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Where Do We Learn to Take on the Roles We Do in Relationships?

As a family therapist, I am interested in learning how the relationships in one’s life impact who they are, both in and outside of other relationships. An area where this is often helpful is when it comes to the roles that partners take on in a marriage/long-term commitment. Partners often say things like, “I’m supposed to be the nurturing one” or “I’m supposed to fix it, not cry about it”. Have you ever stopped and thought about where you learned what is expected of you as a partner in a relationship, and how these messages may impact your behaviors with your partner? Below are some questions to explore to help you gain insight into how you may have come to be in your role:

How has family influenced these roles (both in positive and negative ways)?

Oftentimes, we take on roles in relationships based on messages we received growing up in our family. For example, your parents may have had equal say in major decisions that affected the family, and therefore, you expect the same in your relationship. Or, maybe you saw your parents interact in a way you vowed you never would, and so now presently, you consciously take on a role in your relationship that is opposite of what you observed growing up.

Who was your example of what a partner/spouse should be? Who was your example of what not to be?

These questions may be a little difficult to answer since we usually don't actively think about these things as we grow up. To help get you started, for example, did you aspire to have the marriage your parents/caregivers or grandparents did, or did you want something different? Did you have a friend whose parents had the ideal relationship and you knew you wanted the same? Or maybe you didn't have any good real-world examples, and instead looked to relationships in movies/TV shows/books to form your ideal of what a relationship should look like. You may find that your answers include some aspects of each of these.

How has society influenced these roles?

Even though the gap is narrowing between male and female roles, societal and cultural expectations for each gender still exist and can affect the roles we take on in relationships. For example, do your roles in the relationship fit societal expectations for what your gender is “supposed” to do when it comes to household duties, childcare, communication, finances, decision-making, etc.? Media can also play a role: we are fed constant subliminal messages about what is expected of us in partnerships, such as in TV shows and commercials, and you may feel that you are expected to imitate that in your own relationship.

If your roles could be different than what they are now, what would you change and how could you go about changing them?

If you are feeling limited in your current roles and would like to explore the possibility of making adjustments, it could be helpful to have an open discussion with your partner about ways you would like to make these changes. Couples therapy can be a safe place to explore the above questions, as well as gain insight into how each partner brings different expectations and assumptions to the relationship, often based on messages received from family, friends, society, etc.

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