How Our Relationship Roles Shape The Way We Communicate

Relationships: Role Playing In Your Relationships

How to avoid role confusion, and the sloppy conversations that will slowly kill a relationship.

Ellen called me in tears. "I don't know what happened," she uttered between sobs. What happened was that Dan had not responded to her voicemails, texts, or emails for a week. Ellen feared the relationship was over. Ellen was Dan's massage therapist of 10 years. Dan was a huge fan of Ellen's work, and one of her main sources of income. 

Over the years Ellen and Dan had become very friendly. He frequently invited her to his home to work on his entire family, and occasionally offered her time at their second home on the Jersey Shore when it was not being used. At the beach house, Ellen's boyfriend accidentally forgot to turn off the Jacuzzi tub, and it caused a leak. In their last conversation, Ellen told Dan about the leak and that her boyfriend would take care of the repair. Dan got very upset, not only about the leak but also about her bringing her boyfriend to the house. He did not like the boyfriend and accused her of making bad choices. In her defensiveness she raised her voice, and he hung up, and that was the last time they spoke.

Ellen felt heartbroken about it, pouring over the details of every word of that last fight, looking for the answers to what went wrong.

As I listened to her, it became clear that their roles as masseuse and client had become all jumbled together with other roles that they had not consciously or carefully selected. Roles like friend (they shared intimate details with each other on a regular basis), sibling (she had become akin to a "healing aunt" to his family), potential lover (although they never crossed the line, you cannot ignore the fact that their relationship developed through touch) and landlord.

This lack of clarity opened the door to projections, distortions, overcharged interactions and ultimately their demise. Ellen was confused at how one instance and one conversation had the power to end the relationship. She thought it was her fault. After all these years, what happened? I guided her to explore the increasing intimacy and the complexity from the overlap of roles.

We talk about the" role clarity" in organizations a lot, but rarely in one-on-one relationships. In personal relationships we talk about success in terms of communication. But we forget that roles and tasks actually determine the types of communication and conversations we can have. For example, when my boyfriend criticized my outfit, it hurt my feelings. But when another male friend, who was my photographer for a recent photo shoot, criticized my dress, I was relieved. He was doing his job and helping me to look my best for that particular shoot.

I know a couple who work out together, and laugh at the fact that the man enjoys being "yelled at" by their trainer, but not at all by his wife. Since roles really determine the types of conversations we can have, I want to encourage you to get crystal clear on your roles in your relationships, because no matter how good your communication skills are, when roles get confused, crazy comes to play.

Think about how this is true in your life. What happens when your boss acts more like your friend than your boss? Conversations can get uncomfortable. Do you know or have you ever been part of a couple who acts less like equal partners and more like a parent and child? On more than one occasion I have overheard a mother and her teenage daughter fighting in a dressing room over the same outfit. Crrrrazy! When mothers act like siblings, conversations will surely lead to relationship failure.

How can you avoid role confusion, and the sloppy conversations that will slowly kill a relationship?

1. Examine Your Roles
You may call your spouse your "husband" or "wife," but what does that role really encompass, beyond making lunch for the kids or taking out the garbage? Have you ever sat down and really thought about the purpose of each of your close relationships? And have you ever dared to engage in a conversation with a loved one about what roles you play, and what roles you are most interested in playing?

Brenda and Rob were chronic fighters and all their friends loathed it, which finally became embarrassing enough for them to seek help. Without a clear understanding of their roles and what their marriage was for, they filled the void with power struggles that made them seem much younger than their actual age. The roles they were playing were more like competitive siblings than partners. They had to re-establish the purpose of their marriage, which was initially about giving and receiving love. They got very specific about what that actually meant, and decided what roles would best suit them. After about three months, they started to feel older, sexier, and more in control.

2. When Things Get Wiggy, Update!
Sometimes, a relationship that has been really great begins — for no apparent reason — to feel bad. When this happens, it may be time to re-evaluate the relationship function and the roles you are playing. People grow. Roles shift.

24-year-old Anna was constantly irritated by frequent conversations with her mother, in which her mother's inquisitiveness felt invasive and infantilizing. Anna realized that after leaving home, she and her mother had not established a new relationship, and neither knew how to act or what the relationship was about anymore. Anna decided that being connected to her mother was very important to her, and felt her task as an adult was to stay in touch. Although she did not share these insights with her mother, she began to schedule times to talk briefly but attentively with her mother, and initiated conversations that interrupted her mother's rapid fire questioning. They now get along very well, and over a course of a few years have become good friends.

3. Keep Things Sane With Outrageous Clarity
Does getting role clarity mean you can't be in more than one role with one person? No. You just have to be super-duper clear and upfront about what the roles are, which roles come first, and when.

If you're in PR and decide to help your romantic partner promote his business, it is wise to establish the new role beforehand and make sure you are not trespassing with your expertise into sensitive areas. You also will want to decide when to turn off being the expert and the business talk, lest you continue operating from a power imbalance that leads to fighting long after the official business is through.

Want to make your relationships succeed? Get clear on your roles first. The communication guidelines will follow suit.

And whether you are clear, confused or in the crazy zone, love yourself no matter what!

Want to know how to get clear on roles and practice selecting the ones that are best for your relationships? Learn about clarifying roles and other leadership skills that can seriously IMPROVE your relationships: Take the Lovers and Leaders Online Course starting May 4.