Who Are You Really? The Roles We Play in Relationship
When you reflect on your intimate love relationship in your mind’s eye, do you see yourself feeling and behaving like your true authentic self or do you see yourself acting as if in a role? Can you even tell the difference between the two?
In my previous post “Stop Trying to Be a "Good" Partner and Start Being Yourself,” I explored how trying to be a good partner means we’re playing the role of the good partner rather than being our true self. I’m defining “playing a role” to mean following a set of principles or expectations that serve a momentary function within a relationship. This aligns closely with the definition of a role offered by Dr. Arnold Mindell, the founder of Process Work (Process-Oriented Psychology): Roles are “a cultural rank, position or viewpoint that depends on time and place. Roles…change rapidly because they are a function of the moment and locality. Roles…are not fixed, but fluid. They are filled by different individuals and parties over time, keeping the roles in a constant state of flux” (1995). When we are serving a function in our relationship that does not match up with our true self, we are kneeling at the feet of a designated, defined role. When we are doing this, we are not genuinely connecting with our authentic selves. We are not kneeling at the feet of our soul.
Here’s the problem: we were taught to play particular, primary roles in our intimate relationships. We were taught this indirectly through watching our mother, father, or guardians model playing their roles. Society’s messages—which were often patriarchal and heteronormative in their value set— also sought us out, instructing us on how to best perform for its systems, organizations, and structures. Sometimes a role model corrected us verbally, admonishing us to stay in the lane of our gender, our sexual orientation, and society’s expectations and norms.
How limiting! These roles did not demonstrate the totality of our beings, and yet unexamined, they can play such a major part in dictating how we should feel and behave in our intimate relationship. They can have a strong effect our relationship dynamics, as well as our problems and grievances (Diamond, 2016; Dworkin, 2019). These behavioral mandates affect how we feel both in our day-to-day life and over seasons, and even what we aspire to in terms of dreams and goals over the course of our lifetime.
The best way to build emotional intimacy in relationship is to play the role designated for you by your familial upbringing, by your gender and sexual orientation, and by society.
WOMEN AND THE LIMITATIONS OF THE CAREGIVER/ACCOMMODATOR ROLE
For any partner, but especially for many women, there are several characteristics that are commonly associated with being a good partner and therefore with our role in cultivating emotional intimacy in romantic partnership. These include listening, being supportive, actively affirming, being attentive and available, compromising, agreeing, caring, and tuning in emotionally. These characteristics fit very neatly and “nicely” into a gender-based role—that of the caregiver and accommodator.
For women, this often translates into the expectation that they be there for others, foregoing their own needs, wants, desires, and dreams. From birth, girls are brought up to subvert themselves for the sake of serving others, to care for others and accommodate men’s and children’s needs and wants, desires and dreams. Many women know this intuitively even if no one ever explicitly told them that society’s primary role in life is to serve others. Women learn to put themselves away and be at the beck and call of their partners, their children, and their parents. In so doing, they also learn to put away their power and intelligence, because they are meant to care for others, not challenge others or speak their thoughts and opinions, or assert or tend to their needs or aspirations outside of those bounds.
The effect of sexism on women is excruciatingly deep. Women have internalized patriarchal/sexist expectations and limitations to such a high degree that most will never know that their every waking breath is dominated by it. The experiences, suffering, and pervasiveness of internalized sexism are not spoken about enough in our culture. We women are so steeped in it that we don’t realize it’s been there since day one, in the air we breathe, pregnant in the atmosphere of every moment of our lives and in every interaction, from cradle to grave. To escape it even for a moment takes insight and awareness and is a revolutionary act.
MEN AND THE LIMITATIONS OF THE PROVIDER/PROTECTOR ROLE
On the other hand, for men to be considered good partners, they are often raised and enculturated to be in the role of provider, protector, savior, and fixer. This is the flip-side effect for men of patriarchal and heteronormative culture. It is one of the ways sexism in the culture negatively affects men, by not allowing them room to be provided for or protected or to feel or express emotions of vulnerability, sensitivity, and nurturing. Patriarchy creates an expectation that men will act invulnerable, always “on,” and responsible so that their partners and children can be vulnerable and emotional while also being provided for and protected. This pressure to perform and provide often means men aren’t able to follow more creative pursuits or passions in life because they are stuck under the weight of the expectation and obligation of being in the provider role.
Both my father and my partner’s father, for example, were the primary breadwinners of our childhood families. Both worked incredibly hard to support their families all the while suffering from a lack of inner and outer support to follow their true callings and passions, oppressed under the stress and burden of needing to be providers above all else.
