Like actors on stage, we all play different roles in our lives. Some of these roles are more general (the competent, emotionally “in-control” male; the empathic, emotionally generous female), while others are specific to a particular circumstance or relationship (the take-charge, no-nonsense boss; the loving, attentive parent; the loyal, considerate best friend). Some of these roles may resonate more deeply with what is most meaningful to you (these roles feel authentic to your core being, your deepest values), while certain roles may feel painfully forced, inauthentic, and at odds with who you are or want to be.
There are different dynamics that lead us to adopt certain roles. Societal norms, cultural values, gender expectations, family-of-origin dynamics, peer influences, etc., all give rise to and shape the roles we inhabit in our lives.
When Your Roles Interfere with Emotional Intimacy and Connection
The roles we enact can be fluid and easily adaptable (we effortlessly move in and out of certain roles, depending on circumstance and what is needed), but this isn’t always the case. Certain roles can become entrenched, rigidly adhered to, and devoid of any nuance. As a wife once shared, “I need to be in control of what’s happening around me, including my relationship with my husband.” Her adopted role as the person always in control led to numerous marital problems. Her husband felt short-changed, never being allowed to see his wife’s softer, more vulnerable side (a side that would have violated her unwillingness to expand beyond her in-control role).
I think the adage “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” is relevant in these instances. When all you have is one or two rigidly-held roles (the nice guy; the rational one), the relationship is suffocated by inflexibility and overly-narrowed role adherence.
Roles that are rigidly followed are rarely questioned or examined, even when a particular role is at odds with what is needed—unfortunately, I’ve seen many spouses/partners refuse to expand their roles even when a certain overused role is causing all involved considerable emotional distress.
Relationship Help: Stepping Out of Familiar Roles
True emotional intimacy requires that you step out of the familiar roles you play in your daily life. You must take emotional risks with your spouse/partner by allowing the familiarity (and safety) of your roles to give way to a more genuine, less proscribed way of being and relating. This doesn’t necessarily mean you must totally scrap all the roles you inhabit in your life (there may be circumstances where specific roles work well for you, and different situations do require different ways of being).
Potential marital/relationship problems arise when you adhere to a narrowed or limited set of roles without allowing for other possible, more fluid ways of being. When this occurs, the inflexibility of the roles can block the openness and vulnerability that emotional intimacy rests upon.
It is important, however, to be mindful of when you cannot fluidly step out of a particular role for the sake of your partner and relationship. This is especially the case when certain roles block authentic relating between you and your partner.
A Brief Word about Anxiety
There is a certain level of comfort and predictability that our roles give us, even if these roles also fail us in some way. This comfort centers around existing in the epicenter of the familiar; and whenever we journey away from the familiar (e.g., a defensive person becomes a little more open and accepting), anxiety is stirred and feelings of uncertainty intensify. In essence, we are leaving the known, the psychological terrain that has guided our lives.
So if we prematurely listen to our anxiety, we are likely to stay put and remain within the boundaries of what is known and familiar. Looked at through a different lens, we become slaves to certain roles out of fear. It is important to understand that this anxiety is quite common and may actually be a good indicator that you are moving in the right direction, even if that direction is a bit scary and unfamiliar at first.