about how many times we switch between roles in a day – it is almost non-stop activity, and we do it automatically, often moving from one to another without noticing.

We are so used to adjusting our behaviour and expressing ourselves in so many different ways, it has become our second nature. And it is great we can do it so easily: without this ability, navigating the complex web of human relations would be a much more stressful endeavour.

But, what we also seldom think about is – are we playing the right roles? Are we friends to our friends, and partners to our spouses? Are we parents to our children?

I know it may sound confusing – how can we not be? – but many times in relationships we play roles which are not appropriate and healthy for that type of relationship. We become friends to our children, and parents to our parents, or therapists to our partners or friends.

When that happens the relationship dynamic changes, and we lose the balance of the original roles: if we are too friendly to our kids, we lose authority we need to teach them things and guide them through life.

When we swap roles with our parents we feel a great burden and responsibility that is not ours – while they become clingy and needy, and often frustrated if we can’t meet their needs.

When we play therapists to our partners and friends we lose the equilibrium necessary for this type of relationship to thrive – we think we are giving it all and receiving very little, while they feel diminished, unappreciated and patronised.

This balance shift occurs occasionally in all relationships – and it can be a good thing: every now and then we need our partners and friends to pick us up when we are down, same as we need to be friendly approachable and open with our kids, and help our aging parents with their needs – but when it becomes prevalent and overwhelming, it is rarely a good thing.

In romantic relationships most commonly the roles change when one partner is emotionally, intellectually or in some other way dominant – the relationship turns into parent/child or therapist/patient one. Some people are happy in those type of relationships – and I am not saying you should not live this way, but I would not call it a healthy romantic relationship.

The other common situation is when physical attraction fades and a couple morphs into platonic friends/flatmates (or brother and sister). This type of relationship can nevertheless be very harmonious and long-lasting, as long as neither of the parties is missing the sexual attraction and passion.

But, again – it is not a healthy romantic union, and no matter how good it looks on the surface, it is very vulnerable: sooner or later one of you will fall crazy in love or just get fed up with this passionless arrangement.

So if you feel your relationship (or your past relationships) is “not quite there”, but you are not sure what is wrong: it might because you are simply playing the wrong roles, and you need to go back and retrieve that fine balance of giving and receiving love, support and passion. Because that is what truly makes you – partners in love.


How about your roles? Do you feel in the right place in your relationships?
Do you recognise a pattern of unbalanced roles in your previous relationships?

Join the conversation below. Thank you.

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5 Responses

  1. Makes perfect sense, good blog

  2. I agree with your comment about passionless relationships. Yes, once one person is no longer happy with that, things fall apart.

    I’ve been thinking about friendships and roles lately so this post is timely. All of my friends call on me when they need someone to confide in. This includes past romantic interests. One called last night to share that he has a baby on the way and was nervous and unsure about the female/situation. Admittedly I wad upset, but he’s used to being able to confide in me. Someone suggested that I make myself unavailable going forward because I’m still affected. But I answer everyone else. Somehow this is the role I play with friends and generally I don’t mind.

    • Thanks for your comment. It does get tricky in friendships – being a friend is about intimacy and confiding into each other and sometimes it’s hard to recognise we’ve crossed the line. I would say it is fine as long as you feel good about the exchange, if you are getting something back from that person – and they don’t just reach out to you when they have a problem or just talk about themselves and show no interest in you. I am sure you would notice if the balance was not there – you wouldn’t feel comfortable interacting with the person (e.g. you’d be emotionally drained or down every time you interact). With the ex – I guess it is a bit of a special situation. The real question here is – do you keep in touch because you still have feelings for him and hope he might come back? If not – again it’s down to how you feel about the relationship in general. I believe we can be friends with ex partners.

      • Great response. No. No hopes that he will come back. I keep in touch because I determined the person was a gem that I wanted to have in my life. I feel like they are few and far between. With something he asked for advice on, I realized there were some residual feelings there on my end. But I realize it’s up to me to either get over it, or distance myself. If I’m affected every time I hear something I don’t want to hear, then it’s an unhealthy situation.

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