Besides being in the role of provider, many men (and some women) are also raised to be in the role of protector and/or savior. This can happen due to one or both parents being absent, meaning they literally left the family, or were emotionally absent due to drug or alcohol addiction, mental illness, or narcissism. The child might then adopt the vacant parent role by taking care of their siblings, and/or the remaining parent, or even the neglectful parent. Sometimes a child who takes over the absent parental role grows up to be a savior to the person they are in relationship with. This protector and/or savior scenario can also occur when one parent is abusing the other, leading a child to unconsciously take over the role of protector of the abused parent and to continue to play out this role in their adult relationships no matter if abuse is present or not.
ROLES CUT ACROSS GENDER AND SEXUAL ORIENTATION LINES
Of course, these roles can occur in all intimate relationships no matter the gender of the individuals or their sexual orientation. The same traditionally heteronormative roles above can be enacted within the relationships of same-sex couples, couples where one or both partners are trans, couples where one or both partners identify as non-binary or fluid in terms of gender identity, and in polyamorous relationships (Dworkin, 2019).
Even in a relationship of two men or two women, one partner will often become more of the provider/protector while the other will become more of the caregiver/accommodator. Roles are not strictly gender-based in terms of their application. Nowadays, many women or female-identified partners in various kinds of relationships take on that role being the sole breadwinner of the family, while their partner takes on the role of caring for the home and children. Still many other relationships, no matter the sexual orientation or gender identity of the partners, are more fluid with these roles. In some cases, both partners work full-time and are equal breadwinners. Some partners split the job of childcare fifty-fifty. Others split the duties of specific tasks that might fall under one role such as true in my relationship.
For example, my male partner often does the bulk of the grocery shopping and meal preparation while I often am the one to clean the house more, wash the dishes, and do more laundry—all tasks that traditionally would fall under the female role. Similarly, while my partner manages much of our overall financial picture, I take care of paying all the bills and the minutia of tracking income and expenses for our taxes—all tasks that traditionally fall under the male role.
THE CONSEQUENCE OF PLAYING ROLES
For some of us or at some moments, playing these roles matches our genuine experience. The role says, “Be caring,” and we genuinely feel caring and compassionate. The role says, “Be the provider,” and we genuinely want to be the provider. To say it simply, these roles might feel like you. And there’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself (Dworkin, 2019).
Yet each of us are more than the roles we play. We are multi-dimensional, complex and unique beings filled with layers of experiences, feelings, and points of view.
If the expectation of being in a particular role does not fit the person in that moment or season of life or maybe ever, it becomes a form of censorship over the person’s actual nature or momentary experience. If they can’t be their true selves, their ability to be aware of their bigger dreams and goals, and their ability to advocate for using time and resources to support those dreams and goals becomes especially challenging, if not impossible. When people operate from roles that limit them, there are also consequences to the person and their relationship, namely, in their emotional connection.
The best way to build emotional intimacy in relationship is to stay close to your true self and encourage your partner to do the same. When our true selves are present, we can authentically connect.
On the surface, being a “good partner” may appear entirely wholesome, but when it goes against a person’s authentic experience or natural expression, it becomes tyrannical and injurious. It suppresses and oppresses. It says, “You can only go this far at being yourself. If who you are gets in the way of you being a good partner, then you must subvert, ignore, or destroy the parts of you that are getting in the way of that agenda. You must be a good partner at the expense of all else.”
So, then—what if you don’t feel like listening or being nurturing? What if you don’t agree with your partner? What if you aren’t moved to compromise? What if you no longer want to be the primary provider but want to pursue a dream that doesn’t bring in income right away or at all? What if you feel vulnerable or sensitive and no longer wish to be the ever-strong protector all the time? What if you need more time for yourself and don’t have it in you to be there for your partner in the ways you’ve been? All the advice on being a good partner then comes into conflict with your actual lived experience.
This is why knowing who we really are and staying true to ourselves rather than unconsciously defaulting to a role laid out for us that may not entirely fit us is critical. As I said in “Stop Trying to Be a "Good" Partner and Start Being Yourself”:
“When you repeatedly, over months and years, subvert or deny parts of your genuine nature by only playing the role of the good partner, you risk losing touch with your authentic experience, with your soul, with your truth. Things look really good on the outside but secretly, one or both of you feel more alone or hopeless than ever because neither one of you is showing up as their true selves. When this happens, there is no one truly present to connect with. Without access to your genuine experience, emotional intimacy becomes extremely difficult and at times impossible.”
When we are primarily playing a role, our true self is not present. Our wants, needs, and desires get censored and subverted. In order to bridge the gap of emotional intimacy, you must reflect on how the roles you play with your partner are, at times, going against your authentic experience.
And then you must choose between playing a role and being yourself. If I were you, I’d choose yourself. It’s a win-win.
Diamond, J. (2016). Power: A user’s guide. Belly Song Press.
Dworkin, J. (2019). Make love better: How to own your story, connect with your partner, and deepen your relationship practice. Belly Song Press.
Mindell, A. (1995). Sitting in the fire: Large group transformation using conflict and diversity. Lao Tse Press.