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Do You Choose Your Role, or Does it Choose You?

In relationships and families, everyone plays a role. What's yours?

Are you the superhero, caretaker, scapegoat, always agreeable/never upset? What is your role in your relationship? What was your role in your family of origin?

No matter how you define your family, and whether you mean to or not, you play a role in it. The same is true of relationships: We all play roles. Every person in the family or relationship contributes to the identity of the system.

Here’s the confusing part: These roles make a family what it is, but not every role is obviously helpful. How can being the “troublemaker” or “black sheep” in the family be helpful?

But take a deeper look. Beneath the surface of most families, even these black sheep are needed to maintain the family. Maybe a family’s troublemaker keeps Mom and Dad united in their marriage—allowing them a shared cause to focus on. Again, the necessity of these roles isn’t usually a conscious process. Family roles usually develop silently, without anyone realizing it.

This idea of roles that play a purpose isn’t limited to the family you grew up with. Roles play a part in romantic relationships and also in the family you may eventually create.

Sometimes the roles assigned in families or relationships are unreasonable, unfair, or even flat-out wrong. And sometimes these roles are seeded by traits that don’t match the role. The family member thought of as the “social and outgoing one” may also be very shy. I once saw a family that identified their teenage daughter as the “problem child” even though she had excellent grades and had just gained admission to a top university. The parents were convinced she had “serious issues” because she would not lose weight. Meanwhile, in this same family, the younger brother, who was regularly using (and perhaps selling) drugs was considered the “laidback agreeable one.”

The roles we played in our families greatly influence how we see ourselves in relation to other people. And continuing to repeat our early family roles allows us to stay in the familiar relational territory. The caretaker in his/her family of origin often takes on the role of caretaker in future relationships. The difficulty is when the roles you repeat aren’t the roles you want.

Changing these patterns requires “tweaking the system." Tweaking or shifting an established pattern requires first identifying the unwanted role. Then it requires understanding why this role has consciously or unconsciously served you and/or the system. Remember we never have to stay locked into roles and dynamics that are problematic. It takes commitment, hard work, and sometimes the help of a third party, but ultimately, it is always up to us what we will accept into our life as permanent.