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Different roles people can assume in relationships

I often discuss the roles that people can assume in relationships with my clients. As we talk about a relationship, we will sometimes do an exercise that can help them to develop new insights. Today, my plan is to share that exercise with you. 

As I talk about a relationship with a client, I write the words Parent, Adult, and Child on a piece of paper under the client’s name. I then write the same words under the name of the person they are in the relationship with. That person could be anyone, including a spouse, child, or friend.

(Details in the stories that follow have been altered to protect privacy.)

I want to share three examples of how this exercise works so that you can become comfortable using it. In this first example, I recorded the names of my client, Jodie, and her Mother at the top of a piece of paper. Jodie is 47 years old in this example. Her mother is 75. I then added the words Parent, Adult and Child under each name. The page looked like this:

Jodie (age 47)                                                           Mother (age 75)

Parent                                                                         Parent

Adult                                                                            Adult

Child                                                                            Child

I asked Jodie to identify which of the three roles she believes she is in when she interacts with her mother. Jodie, being the adult daughter, said that she is acts like an Adult and that her mother acts like an Adult. I circled the word Adult under Jodie’s name, and joined it using a line to the word Adult under the word Mother.

Jodie and I talked about her mother’s advancing dementia, and the fact that her mother’s cognitive impairment is causing her to move more and more into the role of Child. I asked Jodie to identify how old her mother is behaving at present. A light went go for Jodie, and she said “My mom behaves like she’s 8.” We confirmed this assertion by exploring a couple of recent incidents that illustrate how Jodie’s mother is indeed becoming more child-like. These included the mother’s inability to take medication without being prompted. Her poor hygiene. Her inability to look after her own finances.

It is good that Jodie re-cast her mother into the role of Child, and can see herself as the only Adult in the relationship, because this insight will make it easier for Jodie to interact with her mother and to adjust her expectations of her mother. There will be increased ease for Jodie as sees her mother accurately as she is today.

Let’s look at another dyad where this model can be helpful. Let’s look at Masako, a 49-year old woman who was born in Japan but that has lived in Canada for the last 25 years, and her Father, who has lived his entire life in Japan. Masako and I discussed the fact that her Father sees women in general, and his wife and daughters specifically, through a lens in which he is the head of the family and the decision-maker. We discussed how he expects Masako, as his daughter, to submit to his will.

Masako (age 49)                                                       Father (age 78)

Parent                                                                         Parent

Adult                                                                            Adult

Child                                                                            Child

Masako shared that her Father expects her to see him as the Parent, and that she is expected to assume the role of an obedient Child. We discussed how this family dynamic has stopped working for Masako, and how this mode of interacting can only continue if Masako agrees to maintain it. We discussed how Masako can invite her father to change by assuming the role of Adult in her interactions with him, and inviting him to move into the role of Adult as well.

Masako was surprised to discover, as she thought about her father’s behaviour, that he had actually been assuming the role of Child and not of Parent with her. She shared that the arguments he presents to her, using terms such as “because I said so,” can more accurately be attributed to a 10-year-old Child than to a Parent.

We explored the value of Masako’s assuming the role of Adult, and seeing her father in the role of Child in future interactions. She shared that this model will be helpful to her as she moves forward, because seeing her father in the role of Child will allow her to interact with him without becoming angry, in the same way that she would not become angry with her 10-year-old son, if he blurted out something that he father might say, including “because I said so.”

Let’s look at one more situation. In this case, let’s look at Ben, a 42-year-old partner at an architectural firm, and his wife, Christina, a 40-year-old stay-at-home mother of three.

Ben (age 42)                                                              Christina (age 40)

Parent                                                                         Parent

Adult                                                                            Adult

Child                                                                            Child

In this example, I asked Ben to identify the roles that he and his wife assume in their marriage. Ben said they both usually assume the role of Adult, but that they can both move to the role of Child when they argue, which is frequent. We talked about how their relationship might be healthier if Ben consciously makes an effort to remain in the role of Adult during disagreements, and invites his wife to do the same, simply by remaining in the Adult role himself. We discussed how Ben cannot force Christina to leave the role of Child, but that she might be willing to if she sees Ben remaining steady in the role of Adult.

In this exercise, everyone I work with is able to identify times, and relationships, in which they find themselves in the role of Parent, Adult and Child. An exciting result of this exercise is that people begin to see the roles they assume, and to question whether they want to remain in these roles, or to transition to a different role that will better suit them and promote the health of their relationships.

I hope you will find the information shared in this blog post of value. Please post a comment or send me an email if you would like to share your thoughts or pose a question.

Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta 

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