Roles and Relationships

One of the interesting things about working with adults raised by emotionally absent parents is that they form the foundation for the next generation, unless the adult child does something to change their way of being in the world.  And it’s important that those changes happen before the next generation is very old, so the babies aren’t caught up in that same drama.

For those of you who have noticed some of these roles in your friends and families, it is a fairly safe bet that the roles existed in the previous generation.  Consider my grandparents.  They were born in the late 1800’s in the state of Washington.  Neither of them had time to worry about the emotional well being of their four boys – they were working too hard to keep them fed and clothed.  They raised children through the depression. Survival was the issue, not emotionally healthy children.

Regardless of the cause of the roles forming in a family, some of the lessons learned in these emotionally barren families continue for generations.  Why would that be? There are many reasons, but mostly because we seek out what we know or its exact opposite.  So if you’re the family hero, you are guided by a need to help, succeed, work hard and be in charge.  Who better to partner with than any of the other three roles? Another hero would be too much competition and would not provide the emotional satisfaction of saving the partner. But a rebel?  Oh my goodness.  Consider the emotional rewards from ‘saving the bad boy’, from bringing the lost child out of his shell or bringing the mascot off the stage and into the richness of a fully funcitoning adult life.

A rebel who has gone deeply done the path of social resistance (beyond fighting the family but fighting society) will usually connect only with other rebels .  That is the only group of people they’re in contact with, which leaves them with limited choices. And once the rebel is so far down this path that their relationships are also rebels, it’s hard to pull them out of the hole.

Under the right circumstances, a hero may try, but the circumstances have to be perfect.  For example, let’s say a rebel is convicted of a crime but his sister hero believes he’s innocent.  She will do anything she can to ‘help’ him: keeping in touch when he’s in jail, standing as a reference when he’s released and providing support and encouragement as he rebuilds his new life.

This is a risky point in time for the hero who can easily slip into enabling if strong boundaries aren’t placed and maintained. If you look around, you will see people, usually women, (in my experience), who are working overtime to ‘help’ someone find themselves.  If they’d put half that time or energy into building their own life, they’d be a massive success.

The lost child may find a hero to nurture and care for him or her.  Or they may stay single.  Remember this person is an extreme introvert and wants to be left alone, so it’s easy to see how they could end up alone. Sometimes the person living in this role may hook up with the mascot, looking for someone to bring them out of the shell of isolation they’ve crawled into.

The mascot sees him or herself as a performer who almost disappears without an audience.  They feel worthless on the inside, so they need to pair up with someone who appreciates them and their way of being in the world.  Alternately, they may hook up with a hero, who will fix them, or a rebel who is worse than them.

Obviously, this is one version of the possibilities of match ups and relationships.  It is my contention that the emotional climate of many, many families lends itself to the solidification of these roles.  The depth of the ‘hardening’ will be determined by many factors.  And as I began this series, I would remind everyone that this is only one view of how families evolve and develop. No one is ever exclusively one role.  And a death in the family, particularly among the siblings, can change the dynamics.

But one thing is clear, once a role becomes the learned response to life, it is very hard to unlearn.  Ask me.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this post or the series.  If you have something else you’d like to explore with me, i’m happy to give it a whirl.

About Louise Behiel

Author, coach, therapist, mother and grandmother. I'm on a spiritual journey and consciously work to grow every day.
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24 Responses to Roles and Relationships

  1. iamnotshe says:

    Oh sweetie! I think i found a hero. But, we are evening-out the playing field. I have become strong enough to nurture him as well. It’s a success story!

    May i say, reading your blog convinces me that you are an awesome therapist! Thank you for the family dynamic information.

    I’m finding this exploration a path of its own. I have tried every role, and i’m creating a new one … a COMBO role if you will!!! XO melissa

    • isn’t it wonderful when you can see your own growth and evolution? How exciting. that’s what we want – is to create a combo role that works for us and that can change as needed.

      thanks for the kind words.

  2. Jennette Marie Powell says:

    What’s really interesting, given the relationships you’ve illustrated here, is the preponderence of the “bad boy” in romance novels – anbd how much readers love them! Sure enough, when I think of specific books, the women who lead them into a positive relationship are almost always heroes. I’m not sure where I’m going there, I just find it interesting – and it just goes to show how pervasive and ingrained these roles can be, not only in real people, but in the characters we create and love as readers. Thanks for another informative post!

    • Jennette, we do love our bad boys, don’t we? I think it’s because we can show women being the strong heroes, saving them.

      I think these roles are definitely a part of our culture – so much so that we don’t even know they’re there.

  3. I see now. The mascot married the rebel, which was a huge mistake, and that instigated the need to change (for the mascot anyway). Looking back, it all makes sense.

    Always interesting to read these posts, Louise. And, it all makes perfect sense. I can see people I know falling into these roles.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  4. Loving this series, Louise. This is another great installment—useful in our own lives and our creative work. Several of your posts led me to reflect on characters in my novels. 🙂

  5. Amber West says:

    Very interesting. My hubs came from emotionally (and in some cases) physically absent parents. I came from the opposite. I am probably the hero, and I’d have to say he comes closest to being the mascot. Fascinating!

  6. Joan Leacott says:

    I have very distinct memories of the moments I chose to NOT be like my parents, both as a partner and as a parent. Funny how the words “partner” and “parent” have the same letters but slightly re-arranged. Like “marital” and “martial”.

    • Yes, it is amusing about the letters isn’t it? More fascinating to me is that you made a choice not to be like your parents and weren’t. that’s amazing. well done. I hope you celebrate how unusual and unique carrying out that decision is. I decided not to marry someone like dad. so instead I marry my mother — the opposite end of the spectrum.

  7. Debra Kristi says:

    I read your definitions and I am still having trouble defining my family. How bad is that?

    I have to agree with what Janette says. I get a lot of comments about the bad boys when I run them on a Monday. What is it that draws us to them?

    • that is really bad because you’re not supposed to define your family probably the roles are not so solid in your family. these snapshots describe only the most extreme situations and the most locked down roles. Most likely your family wasn’t as emotionally barren as the ones I’ve talked about, or the children had a strong ‘modifier’ who could impact the parental lack by focusing on the children.

      I think women all like the idea of ‘saving’ or ‘taming’ bad boys. we all want to be the one who can ‘make a good man out of him’. it’s rather narcissistic, isn’t it?

      • Debra Kristi says:

        Yes, I think both my husband and I came from good solid families. So I guess we aren’t defined as leaning strongly towards one of the other. Thanks Louise. 🙂

  8. I love the analysis of the relationships, Louise, and how they meld or don’t meld together. I have stopped analyzing my mostly normal family — is any family really normal? Lol! — and am studying your posts to apply to my characters. Thanks for such a great series. I’m looking forward to the next one!

  9. Sorry in advance for the long post, but … eh, Iike to be complete. 🙂

    In very few cases were individuals in prior generations in a place where they could afford to dote on their children the way we do now. There was neither the time nor the resources to do so.

    In my case it was less emotional unavailability of my Dad rather than an abusive nature on his part. My Mom was a very restrained individual but was free with hugs, kisses and declarations of love on a daily basis. Unfortunately, she died and that created profound abandonment issues.

    Child #1: My sister’s role was that of Beauty Queen – quite literally. Later she became super Mom and a super businesswoman. She also married up a few times and has accumulated significant wealth and status.

    Child#2: My brother’s role was largely that of hero with episodes of rebel. He was a boxer and in ROTC in high school but developed a health problem that precluded him from going into either field. He ended up in international finance and retired in his late 40’s having accumulated significant wealth and status.

    Child#3: A decade younger, I had hearing impairment, dyslexia, dyscalculia, and hyperactivity disorder. With people I knew and trusted I might be a mascot, but at home I was mostly invisible. It was safer that way. As a social services worker I always had low paying jobs and am the financial failure of the family.

    Of course, it is not merely emotional unavailability that is on point here. Roles and personality development are incredibly complex. There is birth order. There are expectations of the time as my brother and sister were born at the end of the Great Depression and I was a boomer kid. They grew up in cities or towns, I largely lived in country settings and related more to critters than kids. I went to an experimental high school where I took college level courses and they went to traditional schools of the time. I could not hear well, write well (I learned to have readable handwriting at age 16) or do more than simple arithmetic while my brother taught cost accounting. So there is a huge variation in skills and limitations between all of us – not to mention a decade’s difference in ages. And there is a hard-writing issue – some traits seem to be innate.

    I adore the study of personality and how it evolves and can be modified. Thanks for this great look into family structure from one perspective.

    • thanks for your in depth analysis. as you mentioned and I’ve said, this is but one model to look at a small element of how we turn out. it gives some context to the discussion and like you said previous generations were much different.

      thanks for sharing.

  10. Oops, hard-wiring, not hard writing issue. LOL

  11. Karen McFarland says:

    Hi Louise, I can’t agree with you more! I totally believe that this stuff is hard-wired into our head through our parents and their parents actions in childhood. And they didn’t have the information that we have today and were clueless. There is a whole generation that doesn’t get it. Or they don’t want to get it. Because then they might be wrong. Uh-oh, that’s a whole other subject altogether. Let’s not open up that can of worms, eh? Thanks Louise, these posts are very insightful! 🙂

  12. Wow Louise. Fascinating. I’m gonna have to give this some thought. Automatically I’m examining my own life, which is a good thing 😉 Thanks for another thought-provoking post!

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